There’s naturally been significant focus on the role clubs play in the development of young footballers but it should never be forgotten the impact schools have on their lives and careers.
Talent isn’t enough to be successful in sport. That ability needs to be nurtured and channeled in the right way.
A young person’s sporting dream can be fueled or shattered in school.
The number of footballers who have emerged from Ashfield High School is simply mind-blowing so it was little surprise when Glentoran took the decision to reconnect with the community and help develop a full-time football academy for young people aged between 16 and 18.
The school’s roll of honour includes as astonishing number of Irish League players and others who have earned international recognition such as Sammy McIlroy, Bryan Hamilton, Martin Harvey, Sammy McMillan, Ronnie Briggs, David McCreery, Stuart Elliott, Andy Kirk and Warren Feeney.
Feeney has fond memories of his football education at Ashfield before leaving for Leeds United on a journey that brought him 46 Northern Ireland caps.
The 41-year-old has returned to the school to offer students advice and encouragement and his son, current Ashfield pupil George, is one to watch.
“George, who is 14, is in the Glentoran Academy and I enjoy watching him,” says Warren who is now in charge of National League South side Welling United. “He’s a striker with an eye for goal. I’m probably his biggest critic but I let him play too. You have to let them enjoy it and develop at their own pace. Ashfield is a very welcoming football school and it keeps his feet on the ground.
“If you are good enough and have the right attitude, hunger and desire you can enjoy a good career.
“George has been at ClubNI with Andy Waterworth, Kris Lindsay and Rory Hale and they are making the kids better prepared for challenges ahead.
“When I was young I wasn’t coached. I read a story about Rivaldo running 15 kilometers to training every day and back with no shoes just to be play football. Compare that mentality to the kids today who have it all.”
Ashfield’s football production line earns the school top marks and Warren looks back on his schooldays with great affection.
“The school's record speaks for itself,” adds Warren whose wife Katy is headmistress at Banbridge High School.
“East Belfast is a good catchment area and there is a huge interest in football in the working class areas. I played for the school and loved it. It was all I wanted to do from a young age. The memories come flooding back when you see the goalposts painted on the walls.
“There was a great rivalry between the schools.
“I was in the Northern Ireland schoolboy squads but didn’t always play and it was a test of your character and resilience, you have to deal with setbacks in football. Glentoran is a fantastic club, who are going well now and they now have a strong link with Ashfield and the future is bright for both.”
John McKeag is a legend of Northern Ireland schools’ football. The former Orangefield pupil was on the Boys’ Model teaching staff from 1974 to 2006.
He was also coach and manager of the Northern Ireland schoolboys side, 16 years as coach since 1981 and four years as manager. Given the Model’s football pedigree it’s surprising that former Northern Ireland international and current Linfield coach George McCartney, who went to Sunderland in 1998, is the only pupil from the school to thrive in the professional game.
And for the north Belfast school’s coaches, former Northern Ireland and Manchester United hero Norman Whiteside is the one that got away.
John, who was captain of Stranmillis College and also played for Brantwood, says: “School matches were on a Saturday morning, we picked up the kids at City Hall and took them up to North Road and the great Strandtown pitches, a hub of schools’ football.
“There was a teachers’ strike which stopped Saturday football and clubs like St Andrews and Shankill grew out of this. Kids went off to play for club sides on a Saturday and schools’ matches moved to during the week.
“I was at the Model for 34 years and we had 24 schoolboy internationals but George (McCartney) was the only one to become a professional. Many lads came home and many went on to play in the Irish League.
“We had Norman’s (Whiteside) older brother Ken and younger one Hugh but Norman didn’t come to us because there was no first year football. He went to Cairnmartin and naturally they won everything.
“Marty Haire, the architect of the new school, played centre half and had to mark Norman (laughs). He scored goals and people came out to watch him. In one final against Lisnagarvey the crowd was big and he scored at least four goals that day. He even struck the ball from the half way line and it rattled the crossbar.”
In contrast to the fierce pride he feels at McCartney’s career which included 34 senior international caps, John’s uplifting memories are tinged with a little sadness concerning one promising prospect at the school.
“The best player I saw at the Model was Robert Skillen,” added John. “He just gave up the game. He was captain of our teams and the international schoolboy sides but when he came home from Rangers he came to me and said: ‘John, I’m giving this up. It’s not for me.’ He just lost interest. He didn’t want the life of a professional footballer.” The 69-year-old was manager when Northern Ireland lifted the Victory Shield for the first time in the 2000-01 camapign with the squad which included Steven Davis from Ballymena Academy and Maghera High School student Dean Shiels.
“What a player and man Steven Davis was, even then,” says John. “He was on his way to Aston Villa and a quiet lad but he’s played at such a high level throughout his career. Sammy Morrow, who went to Ipswich, was in that team and Chris Kingsberry.”
Linfield manager David Healy, Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer, is famous for his memorable goals in astonishing victories over England and Spain but John knows that the Killyleagh man’s giantkilling acts started much earlier.
“David Healy and Aaron Hughes played in one of the better sides,” he adds. “In some of the best results we ever had, we went to Holland and beat them on their own patch.
“We got on the coach and went down to France where Gerard Houllier was opening a pitch in his home town. We beat France 2-1 on that pitch and Healy scored the two goals from crosses.
“The French football dignitaries had the fancy food and champagne out to mark the occasion and we ruined it for them!
“Out of a squad of 16 one or two would normally go on to be full internationals but David was special and we always knew Aaron would have a great career, he could play anywhere.
“Jim (Magilton) was at St Mary’s CBS and he went to Liverpool. I had his brother Michael at Carrick. Thomas Ingram from the Model captained the schools’ side and it was a good team with Jim, Michael O’Neill and Philip ‘Tippy’ Gray – three schoolboys who went on to become full internationals. Jim was a superb passer of the ball but I still give him stick over his lack of pace!”
As for the finest young player he saw, John names another player Northern Ireland fans will be very familiar with.
“The best young player I saw was Michael Hughes who went to St Louis, Ballymena,” says John who is enjoying his retirement in Hillsborough.
“He was outstanding. I took him to Carrick when he was 16 and he ended up being named Young Player of the Year.
“I heard he scored a wonder goal at Crusaders one night. His team were defending a corner, Michael, who was then 16, picked the ball up at the 18 yard line, ran the whole length of the pitch and scored. Even the Crusaders boys applauded.
“Even when you watched him for Northern Ireland, he very rarely gave the ball away. He was so cute, knowing when to release the ball and when a defender dived in Michael was away. They couldn’t get the ball off him.
“I watched the senior Northern Ireland team in action one time and I counted 10 schoolboys internationals in one team.”
In his travels John found himself having regular chats with Manchester United scout Bob Bishop whose eyes lit up when he saw a talented but skinny Lisnasharragh High School pupil called Geroge Best.
“Bob knew he would see the best players at North Road,” says John. “The question Bob always asked was ‘is he well behaved at school?’ He wouldn’t send a bad boy to Manchester United because it wasn’t worth it. Clubs aren’t going to pump money into the development of a player who is going to be a pain in the backside. Bob asked for permission to talk to the boys, he did everything the right way.”
In 2018 Northern Ireland’s Under-16s won the Victory Shield for only the second time in the competition’s 73-year history.
Even in the darker days of the Troubles, the dedication and professionalism of the school staff to help young men and women become the best versions of themselves shone through.
Well played to them all.