Young hopefuls try to catch the eye at the Friendship Cup
DDSL host some of Europe’s biggest clubs and brightest prospects
Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Ballis in action against Ajax’s Julian Rijkhoff. All the talk prior to the final was about the latter a 13-year-old striker. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
There is an irresistible urge at events like the Friendship Cup to try to spot the stars of tomorrow and everyone, you soon realise, is at it.
As the final day of the Dublin and District Schoolboy League’s invitation tournament kicked off on a sunny Sunday morning out in Abbotstown all the talk was about Ajax striker Julian Rijkhoff, a 13 year-old who, like many of the other kids participating in this six-team event, could comfortably pass for three or fours years older than he is.
The teenager dazzled through his side’s opening games but, having scored the only goal when the two sides met on Saturday, Bayern Munich barely allowed him a kick in the title decider and the German club’s Salih Sen ended up being named as the player of the tournament.
Whether he, or another of the team’s stand out talents, Louis Richter, or the scorer of the their two goals in the final, Grayson Dettoni or Michael Ballack’s young son Jordi, ever play for the Bundesliga champions’ first team is anybody’s guess. Time will tell but they have a hell of a journey ahead of them if they are ever to get to that level.
Few players who feature in events like this navigate it entirely successfully but very few who “make it” do so without playing in quite a few tournaments like this along the way.
“We look to do maybe four or a five a year,” says Andy Ross, coach of the Under-14s at Chelsea who travelled over to Dublin to see the group that he will be taking charge of next season. “Any more than that is a bit of a distraction.”
So much of the edge has been taken out of underage football in recent years through rule changes intended to allow young players to develop different aspects of their game, and personalities, that Ross sees tournaments like this, played out on pristine pitches in front of small crowds all over Europe, as an opportunity to foster a “winning mentality”.
Chelsea, as it happen, did poorly this time out but Ross, a 35-year-old former trainee with the club himself, explains that because the English clubs work to school rather the calendar year their players are often that bit younger when they come away.
“There have been quite a few positives,” he says cheerily, “but even the fact they are playing against kids who are bigger and stronger than them is good for them; they have to get used to the fact that that is sometimes going to be the case.”
Liverpool, who they play in their final game, have a similar mix of ages in their group and their goalkeeper, Joe Mason, seems tiny by comparison with some of the players around him but he still ultimately voted by the participating coaches as the best keeper to have taken part in the event, which was organised to mark the 75th of the DDSL, the league where countless senior internationals started their careers.
All would be well used to match schedules being affected by the weather but the problem here was an unusual one with games having to be shortened and spaced out more than originally intended because of the heat and the size of the pitches – all intended to replicate the dimensions of the Aviva’s.
The sunshine also seemed to contribute to slightly poorer than hoped for crowds with many, the organisers reckoned, having opted for the beach rather coming to watch the football.
They missed some good games and remarkable individual talent. Some of the kids look at times as though they could hold their own now at senior level but then when moments of brilliance are followed by rather basic mistakes, you remember that these are still kids who, are all their natural ability, have years ahead of learning the game.
All are being given the best chance possible to reach the top, says Maximilian Knauer, 29 year-old manager of Bayern’s victorious side.
“It’s a tough and hard way but all that we can do is to work really hard to help them achieve their dream,” he says as the kids he coaches celebrate their win around him.
“The new academy is unbelievable, you can from it see how important the youth is for a club like Bayern Munich. It has made a huge investment – €70 million or €80 million for the campus – but the price of senior players is getting crazy so if you make one player per year then you make that back”.
For DDSL chairman Paddy Dempsey and the league itself the aims are slightly more low key and immediate with an Inter League final against Cork on the horizon in a couple of weeks time and the hugely competitive Kennedy Cup to come for this group next year.
There are bigger considerations too, he acknowledges however, as he suggests the tournament may well become an annual event.
“It’s great to set a sense of where our lads are compared to the lads in the professional academies and the evidence from the weekend is that they are not too far off.
“If they want to sign them after that, it puts our kids in the shop window but we tell the kids to go out and enjoy it, it’s not all about winning.”
Nah, it’s a longer game than that.