Crosserlough's rising soccer star Ryan O'Reilly.
Crosserlough's rising soccer star Ryan O'Reilly.
It's one big thing after another right now for Crosserlough's Ryan O'Reilly.
Captain of Stoke City's Under 18 team, locking horns with familiar names from English football's top flight and on the verge of the Republic of Ireland Under 19 team, 2012 has been a big year for the boy plucked from Ballyjamesduff just 18 months ago.
Sat in the cosy confines of Stoke's state-of-the-art Clayton Wood training ground, through the window we watch Tony Pulis drill his first team squad ahead of their recent clash with Queens Park Rangers.
While the first team squad look ahead to their next game, Ryan is left rueing a spell in the treatment room.
A back injury sustained at the start of October continues to sideline the young centre half and even ended any hope of a debut for the Irish Under 19 side in their recent UEFA European Championship qualifying group in Luxembourg.
"I was named in the squad but the back injury has set me back a lot," conceded O'Reilly, who may be out until the New Year.
"It was the first time I was going away with the Under 19's. I've been with every age group before that - Under 15's, Under 16's and Under 17's but this was a bigger step and it was the European Championships.
"Missing out on that was a big thing. It was desperate."
Two wins and an impressive draw against Germany later however, and the youngster can now look forward to a possible involvement in May's Elite qualifying stage and then, perhaps, the tournament itself.
In 2011, coach Paul Doolin lead his unfancied Irish team to the semi-finals so O'Reilly is confident that qualification remains achievable. Fitness permitting, he hopes to be there too.
"I'm hoping to get called up again. That's the next big thing," says the Crover native.
"There should be a few friendlies before that but the main aim is the Championships itself."
It's easy to see how enthused the 17-year-old is about the prospect of international football. He describes lining out for the national anthem as "special" and "a great buzz."
"It's a totally different ball game," he says, comparing pulling on the green shirt of Ireland to the candy stripes of Stoke City.
That provides a neat segue into the next part of our interview, Ryan's GAA football background back in "Gaelic mad Cavan."
"I was playing football for Crosserlough. I played full forward and now I'm playing centre half!
"I've played it from Under 8s and then I took up soccer from around Under 11s. I quit GAA when I was 14 because I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I had to make a sacrifice.
"I still love Gaelic though," he stresses.
"I went to Breffni Park a few times when I was back home recently. Crosserlough were in the Minor B final, they won that so I was cheering them on. All my best mates play for them. Back a few years ago I would have been playing with them.
"It's a big change from a Cavan final to playing for Stoke City and maybe a European Championship!"
At just 17 years of age, O'Reilly still has quite some way to go in terms of reaching the build and physique of a traditional soccer centre half but he thinks the physicality of playing GAA from a young age stands him in good stead.
"It helps you, physically wise certainly. If you start soccer from a young age, you're not as physical. Whereas in Gaelic, you have boxes thrown at you and shoulders aimed at you.
"I would say it gives you an advantage but it can hurt you in a way," he continues in a cautionary tone.
"If you're playing soccer and Gaelic at a young age, it can sometimes be too much."
When interest from across the water increased, so did Ryan's determination to make it in the professional game.
GAA was the sacrificial lamb when the teenager's weekends were occupied by trips to Manchester United's Carrington academy.
"The first time I went to United was after a trial game at Oriel Park in Dundalk. I went over about 12 times in two years.
"I kept being invited back. Once United are after you, a lot of clubs come in for you," continues O'Reilly who also went to Brazil whilst on trial with Everton in 2010.
"There was a lot of interest. And I finally chose Stoke."
So why Stoke City, over clubs with more revered academies and lengthy lists of top alumni?
"It's a great club with an excellent set-up. Everyone's very friendly here and I have a good chance of making it."
"Last year, there was only an Under 18s team and a first team. There was only, for example, a few centre halves ahead of me and they were first team. This year it's harder because there are more players with the Under 21s but I'm still very young."
"At the minute, I'm playing Under 21s and you know you're coming on well if you're playing a year above you. I've come on a lot," says the ball playing centre half.
Liverpool supporter O'Reilly describes himself as a modern centre half, bearing more of a resemblance to Daniel Agger than Jamie Carragher.
"I'm a ball player, keeping it rather than hoofing it long."
This season, Stoke City are taking part in the Football Association's new Professional Development Leagues, with Under 21 and Under 18 leagues replacing the old Reserve League, as a result of the new Elite Player Performance Plans.
Alongside English football's biggest sides, the Potters hold Category One status, allowing them to enter both age groups in their respective leagues. Now a veteran of both sides, O'Reilly can see the benefit of experiencing both levels.
"Going from the Under 18s to the Under 21s is a big step up, mentally and physically.
"The sort of players you play against in the Under 21s have already played first team football or have been on loan at clubs in the Football League.
"It's a lot different from the Under 18s. There's a lot of young players in those teams this year, with the new league. Now, I'm a second year, I notice myself coming up against younger players."
For the growing defender, there's a noticeable difference this season in captaining the Under 18 team and playing in the Under 21 side.
"I was top scorer for the Under 18s until recently, I scored three goals. I don't know how to be honest!
"Last year, I got no goals at all. They all came from set pieces; two headers and a volley.
"I wouldn't say it's easier to score at that level, but you are coming up against guys your size or even smaller. It's more difficult to score against guys in the Under 21s."
Next up for O'Reilly is returning to full fitness and to club duties, with an eye on the FA Youth Cup and international dates in the New Year. In the even more immediate future, it's another return trip to Cavan for the Christmas holidays.
"I'll be home for Christmas for about 10 days or two weeks. I get home a lot anyway, twice a month.
"Last year was different. I couldn't go home much, because of homesickness.
Now that he's settled in Staffordshire and with midweek fixtures meaning there are many free weekends, Ryan is still a semi regular presence in Crosserlough.
But for the boy considered Stoke City's next big thing, he has pressing concerns the other side of the Irish Sea.
"I'll do the best I can in England. I have nothing to lose. Ireland will always be there waiting for me regardless."
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