SOME SAY a football club can only be as good as its academy and Derry City’s Head of Youth Development, Paddy McCourt insists the Brandywell club’s continued investment in its youth policy will ensure a bright future.
A mood of optimism surrounds Derry City’s long term prospects as its Academy transformation, led by the former Celtic star, underlines its commitment to youth development.
The club’s underage teams have produced a conveyor belt of talent for the first team over the years and it shows no signs of slowing up.
Indeed, last season Derry City manager, Declan Devine handed first team debuts to the latest Academy graduates, Jack Malone and Ronan Boyce and McCourt expects many more to follow suit in the coming seasons as the club’s investment in youth continues to bear fruit.
The FAI’s current financial plight highlights how difficult it is for League of Ireland clubs to be self-sustainable in this day and age and so the clubs’ academy systems become vitally important.
It’s the ‘lifeblood of the club’ for Derry City and McCourt, who oversees the Academy’s progress across all age groups, believes its in good hands.
It was built on solid foundations following years of dedicated work from Eddie Seydak and John Quigg but the introduction of the Under-13 league meant significant restructuring and investment was required.
And since taking over the reigns, McCourt has transformed the academy into a well-oiled machine with an interesting blend of coaches to oversee it as he looks to strengthen an environment that ensures Derry’s Academy players excel both on the pitch and away from football.
The ‘Derry Pele’ worked around the clock in his dual role as Head of Academy and being a key member of Devine’s first team staff with a particular emphasis on recruitment.
And while he was delighted with the success the first team enjoyed last season, securing fourth spot and a place in next season’s Europa League, McCourt insists he gets more satisfaction from watching the development of the club’s youngsters.
The Shantallow man’s role is expected to change again ahead of the 2020 season but he’s delighted with the strides the club’s academy has taken during the past 18 months under his watch.
“My role will slightly change for the coming season which we will speak about in the next week or two,” he confirmed.
“My original role was coming in as Head of Academy but that’s changed now and it’s more of an overall role within the club.
“I have to admit as much as the first team stuff is great and we had a great season last year. Declan and the staff did a great job but the most rewarding part of being involved in this football club was going to watch the youth games and seeing what they represent.
“This city and this club has always been built on hard work and desire to improve and I think the teams this year have really shown that in their play.
“There was a lot of restructuring at the start of the year. It’s been a long year and it’s been tough but it’s been unbelievably rewarding.
“It’s the first time I’ve worked myself in youth development and the feeling you get from watching players develop is really rewarding.
“I’ve always said it would be really hard to replicate the buzz of playing but the buzz I get from watching these young men really go about their business and try and develop into players and to try and help them and advise them is something that I enjoy.
“The Under-13 league took a bit of stick last year when it first came in but it’s been brilliant. It’s been exceptional to see them grow. When you have 15 or 16 elite level players training together two or three days a week they push each other on.
“This isn’t us patting each other on the back as coaches, the players push each other on. If you put them in that environment and in a high level training and put the sessions on for them you watch them grow it’s actually something spectacular to watch.”
The Candy Stripes boast a wealth of exceptional talent within its academy ranks with a host of players involved in international football.
In fact. 19 players within the academy have either been involved in the Club NI system or been involved with the Republic of Ireland underage squads.
Ramelton man, Boyce (Swilly Rovers) made his Republic of Ireland U19 debut against Denmark in Sligo last October while Ronan McKinley has been involved with the Ireland U17s. Trent Doherty (Foyle Harps) and Bobby Deane (Maiden City) have been involved with Club NI while Corey McLaughlin (Foyle Harps) represented the Republic of Ireland at this year’s Victory Shield. Orrin McLaughlin (Foyle Harps), Oisin Gibson (Foyle Harps) and Oisin Gallagher (Newell Academy) have also been involved with N. Ireland while Evan McLaughlin (Foyle Harps) was invited down to the Republic of Ireland U17 set-up.
“We went through them the other day and I think we have 19 now within the academy who have either been involved in the Club NI system or been down with the FAI,” said McCourt.
“Sixteen of those have come in this year which has been great.
“All we want to do is give young fellas opportunities and have an environment they enjoy coming into and have coaches here we know will develop them both as players and as people.”
It’s a huge team effort ensuring the smooth running of the academy teams and McCourt praised all those involved while he has a special admiration for former coaches, Seydak and Quigg given the hours of work and travelling they had put in before him.
Now McCourt heads a team of coaches, ex-pros and experienced ‘A’ licence holders, including, Donal O’Brien, Mark McChrystal, Shaun Holmes, Mo Mahon, Rory Kehoe, Neil McCafferty, Richard Stewart, Conor Loughrey, Gerry Shepard and newest recruit, Gerard Boyle.
“First I have to say it’s a great credit to John Quigg and Eddie Seydak they travelled the length and breadth of this country for 12 years.
“Neither are here at the minute but seeing the amount of effort that we have to put in on a weekly basis I have to say the hours and miles those two must have travelled, and I’m sure other coaches gave them a hand along the way, was impressive.
”You could concentrate on the negatives of worrying about travelling too much but ask any parent or one of the boys, the bus trips are one of the most important and enjoyable things. It helps bring people together.
“It’s such a rewarding job. It really is just a brilliant environment to be involved.
“It’s a complete utter group effort. We also have to thank the chairman and Sean Barrett and the board for the financial backing they give to the academy. It costs a lot of money, I’ll not get into the exact figures per year but it’s unbelievable the backing they’ve given.
“And for us to be involved in it and giving young players opportunities in life is great. If you can help develop a professional footballer then great but we might be able to help someone become a more rounded person if they don’t make the grade here.”
First team boss, Devine has shown he isn’t afraid to blood youngsters in his senior set-up and McCourt doesn’t expect that policy to change any time soon.
“With a manger like Declan who is going to put a lot of belief in the youth, then it gives nothing but encouragement to the parents and players.
“Declan is much more experienced than I am in terms of youth development. He’s obviously worked with Club NI for six years as had Marty (McCann) and Gerard Boyle who has now come into the academy.
“They know about what you can get from young players if you treat them right and give them the right environment and if you give them the belief.
“Young players can surprise you. We’ve seen it this year when 15, 16 and 17 year-olds have stepped up to play with the first team. No problem. They take it in their stride and every session you watch them grow.
“It’s such a rewarding part of the job. Every team that I can remember from a supporter to a player and a coach, they’ve all been built on a foundation of young local players from Derry, Donegal, Limavady, Coleraine and surrounding areas.
“It’s so key to the future of the football club.”
It all paints a promising future for Derry City Football Club and McCourt is proud to be a part of it.
“It’s been a great year and I’ve really enjoyed being involved in it and we just want to push on next year,” concluded McCourt.