'The league is getting better... As Irish people, we have a tendency to underrate it'

'the league is getting better... as irish people, we have a tendency to underrate it'

Ollie O’Neill pictured before an Ireland U21s game.

MORE SO than ever, the League of Ireland is a young person’s domain.

Statistically, the average player age has dropped dramatically in recent seasons.

And increasingly, players are leaving Britain to try their luck across the water, whether on permanent deals or on loan, as is the case with Ollie O’Neill.

The Ireland U21 international is highly thought of at Fulham. He was winner of the 2020/21 ‘Scholar of the Year’ Award at the club and regularly captained the U23s side before temporarily moving in search of regular senior football.

On his move to Derry ahead of the 2023 campaign, he says: “There were a few bits in England. I had a situation with my ankle where I was out over the transfer deadline so that put a stop to a few of those things. Then from that stage, it was very straightforward. It’s an attractive place to come and play football in terms of the manager and the squad and how they look to play. It all suited me, so I was very happy to go along.”

Thus far, it has gone quite well, as O’Neill has featured in all six games, scoring once, for the side who are currently second in the Premier Division table.


So how does his first year as a senior player compare to U23s football?

“Probably the tempo is a bit chaotic, partly because the league here is a little bit like that and then also the first four or five games of the season are quite hectic anyway, with teams coming flying out of the trap. That’s probably the biggest thing. It’s not even necessarily quicker football, it’s just a little bit more frenetic. I suppose you add in crowds and things like that and it ramps things up a little bit.”

O’Neill grew up in London, qualifying to represent Ireland through his grandparents, who are from Galway and Waterford.

The youngster is gearing up for another Ireland U21 campaign, starting with Sunday’s friendly with Iceland in Turner’s Cross (kick-off: 4pm, live on LOITV).

He already established himself as an important squad member in the previous set of qualifiers, most notably scoring a dramatic last-gasp winner at home to Sweden, keeping Jim Crawford’s side’s qualification hopes on course as a consequence.

He hopes the new group can go one better than their predecessors, who became the first Irish U21s side to reach the playoffs, before cruelly bowing out on penalties against Israel.

Owing to the Ireland U21 links, he knew several Derry players past and present — Colm Whelan, Brandon Kavanagh, Brian Maher, Ronan Boyce, and Joe Hodge — and consequently, made a couple of phone calls to ask their thoughts before committing to the move.

“We are probably at a stage where we are not that satisfied with it,” he says of Derry’s start to the league campaign. “We feel we should be a bit better off. There are a couple of points that we dropped at home in the last few weeks that we’re unhappy with. But I suppose given where we are at as a squad, in terms of injuries and things like that, to get to this international break unbeaten and feeling like we have a few more levels to go up is probably a good enough place to be. We can kick on after this.”

And more generally, O’Neill’s impressions of the League of Ireland have been positive.

“I was having this conversation a couple of days ago among the boys. I think the league is getting better. Sometimes as Irish people, we have a tendency to underrate it. Maybe over the past 10 or 15 years that perception has stuck. But if you look at the league, there are players in there with real quality, especially in the top tier. I think there’s that.

“And probably academy football in England is at a point where players need to start playing senior football and this is a route where they can do it and get quickly snapped up. Clubs are probably looking to push players out on loan a bit younger than they might have done otherwise. So probably between them it’s maybe become a more attractive place to go and play. It’s probably different for Irish players. I know what I’m getting into. But you probably [will be] seeing more academy boys who don’t have links to Ireland coming over the next few years.”

Fulham also have been encouraged by what they’ve seen, with their staff watching O’Neill regularly, either on Wyscout or in the flesh.

“They think it’s good for me to go and play senior football. They are happy with Derry being a club that’s challenging for the league and that’s playing a good style of football. It ticks those boxes, where maybe not every club would. I think they are very happy for me to go and try to do well and play X amount of games.”

All of which will help as O’Neill and co bid to end the long wait for an Irish U21 side to reach a first-ever major tournament, with the 45th anniversary of the team’s first match just having passed.

“Irish youth football is at a really good point in terms of the 17s, 19s, and 21s over the last five or 10 years, with players coming through,” O’Neill adds. “It definitely feels like, in terms of quality of players, we are going in the right direction. If we could get over that line of qualifying, it would be great.”

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