Martin Connolly has hailed Dundalk FC’s link up with DkIT as “the most exciting development” he has seen in his six years as the Head of Youth Development at Oriel Park.
The college and the club have joined together to create the Soccer Scholarship Academy, a programme that will see students pursue their third level studies whilst playing with Dundalk.
The scheme was launched at FAI Headquarters in Dublin on Monday and Connolly said he was delighted that almost two years of discussions and planning had finally paid off.
“The partnership between Dundalk FC and DkIT originated about two years ago when Paul Johnston and myself got talking to the college,” he explained.
“I took up the position as DkIT’s football coach and we started to look at other things from there; the college provided the club with interns for marketing and event management and things like that.
“The next step was scholarship. The first meeting about it took place 18 months ago and it actually involved representatives from Newry City, Monaghan United, Drogheda United and Dundalk. It developed from there and, luckily for us, we got the four scholarships.”
Connolly feels that Dundalk FC will benefit hugely from being associated with the college.
“Everybody at the club is really excited about it. The facilities are second to none at DkIT and now, with the sale complete for them to take over what was the JJB Soccerdome (DkIT Sport), they are even better. That (DkIT Sport) is a massive asset to have on your side.
“The next gradual step will be for our Dundalk teams to train and use the facilities at DkIT. In this day and age where football is becoming a science, any facility that can give you a step up over your opposition has to be welcomed.
“It also means that if we have any good young football players at the club then it’s a chance to keep them in the educational stream and also to keep them at the club. It stops them going to colleges in Dublin and signing for a club up there.
“The other thing that has to be pointed out is that this could be a tool for Stephen Kenny as it is open to mature students.
“It’s a win, win situation for both the club and the college and for anybody who has sporting and academic interests, this will be an interesting programme.”
One of the key components of the programme is the emphasis on combining sport with the education. Previously there has been a perceived disconnect between the two but Connolly said that times have changed.
“It used to be looked at as one or the other,” remarked Connolly. “With this, sport and education go hand in hand and if you talk to some of the older players in the Dundalk squad, they will tell you that they would have jumped at something like this when they were starting out, a chance to play and continue their education.”
As well as giving older professionals a route back into third level, Connolly hopes that the programme will help reduce the numbers of talented teenagers who return from clubs in the UK, disillusioned with the game and life in general.
“Youngsters now have the choice of taking a scholarship and going on to develop as a League of Ireland player rather than going to the UK on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) for 50 quid a week, being away from home for two or three years, and, in most cases, having no education to fall back on. We now have a viable alternative. This means that youngsters don’t have to jump at the first offer from the UK.”
A look at the current Republic of Ireland squad proves that the League of Ireland can provide a route to the top. Players like Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, David Forde and James McClean all cut their teeth in the league before making the move across the water.
“You can offer the best advice in the world to youngsters and their parents but if an offer from a club in England is put in front of them then it is hard to turn down”, said Connolly.
Dundalk are the latest League of Ireland club to combine with a college and Connolly believes it is a route that all clubs should follow.
“Bohemians are with IT Blanchardstown, Sligo are linked with their IT and Shamrock Rovers do bits and pieces with IT Tallaght. We are following in the tracks of other clubs but hopefully we become bigger and stronger than the others.”
“We are working with good people at DkIT”, he added. “Frankie Watters has been a massive in this project. Louth GAA player Derek Crilly, in the Sports and Societies, has really supported it and then of course there is Denis Cummins who has nurtured it from the start.”