Dundalk begin their FAI U19 League campaign on Saturday when they visit Tolka Park to face Shelbourne at noon.
Sligo Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic, Bohemians and neighbours Drogheda United are amongst the teams that Dundalk will compete against in the restructured Northern Division.
And, after spending a couple of years making gruelling journeys to places like Donegal and Letterkenny every second Saturday, Dundalk Head of Youth Development and U19 manager Martin Connolly is delighted that his young charges will be able to test themselves against the cream of the crop from the region.
“It’s great to be facing clubs like that but, at the same time, it can be daunting because you are going into the unknown,” he said.
“A lot of our lads are coming in from last year’s Youth team and although they did well in the DDSL, the U19s is a step up from that so we will have to see how they adapt.”
Georgie Poynton, Paul Finnegan and Anton Reilly have all been involved with Stephen Kenny’s first team squad and will form the core of Connolly’s U19s team alongside the likes of Calvin Murphy, Craig Pentony and Craig Doherty. It is also hoped that Padraic McGowan and Cormac Boyle, who were part of last year’s successful Youths team will also make an impression at U19 level.
Ciaran O’Connor is another who is eligible but is unlikely to feature having recently made a loan move to Warrenpoint Town until January.
Success at youth level is measured not just on trophies but on the progress of players going through the system. With that in mind, Connolly says he is delighted with how things are shaping up.
“Last year the U19s won promotion from the Northern Division, the Youths finished 2nd in the DDSL Super League and they also won the Leinster Youth Cup.
“But, more importantly than that, if you look at the EA Sports Cup games against Bray Wanderers, Derry City and against Wexford Youths, we had five or six players who have come through the system involved. That’s how you gauge success. It’s great for players to win a trophy on the day but the bigger picture is lads making the step up to the first-team.
“Georgie Poynton and Ciaran O’Connor have signed pro deals and they have come through in the past two years. The question now is, who is next? Can it be Anton Reilly? Can it be Dylan O’Hanlon? That’s our job, to get them through to the first-team.”
Dundalk’s reputation for developing young players has also resulted in a number of local youngsters returning from playing in the DDSL.
Defender Emmet Hughes, Dean Watters (Malahide) and Sean Maguire (St Kevin’s) are just three that Connolly has earmarked for the club’s Youth team this season with a view to them becoming established U19 players at the start of 2015.
Connolly will again be assisted by Mick Neville and former Dundalk captain and current Community Officer Liam Burns. Burns is also in talks to become the club’s Youth team manager but a decision has yet to be announced.
Meanwhile, U19 graduates Conor McDonald and Manny Kaguako, who both played in the EA Sports Cup semi-final win over Wexford Youths have taken up scholarships with DkIT which are run in conjunction with the club. Paul Finnegan and Craig Pentony have also taken scholarships which begin this week.