By James Carew of Póg Mo Goal.com
On the shores of Lake Como, Aston Villa captured the Next Gen Series 2013 title in an all-English final with a 2-0 win over Chelsea, but part of story of the young Villans’ triumph was forged in Ireland.
Two penalties from Republic youth international Graham Burke allowed compatriot Samir Carruthers to raise aloft the trophy, while team-mates Jack Grealish, Lewis Kinsella, Bradley Lewis and substitute Kevin Toner also played their parts. Also watching on was the injured Mikey Drennan, whose six goals helped fire Villa to the final stages of the elite competition.
The Birmingham club is currently home to a massive Irish contingent but Villa has always had a strong connection to Ireland with past stars including Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, Tony Cascarino, Steve Staunton, Robbie Keane and current squad members Shay Given, Ciaran Clark, Enda Stevens, Stephen Ireland, and Richard Dunne. Without doubt though, Paul McGrath is the most revered amongst the Villa faithful. They still sing his name in the stands at Villa Park.
It is in Villa’s under-age sides where Irish players are really flourishing culminating in the U19s stunning win in the prestigious Next Generation Series. Along the way, Villa enjoyed victories over Celtic, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, and Olympiakos, and then repelled the challenge of Chelsea in the final.
Burke’s two penalties saw him finish the tournament as top scorer over-taking injured team-mate Mikey Drennan. Villa’s march to the final was helped in no small way by Drennan’s haul of six goals including a crucial winner away to Ajax in the last 16.
Drennan’s story not only demonstrates Villa’s faith in young Irish talent at a time when English clubs have their pick of players from across the globe, but also the spread of the game on the island of Ireland.
Drennan hails from Kilkenny in the south-east, an area best known as a conveyor belt of hurling talent but fast becoming a production line of soccer hot-shots. The forward made his name with Evergreen in the Marble City and signed for Villa in the 2010-2011 season. Described by academy manager Bryan Jones as a striker who “scores goals for fun,” Drennan netted 10 times in the Barclays Premier Academy League and once for the reserves. The Irish under-age star was also named the U16 international Player of the Year in 2010.
Drennan, himself a hotly-tipped hurler, was a key member of the St Kieran’s College team that captured the Junior All-Ireland secondary school’s soccer title in 2009. The famous Gaelic Games nursery was the first school outside of Dublin to win the Leinster title back in 1993.
Indeed arguably Ireland’s greatest hurler of the modern era, Henry Shefflin, grabbed the equaliser when the school next contested the provincial final four years later. Proving that the football production line in Ireland is no longer restricted to the capital city Dublin, the Kilkenny City college finally captured the All-Ireland crown in Oriel Park, Dundalk, four years ago.
In January of this year, Drennan’s county-compatriot Seani Maguire was signed by West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce. Maguire finished top scorer last season in the Airtricity League First Division with Waterford United and agreed terms with the Premier League side in the last transfer window.
Villa’s talented Irish youth players are also key members of the Republic of Ireland’s current under-age sides making waves in Euro qualifying.
Derrick Williams and Samir Carruthers were part of the Irish team that reached the semi-finals of the U19 European Championship in 2011.
Jack Grealish is regularly touted as a player to watch and he’s already earned a call-up to the Aston Villa senior bench.
Having bagged a hat-trick against Luxembourg, Mikey Drennan scored the winner against Macedonia last year to fire the current U19 team into the Euro elite qualifying phase which gets under way this June.
The Irish influence at Aston Villa continues to grow where apart from the senior stars, the youth sides also include Robin Dempsey, Mason Watkins-Clark, Bradley Lewis, and Daniel Devine.
As Paul Lambert attempts to keep the club in the Premier League, the future is far from gloomy. Like the legendary Paul McGrath, there’s a new generation of Irish stars ready to endear themselves to the Villa Park faithful in the years to come.
Many thanks to James of Póg Mo Goal for the Irish inside track on Villa’s NextGen European Champions. Make sure you check out his excellent site for all things football with an Irish slant.
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