A plethora of former players, amongst them Niall Quinn, Kevin Kilbane and Steven Reid, have this week issued damning forecasts for Irish football unless urgent action is implemented at the youngest ages of elite players.
Captain Robbie Keane waded in on Monday, insisting Ireland doesn’t possess the football culture, nor players, to operate anything except a “Plan A” long-ball tactic at senior level.
The criticism must have made those in the FAI’s technical department at Abbotstown bristle. But it was coming, sooner or later.
For all the investment pumped into their Emerging Talent Programme (ETP), estimated at €5m since inception seven years ago, the FAI are struggling to make inroads at providing an environment for elite kids to learn the basics of the game. Cracking the political minefield in the schoolboys sector remains the biggest challenge, something former Holland defender Wim Koevermans realised by the time he exited his contract early as the FAI’s first High Performance Director (HPD) last year.
The role, originally established in 2008, is arguably the most important FAI position beyond the senior manager. Foremost in the job is overseeing all international squads, bar Giovanni Trapattoni’s seniors, and Koevermans unquestionably fared well on this front during his time by introducing a unified style for the teams based on the continental model of 4-3-3. In other words, a Plan B.
Arsenal’s Academy guru Liam Brady had insisted the new recruit required diplomatic powers to be effective — and the local candidates, U21 manager Noel King and former Arsenal defender John Devine, seemed ideal to bring that trait to the table.
Instead, the FAI went Dutch again by appointing Ruud Dokter from August 1, while the political landscape blighting the game continues to fester, with EGMs scheduled over the next week by both the FAI and their affiliate, the Schoolboys FAI (SFAI), on the topic of distances youngsters are allowed travel to join a football team.
We’d love to know the innermost thoughts of Dokter on the mission he faces, and it appears he’s willing to enlighten us, but the FAI have refused all interview requests. This is due to “ongoing issues” within the association, said their spokesperson.
We can expect Dokter’s mantra to follow that of Koevermans in transporting from Holland the principle on ridding the competitive element from games involving children beneath the age of 12, coupled with giving the association a direct coaching role with elite talent thereafter.
“Having the best players playing with the best from around Ireland is the only way forward,” observed Koevermans before his departure. “Players enter our ETP at 14 but a lot more can be done before then.”
Much of Koevermans’ philosophy was supported by an FAI-commissioned Genesis report of the underage sector. Although that study began the same year Koevermans arrived, he walked out the door of Abbotstown in June 2012 bemused that this very blueprint remained on the shelf.
While broad agreement prevails on the change from 11-a-side to smaller-sided format for all players aged 12 and under, moving into line with the Dutch and Spanish systems of 4 v 4, 7 v 7 and 9 v 9 that English FA stakeholders recently voted to embrace, other stumbling blocks emerged.
The official line states that the FAI’s underage committee are still pouring over its contents yet the reality suggests there’s major work to convince the SFAI of its fitness for purpose. After all, it is the SFAI — not the parent body — who represent the player pool in excess of 100,000. Without their buy-in, getting the sea change across the line is nigh on impossible.
Certainly the FAI want their own specialists having a more hands-on role in developing the next generation and the ongoing stand-off in putting that policy into the rule-book has caused frustration.
Niall Harrison, head of the ETP, took his Ireland U15 squad last December to Doha, where they beat Juventus and drew against the local Qatar professional side. The upbeat appraisal posted from the trip was tempered by what he considers the flawed nature of the current system.
He said: “Contact hours with the players is a real problem for us. We just don’t get enough time with them.”
The delayed reaction in trying to keep pace with our European peers got all too much for another FAI staff member recently. “It’s the neighbour syndrome. Now that the English FA is changing, this might shame our SFAI committees into letting the professionals and the people who care about the game get on with implementing the changes needed,” vented Denis Hynes, Development Officer for Co Clare.
Dokter will evidently need the diplomacy of a Leinster House politician to assuage the blazer-clad doubters, yet there’s some spinning of plates to do too in delivering his plan amid the new financial reality.
Three times the term budget cropped up in the job specification for the vacancy first advertised last year.
Having last year lost its sponsor, Damien O’Brien’s Iconic Limited, the ETP were facing reduced resources before this season’s cost-cutting measures impacted regional coaching centres. Soldering matters on the pitch with those in the boardroom has never come easy in Ireland. Whatever the differences between respective parties — evidently they are plentiful — a common purpose is needed for football to flourish. Moreover, the future wellbeing of the game — beyond Trap and his successor — demands it.