Fourth tier comes first for Kevin's
Debut backs up Irish teen's Stevenage decision
It was a move that led to more than a few raised eyebrows, and some even asked if it was a joke.
The fact that four bright young talents from the Irish football scene decided to leave their homeland and sign for Stevenage, a club in England's fourth division, a club who had never won a major trophy or played in Europe, instead of holding on and signing for a big League of Ireland side, was perhaps a bad joke or else a sign of how sick the domestic football scene was.
Among the critics were Niall Quinn, who reckoned that young Irish players were better off staying at home to get a Leaving Cert under their belts instead of "going to Stevenage on an apprenticeship".
But those involved with the move staunchly defend it. Especially as Kilbarrack lad Jamie Gray is now a first-team player with a Stevenage side who hope to make it into League One next season as he made his league debut last weekend and his fellow graduates from Dublin nursery St Kevin's Boys (Robbie Brady's brother Liam, Mikey Cregan and Luke Wade-Slater) are not far behind.
"Some people were taking the p**s when I told them I was signing for Stevenage," says Gray. "They were saying 'Stevenage, never heard of them, why are you signing for them?'. But even though it's only League Two, it's a great set-up, you don't want for anything. It's a good place to be and even better for me now that I have made my debut."
And his old gaffer agrees. "We were heavily criticised because four Irish lads went to a club like Stevenage instead of staying here to play in the League of Ireland. But, to me, there was no club in this country that could offer them full-time football," says Alan Caffrey, coach at St Kevin's Boys, the quartet's alma mater.
"So it came to them taking a risk for two years and trying it, as they can always come home and play League of Ireland. And it was worth the risk."
In the hunt for talent, the big teams in England (and Celtic) will always be able to lure Irish prodigies on the back of the club's name and fame. But when lower-league outfits recruited Irish players at the age of 16, there was some concern: understandable if an Irish kid wants to sign for Arsenal or Manchester City. But Chesterfield (who have Conor Fowler and Dylan Hand), Fleetwood and Stevenage?
If a player is to play in front of a crowd of 2,765 punters (as Gray did for his debut last Saturday), would it not be better to do that in your home city for the likes of Shamrock Rovers, maybe play in the Europa League, instead of England's fourth tier? Fleetwood, who have just signed another St Kevin's prospect, Katlego Mashingo, have average gates of 3,100, just above LOI levels.
But St Kevin's coach Caffrey, previously on the staff at Bohemians, feels this is the right pathway. "Fleetwood are a club that some people wouldn't look twice at but they are making great progress in terms of facilities and their first team are doing well, pushing for promotion," says Caffrey.
"These boys want to be full-time footballers and if they are given that opportunity, why not take it? One of our ex-players, Trevor Clarke, is doing great with Shamrock Rovers and it's good to see. But he is one of the lucky ones.
"I saw the set-up at Stevenage when the boys signed, and their facilities are the club's own. No one over here (in the LOI) has that, they all rent their facilities. I have been at the Shamrock Rovers facility and fair play, they are putting down plans but at the moment, what clubs like Stevenage in England have don't exist here.
"I am an LOI supporter and I don't want to put it down, but the clubs here don't have the facilities or the personnel that League One teams have.
"They are not all perfect, some English clubs have a poor set-up but the majority are professional as they've been doing it for a long time."