We need another plan

Giovanni Trapattoni, highly decorated over four decades in some of Europe’s most demanding leagues, paid the price for the national team’s poor performances with his job.

We need another plan

But the problems with the Ireland football team run deeper than Trap. Some claim a new manager is just a quick fix, a paint job to cover up the massive cracks in the structures of Irish football.

There can be no doubt: Irish football is currently experiencing a tough time.

The national team’s world ranking is at its lowest level ever at 59. While admittedly this ranking system has only existed since December 1992, there are greater reasons for concern. Irish players are not getting into the top teams in the English league anymore. Of the Irish team that played the qualifiers against Sweden and Austria, only two Shane Long of West Brom and Everton’s Seamus Coleman had finished in the top half of the Premier League last season.

On the domestic scene, marquee clubs like Cork City and Derry City have recently been expelled from the league due to financial problems, only to come back as new entities, while Monaghan United have withdrawn altogether.

Attendances remain low and most clubs, if rumours are to be believed, are sailing perilously close to the wind. From the high of full-time clubs and solid progression in European competitions from 2004 to 2010, comes the low that every Irish club was knocked out of Europe in their first encounter this year. Part-time football clubs get results like this and, unsurprisingly, the league’s co-efficient has dropped from 29th in 2010 to 43rd for 2014.

Liam Brady has already stated the national team’s problem may not solely lie with Trapattoni. Brady was probably the best player Ireland ever produced.

Historically, or at least since the 1960s, the plan regarding the Irish senior football team has been something like this

Plan A

* 1. Talented young Irish player age 12-18 is spotted playing for his local club by scout from overseas, usually from one of the top leagues in England or Scotland.

* 2. He is offered a trial with the overseas club.

* 3. He does well at the trial and either has another trial or is offered terms (which will depend on his age) to join the club.

* 4. He agrees. About the same time, though sometimes before, he is selected for one of the Irish underage national teams.

* 5. At age 16 (or even younger in some limited situations) he moves across the Irish Sea to the club, prospers and is offered a professional contract on reaching the age of 17 or 18.

* 6. He plays for one of the better teams in the UK and is exposed to top flight football.

* 7. He becomes a mainstay in the senior Irish national team.

* 8. He is joined in the Irish team by other players who followed similar paths.

* 9. They are joined by one or two players claiming nationality from the Irish diaspora to make up the Irish team.

That has been the general formula for Irish soccer for the past 50 years, but Plan A was not formulated by anyone with the best interests of Irish football at heart. In fact parts 1-5 were imposed on the Irish football community by those who wanted to take our best young players, develop and use them, but for less money than they would have had to spend before those elements were devised.

In September 2000, the British Journal of Sociology published a document by Patrick McGovern entitled The Irish brawn drain: the English League clubs and Irish footballers, 1946 -1995.

McGovern describes how in or about the 1960s English clubs began to recruit players from Ireland from a younger age. It was a masterstroke. In one move they demolished the idea of a transfer fee for Irish players and it was devastatingly simple. What young boy aged 15 or 16 could turn down the overtures of Arsenal or Manchester United?

Their parents were in an unenviable position. Give the boy a chance, with all the risk involved, or be the one who stopped your son playing for Manchester United.

The national team profited considerably from Plan A. Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Dave O’Leary, Ronnie Whelan and Denis Irwin’s careers roughly followed the pathway as set by that plan. Recently, Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and John O’Shea were examples of the continuing success of Plan A.

However, the effectiveness of it was somewhat limited until the arrival of Jack Charlton. Charlton, who was fortuitous enough to inherit some fantastic Irish footballers, made the canny decision to develop and exaggerate the Irish diaspora (part 9) to create a stronger squad. He combined this improved squad with a distinctive strategy popularly described as ‘Put them under pressure’. Success followed and all seemed better than it had ever been. Euro 88, Italia 90 and USA 94. Stuttgart, Genoa and Giants Stadium.

Why would anyone challenge a formula that produced such culturally rich moments for the Irish people during the latter period of the 20th century? Why would anyone question Plan A?

Yet this is what we must do as Plan A is failing.

There is a subtle yet significant difference between the two products of Plan A mentioned earlier. The more recent group of Duff, Dunne, Keane, Given and O’Shea, however talented and ambitious, did not play as large a part in the very top UK teams as Brady, O’Leary, Stapleton, Whelan and Irwin had. Only Duff and O’Shea have league championship medals.

Irish players are not winning as much top English silverware anymore. In fact, they are starting to fall down the leagues.

This is not down to a difference in talent or commitment between the groups. It is the result of a development outside of their control, a development likely to intensify and have an increasingly detrimental effect on Irish football into the foreseeable future — the globalisation of the English leagues.

It stems from the creation of the Premier League in 1992 in order to assume more control over its revenue-producing capabilities. Television money came flooding in, closely followed by an army of overseas players. From Irish football’s point of view, it led to a rapid decline in opportunities.

In 2007’s Meltdown Report, a study by PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor seeking to solve problems with the performance of the English national side, he wrote: “But there is more. The slight English resurgence of recent years has not come about at the expense of overseas players. Their flow into the country has not been stymied. We have more English players in the Premier League because we have less players from Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales.

“Last season, the number of Premier League players from the other home countries and the Irish Republic was a record low, as was the number of appearances they made. In other words, the English decline has been — slightly — arrested at the expense of a decline by all the other countries in the British Isles. We are in trouble and “we” is all of us — not just England but the other countries whose players have been as much a part of English football as the English.

“In short, fear is beating vision hands down. But it is doing something even worse. The fear and the short-sighted attitudes that underlie this process are denying English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh lads the chance to play at the highest level.

“Somewhere out there is a lost generation of players. Worse — most of the British and Irish lads coming through the system are effectively already lost. Worse still, many of the generation behind them — that is boys who are now 16 and under — are going to be lost if the flow of foreign boys into academies keeps increasing, as every indication says it will.”

If anything, this problem has only intensified since then. Just this month, FA chairman Greg Dyke has warned of a “frightening trend” of fewer and fewer homegrown players playing in the top flight in England. Dyke cited statistics that showed the number of English players in the starting line-ups of top-flight clubs had slumped from 69% to 32% in the last 20 years. Dyke recently set up a commission to find out why this has happened and what might be done about it.

If we look again at Plan A and evaluate its effectiveness today there is one notable problem. Part 6. We have no players in the top clubs in England. Next season we may have no England-based Irish player playing European club football.

In England they have decided to launch a commission to investigate why English players are failing to make it into top English clubs. Our position is more stark. But we’ll change the manager. That should sort it.

* Neal Horgan is a regular right-back for Cork City and a practising solicitor.

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