IT is over 500 days since the West Cork Schoolboys League last played a competitive SFAI Kennedy Cup tie but preparations are already underway for the 2021 tournament.
Every summer, the cream of schoolboys’ inter-league talent converges on the University of Limerick for a week-long tournament that attracts scouts from the top Premier League and European clubs.
The SFAI Kennedy Cup remains the pinnacle of every schoolboy footballer’s dreams. It is a tournament where, after a year’s build-up, 32 squads room, train and compete for one of the five – Cup, Bowl, Plate, Shield and Trophy – trophies on offer.
A difficult year for schoolboys’ inter-league players, coaches and supporters saw the cancellation of the 2020 Kennedy Cup due to Covid-19. Naturally, that decision came as little surprise but still represented a huge disappointment for U14 squads in every county of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland too.
Rumours have been circulating that the 2020 version may yet be rescheduled sometime in the new year.
A recent SFAI statement saying that they would ‘examine all avenues that might allow the 2020 version go ahead at an alternative date should the health of the nation improve’ offered hope to beleaguered schoolboys league managers and players.
That remains a long shot however, considering the logistics of hosting a 32-team tournament during a global pandemic as well as UL’s availability anytime in the next six months.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on their annual trip to Limerick, the West Cork Schoolboys League has been busy over the past month. The league’s Emerging Talent Programme (ETP) has continued to train their U11, U12, U13 and (U14) Kennedy Cup squads whilst adhering to Covid-19 restrictions.
That has proven challenging as FAI underage training guidelines insist on small pods of players interacting with one another and all sessions being non-contact.
Even so, the mid-term break saw an increase in activity as the 2021 WCSL Kennedy Cup squad and their new coaching team trained at the Clonakilty Soccer Club’s Ballyvackey pitch and the Clonakilty Sports Complex over a four-day period.
Lorne Edmeade (Clonakilty) is the 2021 West Cork U14 Kennedy Cup manager and will be assisted by a new coaching team comprising of Stephen O’Keefe (Richmond), Áine O’Donovan (Bandon), Sean Spenser (Skibbereen AFC) and Ross Smith (Bandon).
During the mid-term, West Cork’s management took the opportunity to bring in additional coaches for specific sessions including Cork City Women FC’s senior manager Ronan Collins. It proved a hugely profitable week for the 30-player Kennedy Cup squad who benefitted from a host of experienced coaches and intensive sessions.
It is worth noting that few, if any, Kennedy Cup squads are training at this time of the year. Granted, there are no guarantees that the 2021 edition of the SFAI’s Kennedy Cup will go ahead but West Cork are remaining positive and have stepped up their preparations accordingly.
DJ Curtin is Head of the West Cork Schoolboys League ETP and has overseen the region’s up-and-coming talent’s safe return to training. Curtin admits that, for all their adherence to Covid regulations, missing out on competitive inter-league matches has been one of the biggest drawbacks during the global pandemic.
‘Non-contact drills are fine in training and we have extra coaches this year to allow us split the sessions into smaller groups or pods,’ the WCSL ETP Co-Ordinator explained.
‘There have been no issues. Any parents who asked that their sons or daughters step back from training during Covid have also been accommodated and we have absolutely no problem with those requests.
‘Our coaches and players are used to the safety routines by now and have abided by all the Covid regulations so it has just been a case of getting on with things really. Obviously, playing games is the best training of all and we haven’t been able to do that.
‘The players need to learn how to tackle, they need to learn how to protect the ball (in games). That side of things has made player development a little more difficult. In terms of training, it is quite easy to do those things in non-contact drills.’
Each year West Cork competes in Munster against their Cork, Clare, Kerry, South Tipperary, North Tipperary, Waterford and (three) Limerick equivalents at U12, U13, U14 and U15 levels. But it is unlikely that any of the annual SFAI Subway provincial and national inter-league championships will take place this year or in early 2021.
‘We really don’t know what is going to happen when it comes to this year’s Subway Championships,’ Curtin admitted.
‘I am assuming the National Cups involving schoolboys’ clubs (rather than regional inter-leagues) will take priority. When you look at it, the U13 inter-league should have started last September.
‘Now there are rumours that no League of Ireland U13 competitions will take place next year and that they will be replaced by a new U14 League of Ireland instead. If that is the case, then our U13 SFAI inter-league championships would be able to go ahead next year.
‘Look, we are going to have to wait and see what restrictions are still in place and how the fight against Covid goes.
‘We are presuming things will get back to normal a few weeks before Christmas. From West Cork’s point of view, we will just have to see how the Christmas period goes. That will determine what happens in January.’
So, for the time being at least, the West Cork Schoolboys League has taken their first positive steps in preparing for next year’s Kennedy Cup. Even though there are no guarantees that the tournament will go ahead, a successful mid-term training camp coupled with the addition of a fresh coaching set-up bodes well.
Add in a talented 30-player squad drawn from every WCSL club and there is every reason to look forward to next year’s annual tournament at the University of Limerick, if it goes ahead, with confidence.