Don’t put Irish talent in a box

There has been robust discussion around this week’s series on Irish football and the things being done to restore our supply of top talent. It even spilled beyond these shores, from the UK to USA and Sweden to South Africa, with many of the issues raised striking a universal chord.

Don’t put Irish talent in a box

I stayed out of it, stoically facilitating, while a selection of wise football people gave their opinions. But you hardly expected to be spared entirely my views. Here are 11 of what we must now call ‘takeaways’ from this week’s dialogue.

My language was a disgrace

I am as beguiled as anyone by the dream machine.

You hear prodigy striker Troy Parrott — described, like so many, as our ‘hottest prospect in 20 years’ — has been snapped up by Spurs, and want to believe he is Robbie incarnate.

You watch Sean Brennan play for Ireland underage, dancing in the hole, dropping the shoulder, hear Southampton have swooped on Belvedere, and stand by for the new Wes to be crafted.

And could Nenagh’s Barry Coffey — now Celtic’s — give us another Tipp senior international so soon after Longy?

It’s natural to want supply to run reliably. For the dream machine to crank smoothly. You crave efficiencies. But Uefa A Licence coach Mark O’Sullivan pointed out the coarseness of the language dotting this week’s features.

“Supply, product, rebuilding, pyramid. These words are Newtonian/Taylorism, a mechanistic perspective and assembly line mentality. Change a culture, change the language?”

Too many areas in life are dogged by pursuit of synergies. Talent rarely develops in a straight line. As Kieran Shannon’s fine work elsewhere today on the Relative Age Effect shows, attempts to process talent are often flawed. By boxing up our young talent for quality-control testing, it could be we are selling it short. Maybe the best thing we can do is let talent grow.

New ideas can’t be delayed by old revenue streams

More ugly language, but there are genuine fears that many grassroots football clubs cannot survive the laying of new pathways in the Irish game.

The new underage National Leagues are beginning to attract the best to League of Ireland clubs earlier, cutting schoolboy clubs out of the compensation they’ve relied on when those players eventually try their luck in England.

But for how much longer will that business model prove durable anyway, with so few Irish youngsters making it to the top of the UK ‘pyramid’?

The clubs argue they have the best track record ‘producing’ players and cutting them out is a risk. But, ultimately, it is people and facilities and ideas that will educate footballers, not established brand names.

All credit to the FAI. OK, some credit

Might be a good time to drop down to hell for an ice-skate now the FAI has been accused of favouring League of Ireland clubs.

Ruud Dokter’s work has not been politically easy, but it is a bold step to building some kind of indigenous career path for an Irish youngster. And might even deepen the roots a League of Ireland club has in its community.

The FAI remains a suspicious organisation, if not paranoid. Kevin O’Neill, author of Where Have All The Irish Gone, likened securing an interview with John Delaney to working an audience with the president of the US.

But then, they have much to be suspicious of. Too many times, the instinct is to doubt a venture simply because the FAI is behind it, or anywhere near it.

Too many of the problems in Irish football are down to refusal to listen to others, based on historic differences. You could say too many people acting like the president of the US.

Money will probably still shout loudest

Michael Calvin’s book on the UK academy system, No Hunger in Paradise, estimates the annual budget of an average Premier League Category Two academy at £1.5m (€1.7m). More than the yearly sum flushing around the entire League of Ireland youth development scene each year, claims one director of football performance at a leading schoolboy club.

I can’t verify the figures but we certainly can’t match the £6m Calvin claims some English clubs spend on their academies yearly, or the £2m he says Man City have spent on youth recruitment in London alone.

We will continue to rely heavily on goodwill and volunteers to patch together an education for our players. At least until Sheikh Mansour’s ‘glocalisation’ project reaches us and chooses Dublin, Limerick, Galway, or Cork as the next ‘City’.

Do we have an entitlement mentality?

Let’s face it, we had a good innings, coasting on neighbourly convenience. And now the rest of the world is grabbing its share of the magical Premier League wealth redistribution facility, transferring soiled dictator and oligarch riches into the pockets of poor families in neat 100-grand-a-week chunks.

Is 16 Premier League footballers actually a fair shake for a place our size? Denmark have nine, Nigeria seven, Scotland 14.

After all, we’ve not produced many NBA players in our time, have we, despite a sporadically vibrant — and currently resurgent — hoops scene?

Let’s hear it for the boys of summer

“Far too long watching kids trying to play in terrible conditions which don’t allow for any skills,” wrote one club chairman.

Dokter’s orders to switch to summer soccer has been regarded in many quarters as a declaration of war. A war the GAA is hot favourite to win, on all known form, when the sports square up in the summer of 2020.

But then, as so many from both sides of that divide point out, hurling and Gaelic are now year-round sports anyway. Hopefully, everyone can get along and the summer sod will be too firm to dig trenches.

Girls walk the pathways too

Yes, this week’s features focused excessively on boys. In defence, the context was the Danish calamity and, in contrast, the Irish women are doing fine at the moment. But we’ll come back to them. An U17 women’s league is due next year, though there remains the sense that, with the women’s game, it’s the lack of a viable career, rather than career path, that’s the chief issue.

There’s still a place for dreamers

There is growing disquiet about the UK academy system and its lack of regard for thousands of shattered childhood dreams. We might be building an equivalent, but as Neal Horgan pointed out, at least we won’t displace youngsters while demoralising them.

There will always, too, be a place for the dream. When we see young Tyreke Wilson train with Pep Guardiola’s first team and Caoimhin Kelleher join the Liverpool matchday warm-up, you only hope somebody has them compiling dossiers.

And if they must come home in a few years, you’d hope they would cherish a rare experience rather than consider themselves failures. And that we would continue to help them grow their talent, in their own time.

We have given up on the street footballer

He is talked off in the past tense now, by everybody. There is wistful acceptance we can never get kids to go out and kick a ball again just for fun. Could there be something in our productisation of the game that brought us here?

The all-seeing eyes of a child

Kevin O’Neill brought his seven-year-old son to the Austria game at the Aviva, the lad’s first international. After five minutes, the boy turned, puzzled, to his father, and asked: “Why do we keep giving them the ball?”

Whatever our national team does, we are teaching kids the opposite. When they watch their heroes, it must be difficult for them to have conviction in what they’ve been shown.

A parent wrote of another son, an eight-year-old, who is among 50 attending the U9 academy at a large schoolboy club. Each week the best 25 kids are taken by the head coaches, given close attention, while the rest, including this lad, are left for parents to watch. They aren’t invited to extra sessions or brought to blitzes, which they then hear about from more advanced pals at school.

One of the established inequalities of the supposed football meritocracy is that talent encouraged will grow stronger.

This lad loves the game but this week he sadly told his mother he is terrible and wants to quit. Not something for the game to be proud of.

The game still has much to be proud of

You do get a sense there are a hundred disputes and standoffs going on throughout Irish football. But also thousands who love the game and just want the best for it. Within schools, schoolboy clubs, League of Ireland clubs, within the FAI.

Many of them never reached the very top of the ‘pyramid’ themselves but the game should be proud to have ‘produced’ them.

Season’s greetings.

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