Dundalk U19s make the journey to the Maiden City this Saturday to face Derry City in their final game of the Airtricity U19 Elite Qualifying Group.
In normal circumstances, this game would be the highlight of the season for both sets of players. Top placed Derry versus second placed Dundalk, the winning team crowned kings of the Qualifying Group which also contains Mervue United and Limerick.
Unfortunately, the game will be nothing more than a dead rubber as winning the group, finishing second or third, or propping up the table means nothing. The Elite Qualifying Group has been rendered totally meaningless.
The reason for this? From next season on, the U19 League will be restructured. Gone will be the current format of three divisions: Elite, Northern and Southern, to be replaced by two groups - a Northern and Southern Division - of 10 teams each. The new format - the brainchild of new FAI Technical Director Ruud Dokter, who was a guest of the club at the Bohemians match on Friday night - was proposed by the clubs three years ago only to be rejected by FAI bigwigs in Abbotstown.
The whole episode has not sat well with Lilywhites U19 manager and Head of Youth Development, Martin Connolly. From a Dundalk point of view, long - and costly - trips to Galway and Limerick have been nothing more than glorified friendly games with nothing at stake other than pride.
The Elite Qualifying Group fiasco is the latest in a line of mishaps that have left Connolly disgruntled. In February, Dundalk’s quest for the U19 Northern Division title was taken away in a boardroom after Finn Harps were docked three points for playing an illegal player in their 1-1 draw with Derry City. As a result, Derry City were awarded the three points, ensuring they were crowned champions. To say Connolly is frustrated is an understatement.
“As a club, we are very annoyed with the way the FAI has handled the whole U19 set-up,” he said. “Having the chance to win the Northern Division title taken away from us in that manner was a real kick in the teeth for the players.
“To make things worse we then found out that the Elite Qualifying Group is meaningless. Despite that, we were told we had to fulfill the fixtures. It leaves you scratching your head at times and asking if the powers that be, who make these decisions, have their finger on the pulse of what is happening at clubs.”
Connolly’s anger with the League of Ireland’s underage set-up doesn’t stop there. Another bone of contention is the major roadblock placed on talented youngsters from developing beyond a club’s youth set-up into the first-team.
The Derry City game will be the last time that promising youngsters like Manny Kaguako, Conor McDonald, Marifide Mantando, Ryan Davis and Kevin Nolan will be eligible for the Dundalk U19 squad.
When the final whistle blows next Saturday, their options are seriously restricted. They either break into Stephen Kenny’s first-team or they don’t play a competitive game for the club again. For many in this situation, they drift away from football after seeing their career stunted through no fault of their own.
“When the U19 league started, there was a meeting in Dublin and Michael O’Neil, the Shamrock Rovers manager at the time asked where was the pathway for players to go from U19 to the first-team”, recalls Connolly.
“He was basically told, by a prominent member of the FAI, to be quiet, this was the way they were doing things. There was no plan b. That was three years ago and nothing has changed.
“We have some very good 18 and 19-year-olds in our set-up who are just not ready to step up to first team level at this moment but, given another year or two playing against adult players, they could develop. Now they are in limbo.
“What do we do with those lads?” he asks. “We’re after spending three or four years working with them and do we now say ‘thanks but good luck’ to them? That’s not fair on us because of the work we’ve put into them and it’s not fair on the players.
“That shows that the pathway into the first-team is incomplete in this country”, he continues. “Shamrock Rovers have an unfair advantage in that they have a complete step by step pathway: U17 team, U19 team, First Division team and then their Premier Division first-team. It’s perfect and nobody else in the country has it. Dundalk FC need to look and see how we complete that pathway.”
Barring a miraculous injection of over 100k in cash, there is no question of Dundalk fielding a B team in the First Division any time soon. However Connolly says the club are actively looking at avenues in which to stop youngsters falling through the net.
“We definitely need to look and see what our next step is”, he said. “Personally speaking, I would prefer an U21 League or an U19 League where you can play three or four overage players or lads who are involved in your first-team squad.
At the minute we have a developmental squad made up of players from the U19s and lads from the first-team squad, those who are returning from injury and who need game time. We play against local junior teams. For example, we played Woodview Celtic last week and Keith Ward played 70 minutes. The problem with that is that we are running out of opposition because the junior football season ends in May. We need to fill the gap between U19s and first-team football, be it by maybe putting a team into the Meath & District League, the AUL or the Leinster Senior League.
“To help the clubs in the west there is a Connacht League being set up. This will allow Sligo Rovers, Limerick, Galway, Athlone and Mervue to put their reserve teams into that league. Derry City and Finn Harps put reserve teams into the Ulster League, Rovers are in the First Division. If we are not careful, the clubs on the east coast will lose out. Everybody needs to take notice of this. If not, we will be left behind,” he concludes..