LONG READ | Tom Mohan on player ID, doing a 'Portugal', player pathways
In June, Tom will take a team eligible for next season’s MU19s to Spain for a double header against Iceland then in September it’s back to competitive football with his side heading to Wales for Round One qualifiers against Wales, Hungary and Gibraltar.
It differs to Tom’s turnaround time between his two previous campaigns. The MU19s Head Coach had to wait from November 2019 until November 2021 to sample competitive action, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But for Tom, who led a 19s team to a European Championship semi-final three years ago, that period was anything but idle. Chatting away in FAI HQ Abbotstown, Tom looks back on this season and produces a note that has two figures written on it, ‘200’ and ‘40’.
“That’s how many players we had in during assessment days, training camps and matches looking at players from Ireland, the UK and from across the continent,” said Tom.
“We player identified upwards to 200 players. Our coaching and analysis staff - which includes Mick Neville, Dermot O’ Neill, Mickey Feeney and former Ireland international Jon Walters - got around to numerous games to identify players and we left no stone unturned in the process.
“Due to lockdown and the cancelation of so much international football over an 18-month period we had to run numerous assessment days and training camps in Ireland and England. We held goalkeeping camps within these days which allowed us look at up to 40 different goalkeepers – it was tremendous hard work from all our staff. As part of this FAI scouts in Ireland and the UK, Mark O’ Toole and Frank Devine, were working hard for us and we saw 34 players capped throughout the season.”
It meant Tom and his staff knew what options were available to them as they headed to their season openers against Sweden in October. It came almost two years since Tom was last on the sideline for a match, that against Austria in 2019 where Andrew Omobamidele and Festy Ebosele, both playing a year above their age group, excelled. The Boys in Green earned two draws (2-2 and 1-1) against the Swedes in a friendly double header in Spain setting them up perfectly for the qualifiers.
The following month the 19s came through their Round One of qualification undefeated. A 3-2 win over Montenegro was followed by a 1-1 draw with Bosnia & Herzegovina and 2-0 win over hosts Bulgaria to secure qualification.
Reflecting on that, Tom said: “Much of that group had qualified for the Elite Phase at Under-17s level but Covid-19 meant that season was cut short, so like many other countries a lot of the players hadn’t played competitive international football since November 2019.
“From my position it gave me an even greater appreciation of the important work that goes on below U19s with regards to player identification and development as well as the work clubs at home and overseas have put in with their players during and post lockdown. With the work being done through the years from the Emerging Talent Programme, National Academy through to U15s, U16s, U17s and U18s it meant we were able to have a competitive group of players who were able to help us qualify.”
In December came the draw for the Elite Phase and it would be England, Portugal and Armenia in Ireland’s group with only the top placed team progressing to the finals. Regardless, it was a challenge that Tom relished.
He said: “The boys went into the games with great confidence. Big moments went against us when we played England and Portugal but it shows the confidence of the players to go toe-to-toe with those sides and have a right go at them.
“When we played Portugal, I felt we did ‘a Portugal’ on them especially in the first half. By that I mean we were dominant in possession and created a lot of chances. The performance the players put in during that first half was heart-warming and the final score was hard to take as it was not a true reflection of the game as we were in a great place been 1-0 up with 12 minutes to go prior to conceding two soft goals and got caught twice more in injury time chasing the winner. Against Armenia the players showed great patience and quality to break down a well organised Armenian side who defended with great resilience in a very low block.
“It was a great experience for the boys and I’ve seen a lot of the players grow throughout the season and most importantly I feel they’ve left this season in a better place having gained exposure, once again, to competitive international football.
“We as staff could not have asked more from the players throughout the season as they were a fantastic group to work with both on and off the pitch.
“Our defenders were courageous in and out of possession and showed great flexibility by adapting to a back three or back four when required with full backs getting forward at every opportunity whether playing as full backs or wing backs.
“There was a lot of creativity in midfield with good attacking outlets high up the pitch and this was reflected with the number of chances created and goals scored in our qualifying games (12 goals in six games).
“I was especially disappointed for our centre forward Sinclair Armstrong and goalkeeper Arlo Doherty who both suffered concussion. Sinclair received a knock to his head against England and Arlo got a blow to his head playing for his club on the day the squad met up. Both lads had been outstanding for us in the qualifiers.
“I can’t thank the players enough for their hard work and dedication as well as the many coaches who have helped them on their journey from grassroots to international football and that extends to our own U19 staff who put in amazing work throughout the season.”
Tom said that the number of young talent being called-up to Stephen Kenny’s senior team and Jim Crawford’s U21s squad has been an added incentive to perform for his players.
He said: “These lads are a very ambitious and a determined group who can see and sense the clear player pathway and opportunities through all the underage groups up to U21s and into the senior squad.
“So many of our young players have experienced great success in recent years and we were also delighted to see Ollie O’ Neill, who played in our opening game against England, go on to play a major role for the U21s in their brilliant victory over Sweden.”
Looking ahead to the games against Iceland in June, Tom added: “It’s been very beneficial for us that the U18s under Colin O’Brien had a number of friendlies this season because we have a group now who have a season of international football under their belt.
“The games against Iceland will be our 2004-group and it is the first steps of preparation for next season’s U19s qualifiers. Because of the World Cup, we have a shorter international year so we are straight into qualifiers in Wales in September.
“All going to plan we qualify and there’s the possibility of building to the next phase with games in Ireland. There’s a lot of excitement around our underage teams and it would be great to play in front of Irish fans again.”