By Ryan Bailey
There may be serious question marks hanging over the structure and organisation of the Irish domestic league but there is no doubt that the League of Ireland continues to provide exciting young players with a chance to showcase their talent as well as gaining a rich footballing education.
You don't have to look beyond the international squad to emphasise the fact that the Airtricity League acts as an academy for future stars to put themselves in the shop window. Stephen Ward, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and James McClean are just some of the current internationals who were scouted plying their trade in the Airtricity League before securing deals in England.
Paul Corry is the latest in a long line of League of Ireland graduates to make the switch after he completed his long awaited "dream move" to Championship side Sheffield Wednesday in August.
|PAUL CORRY | SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
The 21-year-old admitted it took time to get settled into life as a professional footballer away from home but after making an impressive league debut against Leeds United on front of the Sky Sports cameras, Corry has made the Steel City his home and is now looking forward to the challenges ahead.
The Dubliner is just four months into his initial three-year contract at Wednesday and after featuring for the Owls' reserve and youth teams at first, the stylish midfielder has secured a place in Dave Jones' first-team squad as a result of some eye-catching displays.
What many people don't seem to know about the former Student is that he twice turned down the opportunity to sign for Burnley, instead opting to remain at home to complete his education on and off the pitch. This sacrifice, at an age when players would give anything for the chance to move abroad, conveyed that there is more to life than football for Corry.
He was smart in planning for the future, a tactic which many young footballers tend to ignore in search of their dreams. Corry, at least, now has something to fall back on if things go pear-shaped in England, something which seldom occurs in the hardships of professional sport.
The Ireland youth international has come a long way in a short space of time and admits he often has to pinch himself but he is all too aware of the part the league and UCD played in getting him to where he is now. "It's been crazy to be honest; I have to think twice about where I am when I play in some of the away grounds. I've been to St Mary's, Molineux, Ewood Park and Selhurst Park already and it's surreal playing in front of massive crowds in these huge stadiums," he explained.
After playing nearly 100 times in the Airtricity League over the past two seasons, Corry feels that the Irish domestic game is in a period of transition but admits the standard is on the rise every year. "I think the league is trying to find its feet at the moment as the age profile has lowered and we are now seeing more young players emerging. I don't think people realise how high the standard actually is," he said. The Castleknock-born midfielder agrees that it needs people to get up off their couches and go watch the matches, which will lead to an improvement in facilities.
A 2012 season of mixed fortunes demonstrated that the League of Ireland remains at a crossroads but the entertainment and quality on offer is just as enthralling as many other top leagues around the world. The number of ex-League of Ireland players now succeeding cross-channel is as high as ever with countless graduates from the league making a name for themselves in England and Scotland and Corry feels the league is heading in the right direction.
"The quality back home has improved as when I first started there were a lot of veteran experienced professionals around at the likes of Bohemians and [Shamrock] Rovers. The quality has definitely improved with more young players now emerging," Corry said.
Corry is currently living in an apartment just a stone's throw away from the club's training ground and agrees that mixing with experienced and talented team-mates day in day out has undoubtedly made him a better player already.
"Training with top class players has already brought me on a lot. I learn from them every day and also training everyday helps improve your touch, fitness and sharpness," he said.
He went onto explain the evident differences between his old life and his existence as a professional footballer in ultra-competitive England. "The speed of the game is a lot quicker over here in that you don't get as much time or as many touches on the ball," he admitted. "It is crucial that you know what you are going to do with the ball before you receive it. Secondly players are physically a lot stronger as well as tackles being firmer."
The stylish midfielder has already represented his country at underage level but now that he's plying his trade on a much bigger stage, Corry admits he dreams of pulling on that green jersey in the future. "I'm no different to anyone else and I would love to play for my country. It's not something that I am focusing on at present as I want to concentrate on cementing a place down here but it’s definitely a big aspiration."
Less than six months ago, Paul Corry was training part-time with the Students and despite his sudden rise to stardom, he is taking one step at a time.
"To be paid to do something you love is a privilege and something that should not be forgotten quickly, so I don't think anything for granted but I just hope I can continue improving to become the best player I can and with that I have no doubt that more appearances and good times will follow."
Corry concluded that the league which brought about his success remains very close to his heart.
"I still watch the scores every Friday and tune into Monday Night Soccer on the RTE player. My family still travel out to the Bowl and whenever I'm home, I try to follow UCD wherever they're playing."