The Graduation ceremony for the SRFC/Ashfield College TY Programme involving the class of 2024 was held at Tallaght Stadium on Wednesday, 5th June. The event was staged with a large and interested audience present in the 1899 Suite.

The programme is a collaboration between the football club and the educational college and began in 2017 and is the first of its kind in Irish football. Back then, a small number of players attended Ashfield College in Dundrum on a daily basis with football training incorporated into the programme. Gavin Bazunu, Aaron Bolger, Alex Dunne and Dean Dillon were amongst the first young people to come through the programme. They have been followed since by a long list of students who have benefitted from what is a comprehensive curriculum designed to develop them and shape them as young people growing into adulthood. Naj Razi and Ike Orazi – both of whom are now with clubs in Europe – also came through the programme. John O’Sullivan and Cian Dillon – both of whom made their debut for the Hoops’ first team this year – and Cory O’Sullivan who made his first league start in the recent game away to Drogheda United – were among the 6th Year students who graduated at the above-mentioned ceremony at Tallaght Stadium.

We were also joined last night by former player Ike Orazi, who is continuing his education through the Ashfield online facility whilst now playing for Ligue 1 side, Stade de Reims in France. Ike transferred to Reims from Rovers in September 2023.

The Academy, and the education programme within that, is one of the five key strategic pillars of the club. At this point, a total of 50 players (boys and girls) have benefitted from the provision of education alongside their playing development through the programme. 8 have completed their Leaving Certificate within the programme with 7 more currently sitting their ‘leaving’. This amounts to 83 academic years provided across the 7 years of the partnership with Ashfield College.

We look forward to welcoming 17 new TY students to the programme for the next academic year commencing September 2024. The Academy, and the education programme within that, is one of the five key strategic pillars of the club.

Steven Gray is the Head of Education at SRFC. He says: “This is the first time we have completed a full 3-year cycle in our Education Programme. The first group of TY players (the originals) are now sitting their Leaving Cert, so we are excited to see how it goes from an education standpoint. From a football perspective, we have had Cory O’Sullivan, John O’Sullivan, Cian Dillon, Zak Reddy, Matthew Britton, and Max Kovalevskis all involved in the first team squad this season which is one metric for development. Also, we are in the early stages of forming a relationship with a 3rd level education institute, so we are excited at the addition of this. This provides a viable option for the players post leaving cert.”

Present at the Tallaght Stadium ceremony were players from the SRFC 2009 group who will form the next crop of students to participate in the programme. It was three years ago that the club converted offices at the Academy & Training base at Roadstone into a fully functioning classroom. This year 14 students completed the programme. Having the classroom at Roadstone enables the club to make the best use of the facilities there for both the educational and sporting aspects of the TY Programme. “I feel and hope there are multiple benefits. We get 35 hours per week with them. Coaches talk about ‘contact hours’ in relation to player development. We get 35 contact hours with them. And we work on many areas of people/player development. We try to affect their habits, beliefs, mentality and behaviour in all key areas, both on and off the pitch.”

It can truly be said that the students emerge from their TY programme as much more mature individuals than they were at the beginning of the educational year. “The TY programme is now in year three and is a good mixture of sport, personal development, and academics”, says Philip Curry, Principal at Ashfield College. “These boys and girls have brought the competitive edge into the classroom and after taking a while to settle have shown academic and sporting talent on and off the pitch”.

Joe Adibekov is the Course Coordinator and has worked alongside Steven Gray on a daily basis. Both mentors would likely agree that they also have learned much from their involvement in the TY Programme. Says Steven Gray: “We had the program internally and externally audited/reviewed. We got feedback from players and parents multiple times. The audit results were pretty good. The feedback was pretty good. The eye test would suggest they all improved in many areas. My thoughts – we connected as a group, got to know them as people and they grew individually because of this. We learned about the person behind the footballer persona. We learned, through them standing up and sharing, that Charles loves burgers, Leon’s favourite move is the Polar Express, ‘Macker’s’ dog’s name is Bindy, Mo’s best friend is Leonard, Ade wants to be an agent after football, Max’s best football memory is winning the double last year, the most important thing to Robyn is her family, James’ best friend is Fiachra, etc. We all got to know each other. I learned that this is arguably the most important thing in what we do – I learned this through being a mentor.”

The students, all of whom are players with SRFC, each gave a presentation on the night. Collectively, along with video clips shown on large screens, they gave a detailed description of what they undertook during the year as part of their development both on and off the pitch.

“I loved learning about the mental side of football and how it can benefit you on the pitch. We had a Rovers Mindset class and the Leadership module we did were my favourite classes. I took a lot from them, like the roles and responsibilities of a leader and how to be a good leader. Also, visualisation which I never did before but now use before games”  James Roche

“I’m so grateful to have experienced what it’s like to be in a professional football environment for a year while also having the opportunity to develop my education. TY at Shamrock Rovers has been the best experience of my life so far and I’ll forever cherish the opportunity I was given” – Matt Britton

“I’ve found learning about myself in our leadership class and our Rovers Mindset very useful in my development as a footballer and as a person. I’ve found myself using the skills I’ve learned in these classes in my everyday life” – Ade Solanke

“I have really enjoyed my Rovers TY experience. I loved coming in every day and learning something new, whether that’s in football or education terms. It’s a great programme and gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a professional footballer. I also loved going on field trips” – Amy Tierney

Shamrock Rovers Football Club is very pleased with what has been achieved with this unique programme. The vision shown seven years ago by the Board, the development of the programme and the Roadstone facility, spearheaded by Jonathan Roche and Shane Robinson, is bearing fruit at Academy level and importantly, across the club at all levels. Plans are in place to grow the programme even further.

CEO John Martin says: “The work they (Gray and Adibekov) are doing is phenomenal and is far ahead of what anyone else in the country is doing. I look forward to us building and growing the programme. The boys and girls are a credit to them and their families.”

Martin also addressed the issue of funding and gave details of how the club intends to approach this matter going forward.

“It cannot come down to the FAI alone as the association has many competing demands across all aspects of the game and the reality is that it does not currently have the funds that are needed to enable clubs such as Shamrock Rovers grow to where they want/need to be.

As it stands, the League of Ireland clubs, with some support from UEFA, cover over 90% of the costs for academy operations in Ireland and are best placed to have these discussions. The time has come for us to engage directly with the government and present a compelling business case for League of Ireland clubs and build on the success of the recent meeting between government officials and the league office representatives. We don’t seek handouts or favours; instead, we want to have open and transparent discussions to explore how football can leverage existing funding opportunities that prioritise job creation in Ireland and long-term support the national team.

For instance, can we collaborate with the Department of Education to investigate how we can fund and deliver our educational programs, or potentially access initiatives like the National Apprenticeship and Incentivisation Scheme for our young professionals? Can we liaise with the Department of Finance to review how they might treat donations to our education program or potential solutions to our extensive medical, insurance and transport costs?

By engaging directly with the government, we believe we can identify opportunities that benefit all League of Ireland clubs whilst raising awareness of the work we all do and the significant costs that we incur. We will work closely with the supportive league office to achieve this goal and make a strong case for accessing these funds for the benefit of all of Irish football”.