Why Ireland's Euro 2016 owes a debt of gratitude to the work of St Kevin's Boys

Team 33's Raf Diallo talks to coaches who helped bring the best out of Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and more

Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, Ireland,

Picture by: Chris Radburn / PA Wire/Press Association Images

In the week leading up to Euro 2016, a few members of the Ireland team gathered round for a photo.

Not in any national team gear, each select member donned a jersey of a League of Ireland team.

It was meant to symbolise exactly where they had come from as players. So Wes Hoolahan in a Shelbourne jersey, James McClean in Derry City colours, Seamus Coleman in the red of Sligo Rovers and so on:

 

 

Given the difficulties faced by our domestic league down through the years, it was a nice gesture to recognise that the League of Ireland can provide an early launchpad for a career in the green jersey of Ireland.

In the near future, ex-St Patrick's Athletic playmaker Chris Forrester could well be the next one that will be included in such a group photo.

But the Ireland team that gave France a few worries in the Round of 16 clash at Euro 2016 also featured two players who had been team-mates since the age of 7.

Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick will be heart of whatever the Boys in Green achieve in the next few years and both came through the ranks at Dublin soccer club St Kevin's Boys who play in the Dublin district and schoolboys leagues rather than the League of Ireland.

You can listen to the full interview with Billy McCormack 37 minutes in or also stream for free on iTunes:

The 24-year-old duo's potential was evident from a very early age as their former coach at St Kevin's told Team 33 on this week's show.

"First memory of Robert was in the St Kevin's Boys mini-leagues when he was 6, seeing a bubbly-headed, dark-haired chap, full of fun, with a great left foot and first memory of Jeff in St Kevin's Boys Road Leagues at 8-years of age. Jeff especially stood out in a match we saw him play. He got the ball at the back and ran the length of the field and smacked it into the net and everyone standing around was just in awe," Billy recalled.

But it's not just a coincidence that an apprenticeship at St Kevin's served Brady and Hendrick well. Let's not forget that technically astute midfielders have preceded and followed the duo.

As St Kevin's football director Ken Donohoe tells me, Liam Brady was the "original superstar".

"Liam came through the club in the mid-60s. He was the original superstar to come through at the club," says Ken.

Indeed, Liam Brady was a couple of years above Billy's age group as both moved through the ranks at the club founded in 1959 and Billy is described by Ken as "instrumental" in his role of helping Hendrick and Robbie Brady to reach their potential.

Liam Brady INPHO

"The work done from the age of 7 had an impression on them both as players and also with building mental strength. But [Robbie and Jeff] did stand out," says Ken, who emphasises how "immensely proud" people at St Kevin's Boys are of their proteges' achievements at Euro 2016.

"It's a great boost for them. It proves we have the players capable of coming through and playing at the highest level.

"It's great to have someone to look up to, to aspire to. Jeff and Robbie can do that now. Young boys will think that way and realise that they can achieve anything with talent and hard work."

Even aside from Liam Brady, another Ireland legend in the shape of Damien Duff also spent time in the St Kevin's ranks albeit briefly with Billy remembering what jumped out to him as a "good lad, a nice fella".

Other former St Kevin's alumni who donned the green shirt of Ireland include Stephen Carr and Ian Harte which just goes to show that it's far from a one-off.

"We're doing our best to produce the talent through our system," says Ken.

 

Jack Byrne with Blackburn boss Owen Coyle

"[The philosophy] is based on technique, not hoofing the ball from one end of the pitch to another. It's about development of technique."

It's a point Billy doubles down on, insisting that being allowed to make mistakes as a young player rather than an emphasis on results is key for development - something particularly exalted in youth development systems abroad.

"If you made a mistake, it's a good thing and to encourage them when they lost," he adds.

Thus, it's no coincidence that one of the exciting young players in Irish football, Jack Byrne, got his footballing education at St Kevin's.

The Manchester City and Ireland under-21 midfielder, enjoyed a positive loan spell with SC Cambuur in the Netherlands last season and will now further his education at Blackburn Rovers this coming season which should push him further into an Ireland senior setup that he's already trained with as recently as March.

"Jack is one of them players who can dictate the pace of a game. He should be more in focus [with Ireland]," says Ken, while Billy who did not coach Byrne directly is excited by his progress and highlights his "great ability and eye for a pass, very strong and tenacious."

But aside from just developing Irish talent, the club also hit the headlines in April when their under-13s beat their Barcelona counterparts in the Academy Cup.

St Kevin's founded the competition in 2009 to mark their 50th anniversary with the academies of major European clubs participating.

"We've had all the top academy teams from around Europe over here," says Ken.

"The Academy Cup has been a great addition to St Kevin's Boys' calendar. The quality of teams that take part has been outstanding. That Barca sent their full-strength under-13s team here is an indication of where we stand as a club."

With Byrne's development, there could be the real prospect of a trio of St Kevin's Golden Boys at the heart of Ireland's midfield in the years to come.

But for Billy, even watching Hendrick and Brady at Euro 2016, he can still see elements of the youngsters who first arrived at the Dublin club.

"Well, development would have changed some things about them but the memories for me are there. When I see them standing over a corner kick together, we did that as 8 and 9 year olds. When I see them taking penalties again, they stood up when they were 8 or 9 and smacked the ball into the back of the net," he says.

"Development-wise, certainly you've got to adapt to different management styles and different instructions. For example, Jeff has much more in him going forward than maybe he's shown in his career so far. But that would be to do with different managers maybe under pressure to hold people back a bit and pick them in certain positions which is understandable, whereas Robert has been moved around as well to different positions. But certainly I think both will improve in the future and they've got lots, lots more to give."

Well, from my perspective, that's great to hear.