Academy pathways and Leaving Cert study plans - Kerry making their mark on the LOI


Credit: Adam Kowalczyk/Kerry FC

‘I have my Leaving Cert oral exams coming up on Sunday so I am going to have to do some studying on the bus up to Longford’.

This weekend, Sean O’Connell does not only have Longford Town v Kerry on his mind – he also has his Leaving Cert oral exams looming around the corner.

And that is why the Kingdom’s young star - but not the only one - will ditch the pre-match music on the team bus for some valuable hours of Leaving Cert study.

Since joining the League of Ireland ranks, the Kingdom have sold out every one of their home games and have impressed early on, bar one heavy loss away to Galway United.

But when you consider O’Connell dialed in for a pre-match press conference donning his school uniform in a classroom during his lunch break – their early form has been generally impressive.

Granted, they have not won yet but they have been largely competitive in their games so far with a very inexperienced side by League of Ireland standards.

“It is tough. I have to find a balance between studying and the games,” the teenager explained this week.

“But the games are more important. I have my Leaving Cert oral exams coming up on Sunday so I am going to have to do some studying on the bus up to Longford.

“Everyone in school is very interested to be fair. All the teachers are very helpful if I do have to leave school early for a game.

“They will send me notes and help me out when I need it.

“I’ll try to get my bit of studying done because I have my orals coming up. The lads will understand that.”

New kids on the block

O’Connell is also one of the poster boys for Kerry following their entry into the senior League of Ireland ranks.

The left-back has played for Kerry since he was drafted in at under-15s and has represented his local side with distinction at under-17 and under-19 level.

But it was this season when he got the call from boss Billy Dennehy that he was going to make his bow in the senior League of Ireland ranks.

“Billy has been great,” he explains. “I’ve played under him since my second season with the under-17s when I was called up to the under-19s.

“I’ve been with him for the last two years and he has been really helpful to me for my whole career.

“Billy spoke to me before the start of the season, and I had a bad injury so I wanted to get back. He told me that I would be in the first team and that was great for me.”

This is the new reality at Mounthawk Park – with Dennehy leading the charge as first-team manager and Sporting Director.

Dennehy has been one of many at the club who have laid the seeds for senior League of Ireland football to flourish. But it will be a slow and steady rise to the top.

Local players make up the majority of Kerry’s squad, and with so many showing they can play in the First Division, there is genuine hope that more can make the grade.

“The pathway is there now,” Dennehy explained. “It’s up to the players now to go and take it.

"There are obviously a lot more areas to this level that are not just on the playing side. There is so much commitment that has to go in.

“Ronan Teehan has been travelling from Cahersiveen (to Tralee) to play since he was under-15 and has been training a couple of times a week. His parents have sacrificed a lot as well.

“These are the things that people don’t see and don’t realise how difficult it can be. opportunity is there for players to take it.

“We said that we would give young local players a chance to play.

“That’s the way the club model is and they (younger academy players) can now see the players who have come up through the under-14s and 15s to the first-team.”

Academy pathway

O’Connell, Teehan, Nathan Gleeson, Junior Ankomah, Cianan Cooney, Aaron O’Sullivan and Rob Vasiu make up just a few of their players who have come through the club’s underage ranks.

And with a smattering of experienced players such as Matt Keane, Shane Guthrie, Andy Quaid, Sean Kennedy and Sean McGrath – the Kingdom are not far away from their first win as a senior club.

They went close before against Treaty United, held to a 1-1 draw on that occasion – while they were also narrowly defeated by Athlone Town last week.

“Going into every game I am always very positive,” their boss adds.

“I can see the quality of the team every week and we have players coming in doing media work on a lunch break in his school uniform.

“That puts things into context and it shows where we are. But we are being competitive – bar the game against Galway.

“We are playing with a quarter of our team still in school. That puts into context how well the players are doing and how they are handling it by being so competitive.

“It’s a credit to them. Results are always the biggest thing, but it won’t be to the detriment of the players and their development.

“Good games or bad games, I will always throw them back in because sometimes that is what you have to do at this level.

“There are lads here studying at school and when I was their age I was in England being a professional footballer.

“I’m trying to prepare a lot of them for that, so that if they do want to go on to the next level and get a move for their country or play for their country.

“These are the battles you have to overcome and there is no hiding place in elite level sport. But I think a lot of people can see we are not far away from our first win.”

And those battles are providing learnings and challenges that players such as O’Connell are rising to.

“It’s been difficult to get used to, but when you have the more experienced guys like Shane Guthrie and others in the team, it makes it a lot easier,” O’Connell said.

“The physicality didn’t surprise me but it has been the biggest step up.”

Dennehy’s boys emerging from the wilderness

And while Dennehy has heaped praise on his emerging stars at Mounthawk Park, the journey to the First Division has been a long and arduous task.

But there is a harmony in the Kingdom that should allow for League of Ireland football to thrive in a county where the GAA reigns supreme.

“The under-17s and 19s were in place and the 14s and 15s were being run by a completely separate entity,” Dennehy revealed.

“There was no club feel and to just bring it under one umbrella took a lot of work over a number of years.

“But to finally have a club environment and a place where all the teams can come in and train on the pitches beside each other is great to have.

“Hopefully there will be more players from Kerry coming through and playing in the League of Ireland, playing in the Premier League or for Ireland.

“These are things to aspire for, and why not. Kerry players were led to believe this could not happen before.

“But I was also led to believe that Kerry could never play in the senior League of Ireland.

“I will be telling the players to keep looking to achieve and strive for more and work hard. Hopefully they can use the platform they have to push themselves individually.”

The Kingdom is coming

But the club is still sinking its teeth into the demands of senior League of Ireland football.

And just like his left-back O’Connell, who is studying hard for his Leaving Cert exams this weekend, Dennehy is learning too.

“I have learned a lot,” he notes. “Even just the small details of the game and how they can change things.

“I was aware of these things as a player having played in the Premier Division for a few years.

“But I was aware of the jump that we had to make with the players we had to senior football. But they adapted really well and we are starting to look comfortable with that.”

But that goes without saying – a win would amplify the buzz around the county for the club.

The Kingdom is coming and their first scalp is not far away.