It’s hard to argue with statistics, and Cork City’s U17s side have registered some impressive ones so far this term. Unbeaten in 18 league games, with 15 wins and three draws to their credit, Paul Bowdren’s squad are five points clear at the top of the U17 Elite National League southern division.
The original version of this article appeared in City Edition, the club’s match night programme.
Leading the chase are UCD, who host City this weekend, as well as Waterford United and Shamrock Rovers. Having fallen at the semi-final stage of the knockout phase of the League last season, Bowdren and his management team of Brendan O’Sullivan and Alan Mooney are hoping for even better by the end of the current campaign.
“I thought the lads were fantastic (in the 5-2 win) against Shamrock Rovers (recently),” Bowdren said, speaking to City Edition. “We lost in the Cup the week before, so they bounced back brilliantly. It was a great game, there was some fantastic football played and, after conceding the two goals, we came back and reacted really well.”
That Cup defeat to St. Patrick’s Athletic (3-4) was a disappointment, but only because so much more was possible on the night. “(St Pat’s) are winning their group (by nine points), and are a very talented team,” he went on. “We played very well in the first half. We probably should have been two or three goals up and they punished us for that.
“We were a bit naive at times in our defending. But I still thought we did quite well. We have a few little things we have to work on, but it showed that we can go toe-to-toe with any of the teams. The result, even though it wasn’t what we wanted, could have gone our way if we had scored while we were on top.”
The defeat came very much against the general run of form for a side yet to succumb to any other team in the League this year and driven by the goals of their two Cians – Cian Leonard (22, plus a goal for the U19s) and Cian Murphy (15).
Bowdren continued: “We won our section last year and we’re in a very strong position this year as well. Our aim at the moment is to hopefully win the group and get a home draw for the quarter-final of the knockout stages.
“The semi-final loss in the League was disappointing last year and it’s something that myself, Brendan and Stuart (Ashton) harp on about at times – letting the players know that things can happen like that. It’s a motivation to make sure that the hurt they felt that day, that they won’t have that again.”
Aside from getting results on the pitch, the primary measure of success for Bowdren’s point of view is seeing players once under his charge progress to the first team and become regulars in the SSE Airtricity League.
“Garry Buckley (who Bowdren coached at U19 level) is considered one of the club’s senior players these days and he’s still quite young. Not everyone will make it through but the likes of John Kavanagh, Garry and Connor Ellis did. If you can get one or two through every year, it makes it worthwhile.
“We only do our bit – ultimately it’s down to the players themselves. For the three lads, it was their will and desire to get somewhere that was probably the difference at the end of the day. They want to be footballers and they want to be at Cork City. They have the ability. They listen, they learn and they take the chance when they get it. Hopefully that’ll be the case with some of the lads that are with the U17s now – we’d hope that in three or four years’ time, they’ll be doing the same.
“Alec Byrne, who is a tremendous player and who would be a huge asset to us at U17 level, has gone up full time to the U19s, and he’s shown that he’s not out of place up there either.
“From our point of view, it’s about getting them into the U19s squad so that they are competitive there. From Stephen Bermingham’s point of view, he wants to get his players training with John’s squad and eventually into the first team. It’s a pathway. Cian (Leonard) and Thomas (O’Donovan) have also had a taste of the U19s so it augurs well for them for the coming season.”
Having been involved with the club for many years at this stage, Bowdren still talks about his ‘enjoyment’ of being involved. It’s clear that he is delighted to see all players progress – be it their own self development or that important step up to the next level.
“You hear lots of coaches say their players are a great bunch of lads but these guys are genuinely, genuinely are a good bunch. They’re dedicated, they’re training all the time, they’re committed. There is no messing going on with them.
“We can see real improvement from last year too – we’re a stronger team this season. There’s still a bit to go, but I’d be happy to go to any team in the country with those lads. There’s never a guarantee with any team but they’re on the right track at the moment.”
He added: “For 90% of the supporters, their main focus is the first team. When players come along and we can say he came up from the youths, it’s always great to see one of your own doing well. We understand it’s a long process but we enjoy putting in the work and enjoying working with them all the same.
“It’s also important to see the likes of Chiedozie Ogbene getting the goal against Longford (in the senior FAI Cup). He was also in the Cup final squad last year. It’s there for the players at the end of the day if they can reach the level that’s required. What we do is try to give them the opportunity and it’s up to them to take it.”
Plans are already underway to add to the eight players who will still be eligible for the U17s competition next season. In the meantime, Bowdren and his squad will focus on the game against Ramblers and their remaining League fixtures as well as supporting their peers through a possible Uefa Youth League campaign.
“It would be great for the profile of the underage teams if the U19s get into a European competition. That’s unheard of for League of Ireland clubs. They are a fantastic unit, and there’s been great work done by Stephen and the lads. At the end of the day, it’s down to the players and if the players will respond to what the coaches do, then you have a great chance. Both the U17s and U19s are fortunate to have two great sets of players this season.”