Some of those young players who were named as Best In Class by the experts have wasted little time in the three-and-a-half years since they made their mark.
Of the XI footballers selected by UEFA’s technical staff as the overall team of the tournament at the U-19 Euro finals in Armenia in 2019, four have gone on to play for Spain’s senior side (and Fabio Vieira has yet to win a senior cap with Portugal but is an important player for a title-chasing Arsenal this season while senior caps await the two French representatives).
Ireland’s entrant on that best XI list has been treading water more than making waves, as Jonathan Afolabi is now 23 but has yet to start a top-flight game at club level and is way, way down the pecking order with his international team.
But after a three-year spell spent in cold storage with Celtic, and then a promising start back home in Ireland with Bohemians which was ruined last year by injury after just one start, the striker says his ambitions and goals remain the same.
“That dream, playing for Ireland, will always be there for me,” says Afolabi, taking a break from an intense pre-season training programme with Bohs ahead of the 2023 season.
“I've put on that green shirt since I was a kid, playing up an age group for the U-19s, going to the Euro finals with the U19s, playing for the U21s. It will always be there for me to try and do that and I wouldn't sell myself short, I have played for Stephen Kenny before with the U-21s and he knows what I am capable of, it's up to me to show it. Everyone knows I have the ability, I just need to show that.
“That’s why this season is such a big year for me with Bohemians. I'm 23 now and I have a lot of time to make up for, trying to get back to the levels I was at, to show what I can do. I think everyone knows what I can do, it's a matter of showcasing it for everyone.”
The former St Joseph’s Boys man impressed for that Ireland side at the U-19 Euro finals in 2019 as Tom Mohan’s outfit reached the last four (though Afolabi missed the semi-final loss to Portugal due to suspension), even though he was a free agent, having been released by Southampton before departure.
“Spain had six players in the team of the tournament like Fernan Torres. They had all these lads from clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, and I was the only player with ‘unattached’ beside their name,” he laughs.
Hot property in the summer of 2019, Afolabi opted for a move to Celtic, high hopes of making the most of his three-year deal, but that was ill-fated and despite four loan spells in Scotland’s lower leagues, he got nowhere near the first team.
“After two years I think I knew I wasn't going to make the first team, I had planned to get into the first team, that's why I went there but there are very high expectations at a club like Celtic, they expect to win every game and you need to be at the top of your level to even have a sniff,” he says, one of many young Irish players (Luca Connell, Lee O’Connor) who had youthful progress blocked at Celtic
“I read that Celtic was bad for a lot of young Irish players, us not breaking through but there are two sides to it, if the players don't perform, they have no reason to put you into the first team. We had different pathways and we're making our way now in different ways.
“I take responsibility for stuff I could have done better, been more professional, I didn't do anything wrong as such but there were steps I needed to take to improve, if I had taken all of my opportunities it could have been a different story for me at Celtic, you have to be ready when it happens.”
“I can’t say it was three wasted years, I learned the levels you need to be at, how professional you need to be, what hard work you need to put that Celtic shirt,” added Afolabi, happy to see close friend and fellow Dubliner Bosun Lawal make his debut for the Bhoys last month.
Keith Long, familiar with Afolabi from the days at nursery club Joey’s, took Afolabi to Bohs. He was upping his fitness after three sub appearances and made the most of his first start by scoring in an FAI Cup tie against Lucan United, but didn’t see out that game due to injury and didn’t play again, while Long was sacked four days later.
As for Bohs’ prospects for the new season, Afolabi adds: “Everyone is fired up, new staff and new players, it should be a good season for us. We are still working on stuff but we know the way we will play, with the crop we have, we have no excuses for not being in and around the top, we have to aim for Europe.”