When trying to explain to parents how they can protect their kid in this crazy football world, Stephen Finn sometimes uses the analogy of a mechanic.
Suppose that trade rather than football was the one your 16-year-old son — or daughter — had a flair and a passion for. And suppose they said that after sitting their Junior Cert they wanted to take up the apprenticeship they’d been offered.
Chances are you’d let them off — unless or until you found out it was abroad.
“There’s no way then you’d agree to it,” he says. “Yet in football we constantly let them head away. In football we assume they’ll leave the country.”
That’s partly why he’s organised an upcoming sports conference with a difference. Around this time of year that circuit is in full flow and yet as informative and stimulating as they can still be for a veteran attendee like himself, at times there’s this nagging sense that they’re just preaching to the converted.
The people who need to hear it often aren’t in the room. Sometimes because they haven’t been invited or approached to be in the room. People like parents.
“I remember listening to [Dr] Áine McNamara speak in DCU at a coaching masterclass and thinking, ‘Irish football should be here. Parents should be here. They need to hear this.’ And so it got me thinking about what else parents could do with hearing and learning about.”
And so, on Saturday, December 14, in DCU, Finn and some colleagues will hostthe Irish Football Parents Conference, to help parents of children with aspirations to play at the professional level be aware of some of the perils of such a journey. Because as McNamara, one of many impressive speakers presenting on the day, will illustrate, such a route is rocky.
“One of the most fascinating findings for me from Áine’s research is that the kids who ended up being most successful in the long run had parents who were consistent and present but not overbearing when it came to their sport.
“A considerable amount of them didn’t even know a huge amount about the sport. I had assumed if your father was a decent player you’d a better chance of being one yourself but a more important variable was allowing the kids to develop without being overly directive yourself.
"That the best parents were those who were always present but maintained a respectful distance. You don’t always have to step in with advice. Let them take the knocks. The parent who is always trying to ensure their child is always successful isn’t doing them a favour.
“I’ve seen at underage football, parents moving their kid to another club because they had been only the 12th-best player on their old club. But you might actually be better leaving him at his old club and let him evolve and move up the rankings in his own way and in his own time.
"Áine calls it the Rocky Road, and sometimes you’ve got to let them fail and fall and have those bumps because that develops resilience.”
Finn will reinforce that point with a maxim of his own: The later you get capped for Ireland, the better. A fine football journalist in a previous lifetime before throwing himself into earning qualifications in football coaching as well as psychology, he will present data showing that of the 176 kids that played for the Irish U17s from 2008 to 2013, a third of them never played for Ireland again.
Only five of the 176 went on to win a senior international cap. By 2017, a quarter of them weren’t even playing the game, having either retired or been unable to get a club. For the rest of Europe, it was only one in 11.
As a rule, we send too many players to England too soon. While the rest of Europe as a whole only had 6.8% of their U17s playing with a foreign-based club, in Ireland’s case it was 65%.
In another study he did of U21 internationals from 1988 to 2017, he found that 82% of Irish players were playing abroad, predominantly in England.
In contrast, for the rest of Europe, only 13% of all U21 caps were playing outside their native country, a total inverse of the Irish experience. (30% of Irish capped players were also reared abroad, most obviously, in England, whereas the rest of Europe only had 1.5% of its players reared in a foreign country).
And yet of those 361 Irish players capped at U21 level over that 30-year period, only 30% of them went on to be capped at senior level. For the rest of Europe, it was 57%.
And if an U21 did go on to win an Irish senior cap, they averaged just 8.3 of them.For the rest of Europe, any U21 who went on to win asenior cap usually went on to win another 11.
“What I took from that was we’re doing two things differently to the rest of Europe. We have more players reared abroad and we’re capping a much higher proportion of players playing abroad.
The lure of England is so strong, of course. For generations, that’s how it has worked here — our players go over there. But often, it’s just an illusion.
“In the case of a Troy Parrott there’s no real issue with him going away early because he’s so good, but he’s an outlier.
“With others, we’ve all seen it: A kid in your area signs for an English club and everyone is delighted for him. It looks great. But what most of the neighbours don’t know, and often unfortunately the kid and his parents don’t know, is that the club could just be signing him for someone to play with this big 17-year-old hotshot English kid they have who they hope to sell on to a big club.
"So they’re not signing the Irish kid because they think he’ll make it, they’re signing him because he’s good enough to form a competitive U17 team for their hotshot to play with. So they’re signing 20 kids that they know are never going to make it. If one or two of them go on to make the first team, that’s a good return.
“Now, for a lot of those 17 kids who don’t make it, that might be grand because they grew up a short distance from the club. But if you’ve left your country to pursue a dream that was never really real, that causes serious collateral damage. That to me is crazy. And something parents need to be aware of.”
The conference isn’t trying to get football and the FAI to change their worlds — that’s for another day, as much as a Finn would relish that day. It’s trying to help parents and kids navigate that world as it is now. But it can be done. Keep the kids here for longer — and in education for longer.
Ian Byrne, a former Irish underage international and now a coach and lecturer in DCU, will illustrate how Dundalk have two players who have completed masters and another handful with degrees.
It’s no longer ticking a box. It helps for players to be more educated. And it helps to alert parents of the pitfalls that could await their kids.
The Irish Football Parents Conference is at DCU onDecember 14. See irishfootballparentsconference.com/.