Best known as a conveyor-belt of hurling talent, Kilkenny can also boast a production line of soccer hot-shots. Aston Villa’s cat Mikey Drennan sits atop the NextGen scorers list having helped the Villans to the quarter-final stage of the elite competition.

There’s a healthy Irish contingent at Villa Park not least in the youth sides and the U19 team has qualified for the last eight of the NextGen series thanks largely to Drennan’s haul of six goals.

The competition, now in its second season, includes some of Europe’s top clubs including Barcelona, Juventus, Ajax, Borrusia Dortmund and PSG. Villa have enjoyed wins over Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and Sporting Lisbon, followed by a memorable away success over Ajax in the last 16 when Drennan scored the winner to top the current goal-scoring chart.

The Kilkenny native, who made his name with Evergreen in the Marble City, signed for Villa in the 2010-2011 season. Described by academy manager Bryan Jones as a striker who “scores goals for fun,” Drennan netted 10 times in the Barclays Premier Academy League and once for the reserves. The Irish under-age star was also named the U16 international Player of the Year in 2010.

Drennan was a key member of the St Kieran’s College team that captured the Junior All-Ireland soccer title in 2009. The famous hurling nursery was the first school outside of Dublin to win the Leinster title back in 1993. Indeed a certain Henry Shefflin grabbed the equaliser at a pulsating Buckley Park when the school next contested the provincial final four years later. Proving that the soccer production line in Ireland is no longer restricted to the capital, the Kilkenny City college finally captured the All-Ireland crown in Oriel Park, Dundalk, four years ago.

In January of this year, Drennan’s county-compatriot Seani Maguire was signed by West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce. Maguire finished top scorer last season in the Airtricity League First Division with Waterford United and agreed terms with the Premier League side in the last transfer window.

Maguire was named the Irish school’s international Player of the Year having also helped Kilkenny CBS, another hurling stronghold, to the Senior Leinster schools’ title in 2012, proving youth soccer is thriving in the South-East county.

Maguire joined Drennan on Republic of Ireland duty when Paul Doolin named the pair in his squad for last month’s friendly with the Czech Republic.
Having bagged a hattrick against Luxembourg, Drennan scored the winner against Macedonia last year to fire the U19s into the Euro elite qualifying phase which gets under way this June.

Despite the demise of Kilkenny City in the Airtricity League, there are probably record numbers of county natives currently in action in League of Ireland football with clubs such as Waterford United and Wexford Youths.

Perhaps the pioneer across channel was Michael Reddy, who made his name at Buckley Park before joining Sunderland where he was on the score-sheet against Middlesbrough in the Premier League.

Drennan is part of a growing Irish contingent at Aston Villa where apart from the senior stars such as Richard Dunne, Shay Given, and Ciaran Clark, the youth sides include Samir Carruthers, Derrick Williams, Graham Burke, Robin Dempsey, Daniel Devine and Jack Grealish.

Villa will face Olympiacos in the NextGen quarter-final at Villa Park on March 20th. The winners will qualify for the NextGen Series finals weekend, which takes place between March 29 and April 1 at the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia in Lake Como.