*Originally published on February 2, 2017
A couple of years ago, a boy from Ballyjamesduff popped up on the local soccer radar and the whispers around him said he could be the real deal. He was a blonde-haired wisp of a lad called Jake Doyle-Hayes.
The family are originally from the capital – Jake's Dad Jim played 'Gah' and had a few run-outs with the Dubs – but moved to Cavan a decade ago. Word reached us of a wondrous talent playing midfield for Ballyjamesduff AFC, who wear the red and black vertical stripes of AC Milan.
The club were formed in 1989 but, like the sport in general in a county where Gaelic has been king, they have really hit their stride in the last few years, turning out some good players like Ryan O'Reilly, the U19 international left-sided centre-back who spent a few seasons at Stoke before returning home and, last year, playing senior football for Crosserlough.
It takes an exceptional talent to play at international level but even at those heights, where the air is thinner, Jake breathes comfortably, those who know these things reckon. When he was 13, despite being small in stature, he was picked for the Irish U15 side for a tour to Qatar. I knew a couple of his young club team-mates and they told me he was astonishing, the best player they'd seen on the circuit.
On the day he turned 16, having been courted by several top English clubs, he signed for Aston Villa. Two years on, he's captain of their U18s.
Around the time he was first capped, a coach told me, deadly serious, that he had “never said this before” but this boy will definitely make it as a professional. Another told me later that Tim Sherwood, the former Villa first team manager, was overheard saying Jake was the best player in Villa's academy.
But the road is long and a baby-faced boy from 'Ballyduff' could have his head turned in a big city like Birmingham. We've all heard the story. It takes uncommon focus, self-belief and persistence to last the course in what can be a cruel business.
Clubs know full well the game is rigged in favour of the house too, the numbers stacked, but teenagers and their parents roll the dice. Why wouldn't they, when their son is gifted enough and they're being sold a dream.
But cavaet emptor; let the buyer beware. Think of it as a game show. It's almost as if the absolute best soccer players' brilliance is rewarded with a chance to gamble for the big prize - but with it comes greater risk, maybe. Leave school, move country, go for broke? Stay at home and maybe miss your shot? Stick or twist? It's tricky.
Some of them roll a six, though. Could this lad, a dead ball specialist, be the one who does? I called him a couple of weeks ago to catch up.
We arranged to chat on a Friday evening; as I knew from meeting him a couple of years back when he won this newspaper's Young Sports Star award, Jake is a gentleman through and through. He's the sort of grounded, modest young fellow that you'd quickly find yourself rooting for.
Villa had enjoyed a big win in the Youth Cup two days beforehand, beating Blackburn Rovers on penalties at Ewood Park.Our man, all the anoraks on the fans' forums agreed, was magnificent.
I asked him about it but he didn't dwell on his own performance in the slightest. On the day I spoke to him, he had spent the morning training with the first team. Were they short on numbers or was he doing so well that he warranted a call-up? Bit of both, he said.
There are six nationalities in the U18 squad, with one other Irish player, James Finnerty from Meath – a not-that-distant relation, incidentally, of the Gunner Brady clan from Mullahoran – also a starter.
Jake lives in digs with one other English player. He doesn't mind it, he told me. He likes to keep busy but focused, too. The club want their players fresh and not tired for training but not idle to the point of restlessness, either.
Which is why, I suppose, he was talking to the local paper from Cavan on a Friday at 8 O'Clock when other boys his age could have been double-checking their reflection in the mirror before hitting the town.
“It's alright,” he said, “as long as I'm doing stuff, getting out and about. If you're just sitting round doing nothing and you've too much time to think, then you're thinking about home and thinking about what your friends are doing and stuff like that but once you're out doing stuff, you're grand.
“The first time I came over I was a bit homesick but since the start of this season I'm fine, I'm grand – I'm keeping myself busy.”
That sounds like the right policy. A lot of players who cross the water can become distracted or frustrated and eventually fall out of love with the game. The break-ups are often messy – the sense of rejection is hard to shake off. And not often are there second acts in the sporting lives of these young soccer stars.
This Saturday, in the next round, the Villa U18s play Broxbourne Borough, a minow swimming against the tide so far who play in the ninth division of the league and whose unlikely run this far has already attracted significant attention. But Villa are in no mood to facilitate the fairytale.
“I think we have a team good enough to win it. United are gone, Arsenal are gone, it's knock-out football so anything can happen,” Jake said.
That last line could just as easily apply to the game itself. Indeed it can – but the feeling is that this kid has a better chance than most. We wish him well...