Samir Carruthers and Derrick Williams are among the Republic of Ireland’s Under 19 internationals making a mark in the youth ‘Champions League’.
In an age where Irish football strives to break out from the shadow of its glistening and illustrious golden predecessor, the importance of competing at an elite European competition is as pronounced as ever. Tuesday is Ireland’s date with European Championship destiny on many levels, in a literal sense. The respective teams of Giovanni Trapattoni’s seniors and Paul Doolin’s Under 19′s face defining and decisive matches in prolonging their interest in an eastern European expedition next summer. Short of qualification for the final tournaments, both sides a minimum of three and four matches away, Irish presence in top level European competition remains, if fractional to it’s comparable levels of just a brief number of years ago.
This season in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson, at twenty three years old, is the sole Republic of Ireland player present in the competition, aside from a number of youth players afforded selection by virtue of UEFA allowances that allow clubs to supplement playing squads with an unlimited number of under twenty one players. Among them are Manchester City’s full Irish international Greg Cunningham, Chelsea’s Conor Clifford, Arsenal’s Conor Henderson, Sean McDermott and Rhys Murphy and Manchester United’s Sean McGinty. Realistically, it would be folly to suggest any one of these players will be making their Champions League bow this season, only Cunningham has of yet appeared in the Premier League, albeit in appearances missable by a blink. Given Gibson, yet to feature in a match-day squad this term, appears to have been ostracised from a new, fresher looking team under Sir Alex Ferguson, Irish involvement in this season’s Champions League is likely to be non existent. It would be the first time since the re-branding of the competition in 1992 that no Irish player has participated.That statistic will hardly prove a pressing concern to Giovanni Trapattoni and immediate Irish hopes of qualification, but his Ireland squad now comprises of six players who once upon a time, played Champions League football. For Inter Milan, Celtic, Chelsea and Manchester United, now read LA Galaxy, Leeds United, Fulham and Sunderland. Darron Gibson of Manchester United reserves and “That Gibson’s got a good shot on him” fame, can only dream of a recall should Ireland reach Poland and Ukraine next June. With the erosion of time, comes too the dearth in quality that was once in abundance, more vital and more likely. Conversely, with Paul Doolin knowing that his Irish side’s fate remains solely in their own hands as they bid to reach the European Championship’s elite phase for the fourth year running, certain members of Ireland’s Under 19′s have seen their calender years overcome with continental competition.
Fresh from their impressive showings first in Poland and then in Romania in the summer and prior to this latest round of qualifiers, Samir Carruthers and Derrick Williams have been leading Aston Villa’s charge in the Next Gen series, a youth tournament composing of some of Europe’s elite youth teams, footballing undergraduates from Barcelona’s La Masia and Ajax’s De Toekomst facility among them. The British participation in the fledging competition, the brainchild of Justin Andrews and Mark Warburton, comes from Villa, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Celtic. Dublin born Villa striker Graham Burke and Celtic midfielder Paul George complete the Irish contingent in the series, and both have since joined Ireland’s Under 19 selection for the current campaign.
Attending Villa Park last week to watch Villa’s first home game of the competition, a comprehensive and utterly comfortable four goal drubbing of Fenerbahce, it was clear to see that among Villa’s troop of indisputable talent, Ireland’s own were not for taking a back seat and appreciating the view of the grand old stadium. Unshackled by the leggy, commanding Gary Gardner, younger brother of former Villa midfielder Craig, and the busy fellow England youth international Daniel Johnson, Samir Carruthers had the six hundred odd crowd and those gathered members of the press purring with appreciation. His and the games’ standalone moments of quality; the opening goal, his penalty win and assist were worth the three pound admission alone. While the Turkish visitors, backed by a smattering of supporters themselves were, in the politest possible way, a diminutive bunch, the imposing Williams, deployed predominately at centre back for club having made a name for himself at full back for Ireland, towered over everyone on the pitch, bar perhaps the Villa captain Gardner. The Waterford born defender was hardly tested throughout, but his elevation to a position from which he can challenge for a first team place continues apace, having been granted a squad number in the days leading up to the game. ‘Stay on your feet”, a mantra not new but in fashion rings true here, especially for a young defender. His squad number is just inside forty. There remains a long way to go.
The gesture of naming young players in their bloated, limitless Champions League squads is nothing but that, beneficial to no one.
That said, while Villa are among the handful of clubs to embark on the maiden Next Gen journey, the footsteps the likes of Carruthers, Burke and Williams should look to follow was sat just behind me in the Trinity Stand last Wednesday. Scotland international Barry Bannan is a former youth team colleague and dig sharer of many of the players that remain in Villa’s academy and reserve set up, and the midfielder takes a keen interest in their progression in between his Premier League and international commitments.
Whilst an attendance of six hundred at Villa Park for Fenerbahce’s reserve side was one of the more moderate attendances likely to be seen throughout the rest of the tournament, the youth Champions League has caught the eye, and over five thousand people turning up to Celtic Park to witness the visit of Barcelona’s youth players more than redresses the balance. The Next Gen series, so successful in it’s infancy, has been mooted as becoming part of the UEFA club stable next season. It boasts more Irish participants than the Champions League this term, in which Irish participation has fallen to it’s lowest tally in the modern era of the one time European Cup. The gesture of naming young players in their bloated, limitless Champions League squads is nothing but that, beneficial to no one. Andrews and Warburton claim many more of Europe’s leading club teams are clamouring to participate in next year’s competition and beyond. If Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are among those, it might stand some Irish prospects in good stead. Elite level football seems to be doing Samir Carruthers and Derrick Williams no harm whatsoever.
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Pictures courtesy of: MacLaurin Media (Next Gen Official site).