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Former Chelsea youth captain looking to rediscover his love of the game at Dundalk FC

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Conor Clifford’s journey since winning the FA Youth Cup in 2009-10 has been anything but straightforward.

Aston Villa v Chelsea - FA Youth Cup Final 1st Leg Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup-winning team of 2009-10 were destined for great things. We believed as we always believe in these things. Now, you might know where this narrative is heading, but in fairness, the vast majority of Chelsea’s starting lineup in that two-legged final have gone on to have a decent career*. (Certainly when compared with the kids from our opponents Aston Villa.) There’s a reason the narrative is starting shift towards “football factory” rather than football career-killing.

The Chelsea youth, led by coach Dermot Drummy were captained by a young Irishman named Conor Clifford, a small, classy midfielder with excellent passing and vision, part of the early wave of talent attempting to change modern history in the Chelsea Academy. Clifford joined as a 16-year-old from the Republic of Ireland and worked his way steadily up the age groups.

“The best time of my life, I loved it there. I had a good upbringing playing with some of the best players in the world. I liked the environment, the people I was around.”

Clifford, as many others before and after him, did not make it at Chelsea. He went out on loan five times, came back five times, and was eventually part of the great cull of January 2013, one of five players released early from their contracts and allowed to join other clubs.

“At Chelsea, there's no room for you when you get past reserve stage. There's just so many players, so the next step if you're not in or around the first team, is to go out on loan. There were forty-something players out. You go out, you get called back and then you get shipped out again.”

-Conor Clifford; source: Irish Independent

In his interview with the Irish Independent’s Daniel McDonnell, Clifford talks about the path and the decisions that had taken him over the subsequent four years from Chelsea to Leicester to Southend to non-league football and now, after growing completely disillusioned with life in English professional football, back to Ireland.

It’s a sad story of misfortune, bad luck, and regret, but it’s also one that’s turning into a more hopeful one. Earlier this week, Conor signed on with Dundalk FC, Champions of Ireland and Europa League participants, looking to rediscover the love of the game and finally fulfilling his long-ago promise. Best of luck to him!

* So, here’s the rundown of that Youth Cup-winning team, now all in their mid-20s:
GK: Sam Walker — currently with League Two Colchester United (been then either on loan or otherwise since 2012)
D: Billy Clifford — lost in the wilderness for a while, now back with Drummy at Crawley Town of League Two (no relation to Conor)
D: Rohan Ince — currently surplus to requirements at Brighton for whom he’s made over 80 appearances since 2013
D: Jeffrey Bruma — back-to-back titles with PSV before a transfer to Wolfsburg this summer. Capped 20+ times by the Netherlands.
D: Aziz Deen-Conteh — plying his trade in Georgia (the country, not the US state)
M: Conor Clifford — “I just can't wait for it all to get started. To prove to myself and to other people that I can still do it."
M: Jacopo Sala — many-time Italy youth international, currently the starting right back (when not injured) at Sampdoria
M: Aliu Djaló — also at Crawley Town
M: Gökhan Töre — at West Ham, on loan from Besiktas, the kid known for his dribbling skill has been ruled out for the rest of the season after a knee operation
M: Josh McEachran — everyone’s favorite Joshie is at Brentford in the Championship and will look to exact his revenge on Chelsea next weekend in the FA Cup 4th round
F: Marko Mitrović — the big man recently joined Danish Superliga side SønderjyskE

Subs: Milan Lalkovič (at League Two Portsmouth), George Saville (on loan at Millwall from Wolves), Anton Rodgers (Brendan Jr. is a regular at Swindon Town of League One), Ben Sampayo (out of football?), Aldi Haxhia (no idea)