Treaty City to the Terriers: Playing, Premier League and the return to the League of Ireland (Part Two)

Wed, Jul 15 2020

Ronan Coughlan pictured while at Huddersfield Town Credit: Declan Farmer

In part one of this series we told the story of how three young players from Limerick ended up signing for Huddersfield Town after a pre-season tour. We also learned how they settled into Academy life at the Yorkshire based Championship club. This second part takes a look at life in the Academy, the changes that occurred and how they all ended up returning to the League of Ireland.

Declan Farmer – UEFA 'A' Licence coach, former Limerick FC under-19 Head Coach and FAI Head Coach for Limerick Emerging Talent Programme

Eddie Hickey – Former Limerick FC goalkeeper and former Limerick FC under-19 coach

Liam Coughlan – Father of Ronan and former League of Ireland player Garbhan Coughlan

Ronan Coughlan – 23-year-old Sligo Rovers striker

Tadhg Ryan – 23-year-old Waterford FC goalkeeper

Sam Warde – 22-year-old Galway Utd midfielder

In January 2015 the FA Youth Cup saw high flying Category Two Huddersfield Town (a squad containing Limerick men Tadhg Ryan, Ronan Coughlan and Sam Warde) suffer a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Category One Chelsea (squad containing Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke, Izzy Brown and Fikayo Tomori). Chelsea were in the middle of an unbeaten run in the competition which lasted from 2014 to 2018, while they also won the European Youth League in both 2014/15 and 2015/16.

In 2014/15 the Academy league was going really well. Then you met a Chelsea side in the FA Youth Cup - a competition they had an excellent record in at the time. What are your thoughts on the season and that game?

Sam Warde – “I actually played them two years in a row and lost 6-1 both times! Mason Mount scored a hat trick the following year! They were just different class, when you come up against a group of players that are so good it kind of makes you realise how much work you need to do to catch up with them so it’s a bit of a wake-up call.”

Ronan Coughlan – “We beat Crystal Palace 2-0 in the round before. We would have been quite a decent team, we won our league that year in Category 2 and obviously Chelsea were Category 1. They are known for producing good players and they're getting them from all over the world. When we played them to be honest, it was an eye opener - they were that level above you in everything.

“Dominic Solanke was through the middle, Izzy Brown was on the left, Tammy Abraham on the right. That front three was.. just wow…two of them have played in the Premier League and that's the level you’re dealing with but you just have to forget about that and realise I have to bump up my own game. I think that's one thing I took away just how good Charly Musonda was - he's definitely the best player I've played against, how fast he was and I remember thinking to myself if he doesn't go on to play for Chelsea then what chance has anyone got? They were all bigger lads, just fitter, faster, sharper and pure quality. It was definitely a step-up and an eye opener.”

Tadhg Ryan – “Losing 6-1 isn’t a nice feeling not one bit. I do remember we had a lot of injuries to our team at that stage. It was a very makeshift backline and a very makeshift team that we did have but they were very impressive. They moved the ball excellently and what I would say is that a club like Chelsea, not only in the first team but throughout the Academy, they have such a wide range of players to pick from. They can sign players from any of the four corners of the world and what is true, as well especially with young players, we were all 18 at the time.

“Young players develop at different stages; one player might develop a lot quicker than another player. I found that Chelsea team were all physical specimens, early developers without doubt and that does make a difference at that age. Some players may not hit their prime until 27, 28 maybe even 30. So it was tough on the night and as a young player you're a bit down after the result but I remember actually not being too down.

“That Chelsea team was extremely successful; I think they won the Youth Cup many times in a row and that year they went on to win in the under-18 European Cup. They beat Roma 4-0 in the final so after seeing that you're feeling better about the result they put past us at the time. Look, in fairness to them they were an amazing youth team. It was a good experience playing against them it would open your eyes to what other players are capable of. I remember, I know we lost 6-1 but I made a few good saves on the night and I felt good about that. The game was on television and all these new experiences you get a buzz off that as well and no, don’t get me wrong , for some guys in the changing rooms their heads were hanging low but you learn from these experiences. It holds you in good stead for the future because there are ups and downs in your career and it’s all about how you deal with them, you push on and you learn from it.”

Despite a successful number of seasons for the Academy, in the summer of 2016, Mark Lillis left the club as part of an Academy restructuring which saw Steve Weaver join the club from Wrexham. Huddersfield Town chairman Dean Hoyle spoke with the club website at the time explaining the decision made:

“I want our fans to know that all these changes have been made with one aim in mind; to improve the quality of young footballer that the Academy is producing and get them playing regularly in our First Team.

“Reaching this decision was in no way easy.. In particular, Mark was an appointment that I led in December 2011 and he’s been a fantastic ambassador for the Club and its Academy. In many ways he epitomises the qualities our fans relate to; 100% commitment, passion and determination.
 
“However, I have stated before that nobody at Huddersfield Town is happy with treading water in the Sky Bet Championship and the intention is that the Academy will play a large part in helping the Club make steps forward on the field.

The Academy plays a big part in our football strategy and the truth is that it has not been delivering Championship-quality footballers on a regular basis for our First Team. The young players making a genuine impact at First Team level – the likes of Philip Billing, Flo Bojaj and, before that, Tommy Smith and Harry Bunn – have been recruited from outside at 16 and above.
 
“That extends to the players who have gained such good results and Under-18 and Under-21 level in recent seasons. A number of those players, such as Ronan Coughlan, Danny Kane and Tadhg Ryan, were recruited in their late teens. The level of production from the Academy must be – and will be – better.

“The Academy costs around £1.5 million to run, with a circa £1 million direct cost to HTAFC, every season and it cannot be a vanity project. I’m very proud to see our younger age groups winning leagues and performing well in cups – it also helps us with recruitment – but ultimately the Academy exists to produce players for the First Team.”

At the end of that 2015/16 season there was a shakeup in the Academy, how did that affect you?

Tadhg Ryan – “Mark Lillis is an absolute legend at Huddersfield Town, he was actually caretaker manager for the club on a few occasions, and is admired still to this day by everybody at the club. A really great character, very bubbly, very positive character. Frankie Bunn and Tony Carss they really complemented each other. Frankie was very demanding in his methods and they held us all in good stead to be able to deal with those expectations and Tony Carss had a great brain for the game. During their time at the club it was a really successful period for the Academy, the very well recognised Academy.

“When I first joined the under-18s, we won the Northern League, and we won it the next year. Then that same group of players, who progressed to the under 21s, we won that league as well. So we were there winning league three years in a row, doing very well it was a very successful time. Great memories as well at the Academy, then there was a change, I don't know the ins and outs of it but there was a change in the Academy manager. They eventually (in summer 2018) took away the under 18s and the under 21s.

“They took them out of the professional development league, so I believe that any games they have now are arranged games. Brentford also have a team called Brentford B so they went down that route. There was a change in your schedule and we didn’t have a great knowledge of what was going on. A lot of it was just to accommodate the training of the first team.

“David Wagner was the manager, the whole work schedule was kind of changed to accommodate that (the first team) and it was a very transitional period for the club as a whole as well not only for the Academy but also for the first team as well. A lot of work was being done to the training ground and the facilities as well, the overall franchise so yeah there was a bit of a change, a transition but yeah it was cool to experience that.”

Ronan Coughlan – “When Mark (Lillis) left the Academy and you would have noticed a change. Lillis was obviously a positive character, he was funny, he was great for us and you could see there was a change in the Academy when he left. Maybe they weren’t happy that they weren't producing enough players for the first team. I think there was a slight change as to how they looked at the Academy.

“Eventually they ended up scrapping from under 8 to under 16s so they only had under 16 onwards in Huddersfield so they definitely changed an awful lot. I can’t thank Mark Lillis enough for what he did for me when I was at the club, he was unbelievable for me. I definitely think there was a little shift of momentum in the Academy in what they wanted to do in the future.

“It's fair enough, it's all based on money at the end of the day. If they didn't feel they were producing players from the area then it's costing them money and it was definitely a tight run club at the time and that's the way they want to go. There was a few things happening behind the scenes I’d say but at the end of the day you just have to put your head down and keep working.”

Sam Warde – “There was no real change until Wagner came in, he literally re-designed the club. Built new changing rooms, new schedules for training, assigned pitches for us to be in nowhere near the first team so we were a lot more further away from it when he came, but then ended up going from bottom half of the table to the Premier League in one season so it obviously worked.

“I don’t think it made too much of a change (to me). I had already moved up to the under-21s at that time so Carsy (Tony Carss) wasn’t actually my coach anymore. I think he was actually around more due to his change of role than if he had still been with the under-18s, but no I don’t think it made too much of a difference. Mark Lillis was great he was always around to help us settle in and make us feel comfortable.”

These Academy changes came on the back of a successful number of seasons for the Academy, winning the under-18s Professional Development League 2 North title in both 2013/14 and 2014/15.

It was a successful time for the Academy prior to those changes though?

Ronan Coughlan – “We won silverware at the under 18 and the under 23s. We won the Under 18s League and then you play a little play off. Category 2 was broken up into two divisions in Northern and Southern. The winners in the North play whoever finished second in the south and vice versa. That play-off final, we didn't win that actually, when we were under-18 we won our league. We finished first so we got a nice medal actually and a trophy which was great. Then at 23s we won it all - we’d an unbelievable team actually. We won the league comfortably, we won the playoffs and we did quite well actually in the FA Premier (League) Cup. We lost in the semi-finals to Hull on penalties.

“We had a quality team and that's the thing, you think we must have quality players which we did. When we won these things David Wagner was involved and he was pushing to make the Premier League. They were up at the top of the table so it's even harder for anyone to get a chance when the teams doing that well and they were quality that year hence why they got promoted.”

Following a breakthrough year of underage action for Tadgh Ryan, he soon went in search of first-team football, a search that saw the Limerick native end up with Radcliffe Borough in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division.

For you Tadhg, that 2016/17 season saw your first taste of adult football, at Radcliffe Borough in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division

Tadhg Ryan – “That loan move was purely to play men’s football and to get experience. I'd been playing for the under 21s and under 18s for the previous couple of years and I’d been doing very well. I was enjoying it but the time came for me to embrace the new challenge at that was men’s football - you want to come up and play against men who are playing for something that means something. Playing with the under 18  or under 21 sides, you’d be playing in the training ground or the stadium and so you know when we were playing our games no matter if we were home or away, you’d know the pitches would be manicured and in great condition.

“Stepping away from that and going away from the comfort zone, going out on loan, you’re exposed to the not so nice conditions. The pitches could be could be poor or heavy and the crowd could be on top of you and believe me they were! You know someone will be shouting at you, but again this is experience and as a young goalkeeper that it is so vital to get games on your belt.

“To learn by doing is so valuable and that was my main opportunity to get first team games. I had a great time at Radcliffe and it went really well. I have fond memories, enjoyed my time and it really did prepared me well for the men’s game, the type of physical battles with strikers that I probably wasn’t used to, so yeah that was great that was a really good experience and help me in great stead for the future.”

In 2017 Huddersfield Town reached the Premier League for the first time in their history. However within six months of their promotion, both Ryan and Coughlan were lining out in the League of Ireland  with Galway United and Bray Wanderers respectively while Warde was at Colchester, a year before he too would return.

A season that ends as a Premier League club, how does it feel? Delighted to be a Premier League player or is it that the reality hits that you’re not as likely to play?

Sam Warde – “I had already known I was going to be leaving by then and was already in contact with other clubs. But I was very happy for everyone involved as a lot of friends and it was great for the club in general which had been very good to me for the three years I was there.”

Tadhg Ryan – “Obviously getting promotion was absolutely huge for the club, the buzz around the place was electric. I remember in training in the weeks leading up to it (the Play-Offs) there was an excitement, not only in the club but around the town. I lived a couple of minutes outside the town and there were banners everywhere, such a big build up in the town itself- the biggest in years for the club.

“In preseason (following promotion) the experience of Rob Green and Jonas Lossl's different techniques, looking at them, learning off them - that was a good experience to be training with Premier League players. I definitely felt that the time was to move on to be a number one somewhere, to gain that experience and to grow physically and mentally and to really make your mark on a team. That's what I felt coming into that summer that the time had come to look for a new adventure and a new challenge. Even though I still had a year left on my deal that’s the vibe I was getting. It was actually that summer that Galway, and Shane Keegan got in touch with me.”

Ronan Coughlan – My last year at the club (2016/17) …. I wouldn't say it was a nightmare, but it was a learning process because I had tendonitis in my left knee and that kept me out. I'd actually been coping with it for about two years and I said ‘No I just need to get it fixed now. I'm only 20 years old I can't be managing an injury like this. I need to get it fixed,’ so that kept me out for four to five months. I missed the first half of the season in my last year. In my first start, 10 minutes into the game, I went up for a header and I came down awkwardly on my knee and they thought it was my ACL which was gone but luckily it was only my leg which sounds a bit bizarre saying lucky.

“It was only the top of my tibia which had been basically fractured. I had to get an operation. That kept me out for four months but it could have been an awful lot worse. I definitely learned a lot during that stage. I came back before the end of the season and played a couple of games, happy to be back with no more injuries and fully fit. I knew I was leaving anyway; I had spoken with the head of the Academy at the time.

“I knew anyway I needed to go there was no point in me hanging around any further - the first team were going to the Premier League and I just missed a year of football. I was just coming up to 21 and it was definitely the right step. I thought about staying around in England or what was the best step for me. I spoke to those close to me and obviously my brother who had played in the league for Limerick so I would have known the league and kept an eye on it. I decided to come home and that was it  – I decided to play in the League of Ireland.

“On getting promoted? There wasn’t really any thoughts as I knew I was leaving anyway. There was no, 'I wish I was staying here', I was just focused on myself. I knew what I had to do, there was no bitterness, there was nothing, literally no feeling. When we got promoted, I was obviously happy that the club I was with got promoted. I was delighted for them, they had strived for so long, but personally there was nothing for me. I wasn’t disappointed to be leaving. I was so grateful for my time there and the opportunity to play in England at a young age.

“That was always my dream and I learned an awful lot that I wouldn’t have learned if I’d stayed in Ireland. We don’t have the facilities and the money to be able to get an education in football like that. So no I wasn’t disappointed to be leaving, it is what it is. I knew what I had to do - I had to go play, to go and start my career basically, first team football and wherever that would leave me.”

Liam Coughlan – “Ronan sustained a knee injury after falling awkwardly and it just took too long to get over it. He saw a specialist and had keyhole surgery at a clinic in Manchester. He got back training at the back end of the season and even scored a few but as you know there is a queue of lads to take your place and he was released. He came back home to Ireland with a positive attitude to stick with it and continue the journey. A number of clubs were interested but the first firm offer came from Bray Wanderers. “

With both Ronan Coughlan and Sam Warde leaving Huddersfield Town at the end of the 2017 season and Tadhg Ryan yet to play a first team game at the club after three seasons, the focus turned to the English Academy system and how clubs treat young players who are leaving after spending a number of years without making a breakthrough.

What are your thoughts on players who are released from the English Academy system?

Declan Farmer – “When a player is released it's very important how the Academy releases that player because the players have got to realise that at this moment in time, what the club is looking for that player hasn't developed into at that moment in time.

“It does not mean that player will not make it and a lot of work around the psychology of football how the player takes that news, how the club conduct that release is very important.”

Did you play a role in the return of any of the three players?

Declan Farmer – “When the boys left for Huddersfield, I was the consulate. I would be over every three months to see how they were getting on, so I would have seen their physicality, how they were developing and getting on - talking to them every time I watched their matches. Coming back they adopt their own way, you have to let them fly out of the nest and that's how they develop - by getting an agent, training with the under 23s, training with the first team. They have to make their decisions on their own. My role is to be open to be honest with them and if they need me to pick up the phone to talk to me.

“Ronan had the opportunity to move to another club on trial but didn’t want that, he wanted first team football. Tadhg Ryan was the same. He got offered another contract at Huddersfield - they were very impressed but he didn't want to be just a training goalkeeper. He wanted first team football. Sam Warde got offered a contract at Colchester and he went down that direction. The attitude of the players coming back (to Ireland) was positive, the mindset was good, they wanted first team football, they wanted playing time. The lads would have been loaned during their time at Huddersfield and played at different levels so it was good for them to have that positive mindset. Ronan going to Bray and scoring goals and then Cork, now at Sligo. Tadhg Ryan at Galway, Cork City and now at Waterford - the mindset was positive, they wanted to get game time and get playing.”

Part One: Treaty City to the Terriers: One trip, multiple trophies and a talented trio!