Football youth teams have been commonplace for years, on both the club and international scene. Replacing the old ‘Reserve team’ system which had previously held sway, these teams, the ‘U21s’ and ‘U19s’ of this world, are teams which even the most casual fan has, at the bare minimum, a basic awareness of. It logically makes sense – even if 22 year olds can play for U21 teams on occasion – and people recognise this. Less clear, is the place of 3rd level teams in the overall football landscape. The Irish College and Universities (‘CU’) team , whose squad is drawn from the student body of Irish 3rd level institutions, is a fully supported FAI team, gives out ‘caps’ and represents Ireland in global competition. So why has nobody heard of it? Greg Yelverton, the current Head Coach of the CU team, believes it’s simply a matter of being “ a new team and a new concept”.
In footballing terms, with clubs and associations celebrating centenaries and other prestigious anniversaries all the time, this is undoubtedly true. A joint venture between the FAI, the College Football Association of Ireland and the Irish Universities Football Union, the team was only founded in 2015/16 with the mutual aim of improving the quality of Irish 3rd level competition and “providing a pathway” to the senior team, by unifying the previously distinct College & Universities teams and bringing them under the wing of the FAI.
Although conscious not to underestimate “the great work done in 3rd level football previously”, the CU Head Coach believes the merging of the disparate strands into a single entity has done wonders for the prominence and position of the team, particularly when the FAI “stepped in” to organise the College & Universities Football League (CUFL), part of a suite of measures aimed to increase the quality of the game at this level. “It [the merger] really highlighted the quality of third level football around the country and from there on it’s improved year on year.”
They are certainly taking things seriously. Although the public is well acquainted with the FAI’s stinginess as regards some teams – notably the tracksuits & changing in toilets debacle with the women’s senior team in 2017, Yelverton is adamant that the FAI has really “rolled in behind” the CU team. They are housed in the “FAI performance unit”, use Abbotstown as their training headquarters and the coaching staff extends to 5 individual’s (albeit part-time) which includes a goalkeeping coach and a sports analysis expert. Yelverton, who holds a UEFA Pro Coaching Licence, splits his time between his head coach role and UCC, where he is an FAI football facilitator. Everything is conducted in a professional way, with doctors linking in with the team for every match and “players are properly taken care of – there’s no half measures.”
Players between the ages of 18-21 are in a “development model”, requiring active stimuli and incrementally greater challenges, and it is exactly that which the CU team aims to provide. Challenges manifest development. They spur on new ideas and encourage players to work for extra millisecond, that extra metre, that extra bit of power that gets the ball over the line. On the other hand, inertia breeds contempt and complacency. The CU team provides another milestone for players to aim for, hit and move past. Whereas playing for your 3rd level team was good enough before, now you are being evaluated in line with all 3rd level football players in this country. Only then do you discover who has the attitude and application to succeed, to take their talent and, with determination and hard work, forge a meaningful career with it.
The players are certainly taken with the new system. Jamie Hollywood, currently at Longford Town and a CU squad regular, agrees that the “the colleges and university team has been a great experience for me and I’ve really enjoyed playing every game.”
The team competes in 2 distinct manifestations. Yelverton and his team, in conjunction with Student Sport Ireland, sends and manages a team to the biennial World University Games, as well as competing against other 3rd level international teams – including a notable win over their French counterparts in June last year – and an annual game against the Defence Forces.
Hollywood recalls his previous experience of the 2017 World University Games in Taipei with particular fondness; “Travelling as a country was a fantastic experience and international recognition is always great”. He is keen to maintain his “spot for the 2019 Games [in Naples]” but is conscious, as is his coach “that there are a lot of good young players playing in the top divisions” of Irish football and competition will be fierce.
Senior international football, is not an isolated and impermeable bubble. The ‘unders’, the CU team, even local clubs all form part of a wider pathway, to allow players, of heterogeneous background and upbringing, the best shot to succeed and to bring their abilities to bear in a green jersey. The CU team is not a ‘dressed-up formality’. These caps mean something to both the players – Hollywood describes the “chance to wear the green jersey [as] an honour and an experience I will always be grateful for” – and the FAI.
They’ve had some notable successes as well – stars born and nurtured in 3rd level football and shooting to prominence on a more senior stage. Yelverton recalls Sean McLoughlin, who recently got an U21 cap and Darragh O’Connor, now playing regularly with Cork City. These players, who excelled while with the CU team, are a shining light and a red flag to all current 3rd level players. Yelverton believes that players at or near an “elite level” should recognise the CU team as an “alternative pathway” and harbour an ambition to play for the team, target a call up and get to “put on the green jersey. It gives you more exposure and confidence. Playing internationally, against stiffer opposition, helps you for your own career”.
Indeed it is this – evidence of progression and player development – which Yelverton highlights as his key motivator. “The most rewarding thing for me is to see players that we would have worked with now playing for the top Premier Division and U21s international teams.”
The CU team is “improving” and, moreover, it is “always looking to improve”. These are indeed promising times for Irish youth football, in more than the normal ways and means. There is a sense that College and Universities concept was an untapped well of potential and that, with the right group at the top, it could run strong for years to come.