A cluster of promising Irish talents are emerging in unison at Aston Villa; together they helped claim the NextGen title and could go on to impress in national team colours
By Ronan Murphy
July 5, 1997. Shah Alam Stadium, Malaysia. Brian Kerr's Republic of Ireland side have just come third in the Fifa World Youth Championships with wonderkid Damien Duff scoring the winner against Ghana. The winger would go on to make 100 appearances for the Irish senior side and become one of the country's greatest ever players.
Achieving success at youth level is a significant landmark in the career of any young player and can signpost a bright future in the game. So many greats first make headlines playing for underage sides, like Lionel Messi at the 2005 World Youth Championship. But what about the rest of Ireland's class of '97?
Only Glenn Crowe took to the field in a senior international; two friendlies at that. For every Robbie Keane or Richard Dunne, two of Kerr's most succesful graduates, there is a dozen like Conor Clifford; players with great promise but pegged back after being let go by a parent club. In Clifford's case, it was Chelsea.
Two weeks ago, on the banks of Lake Como, Aston Villa lifted the NextGen Series trophy with a 2-0 win over the Blues. Both goals in the final were scored by a prolific Irishman, Graham Burke, with fellow youth internationals Samir Carruthers and Jack Grealish also starring.
Villa currently have a burgeoning group of Irish youngsters on their books; Daniel Devine, Mikey Drennan and Derrick Williams are all highly regarded at Villa Park, with almost half a dozen more young Boys in Green at the club.
The scene could now be set for these players to follow the likes of Duff, or even Ciaran Clark, to greater things. Clark captained the Villa side to the Premier Academy League title six years ago and now finds himself starting for both club and country.
With the first team battling relegation from England's Premier League, manager Paul Lambert will no doubt be apprehensive about throwing this crop in at the deep end in what remains of this season. Whether Villa go down or stay up, there will be opportunities to break into the squad next year at a club which is not reluctant to deploy homegrown talent.
In that respect, there are plenty of reasons for Irish eyes to be smiling in Villa's direction even if they do end up in the second tier. Ireland under-21 manager Noel King was in attendance to watch Villa's NextGen quarter-final win over Olympiacos recently. He would have come away from that encounter with plenty of optimism.
Speaking to Goal.com, Graham Burke explained how the Irish contingent at Villa are a close community, having risen through the ranks for both club and country. "Derrick, Mikey, Jack, Daniel, Samir, all of us have represented our country from under-16s to under-21s," Burke said. "We've come up together through the different levels.
"I just made my debut for the under-21s three weeks ago against Portugal, and I think that came from doing well for Villa. Noel King came over to watch us, and you always want to impress the national manager, but club football comes first. I know if I do well at Villa, then hopefully international football will lead from that."
Seventeen-year-old wideman Grealish is being fast-tracked to the Ireland U21 setup by King having been on standby for the recent friendly with Portugal. Carruthers and Williams have already represented Ireland with distinction at that level.
With the recent rapid turnover of personnel in the Irish senior ranks, there is also a clear pathway emerging from representative groups to the full national team. Derby County's Jeff Hendrick won his first senior cap just two years after reaching the European U19 Championship semi-final in 2011. Almost all of the other squad members have already moved into the U21 squad.
Carruthers and Grealish may receive the most attention as they are both exciting attacking players, and could easily follow Hendrick's lead into the senior setup, and defender Williams is not short of potential either. A left-footed centre-back with great strength, the German-born Waterford-native was a crucial part of Ireland's U19 success and has already started to form a good partnership with Everton's Shane Duffy for the U21s.
Duffy is familiar with the senior panel, having been called up on a few occasions by Giovanni Trapattoni, and that defensive pairing could easily become the long-term successors to Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger in the Irish national team.
Golden Generation | Can Aston Villa bring forth replacements for Duff, Keane and Dunne?
Burke and Drennan scored at will in the NextGen Series, and Lambert has great faith in the latter, giving him a run-out in the Capital One Cup earlier this season. With Robbie Keane due to retire from international football in the not-too-distant future, it wouldn't be a massive surprise to see either young Villan step up to the mark.
In fact, Burke admits that Keane was a role model for him when the Ireland captain, with the teenager looking up to the striker when Keane was on loan at Villa Park last season. "The older Irish players, they do help you, and look out for you," Burke said. "You can learn a lot from them. Robbie Keane was a great inspiration when he came in last year. He plays in the same position as me, so I tried to watch what he was doing, and learn from him. He won the Euro under-18s with Ireland back in 1998, and that was just the start of his career.
"Winning the NextGen was the biggest achievement of my career, and especially scoring the two goals in the final. I think that if I keep working hard, then opportunities will come."
Indeed, if this cluster of players can build on their youth successes and make the grade at senior level, then the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia, venue of the NextGen final, might be regarded as the start of the journey for a new Duff, Keane or Dunne.