No magic pill but Dokter says youth key to Ireland recovery

Ah good, the doctor will see us now. That would be Ruud Dokter, the puntastic but hitherto enigmatic FAI High Performance Director who has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight as an assistant to Noel King and as Ray Houghton’s fellow headhunter in the search for a new Ireland manager.

We’re warned he is here to talk to us mainly about youth development but, bold as brass, we seize the opportunity of the Dutchman’s first appearance in front of the Irish media to ask if, at this stage, he’s met with many candidates for the Big Job.

“I’ve met them all,” comes the unexpectedly forthright reply, at which our collective ear pricks up and we all push forward and shove our microphones right under his nose.

“I have seen games,” he continues.

Sorry? What games? “Oh, I thought you meant the 16s and 17s,” he comes back, at which point it becomes all too clear to us that there’s been a bit of a communication breakdown. In fairness to the good Dokter, he sees the funny side of it and even offers us a few morsels to make our shot in the dark feel vaguely worthwhile.

“There was a lot of interest in this position which is good,” he says. “Everyone wants to coach Ireland. Yes, we have spoken to some people. And Ray, of course. But that is all I can say.”

Of course, we don’t give up that easily. Is there a timescale in place for the appointment, we persist?

“We will come back before Christmas. We are in the middle of the process of talking to people.” And then the zinger — by any chance have you been speaking Dutch with any of the people you’ve interviewed? Ruud Dokter rewards our ingenuity with a smile. “Smart question,” he replies. “No answer.”

He does add, however, that the new man will be expected to engage with the High Performance Director and the underage scene in general. But top-down won’t be enough to change the fortunes of Irish football — of crucial importance to Ruud Dokter is bottom-up.

“The key challenge in underage football is about developing, it’s not about results,” says the 58-year-old. “For the players it is, players play the game to win. But let’s just develop the players. And in order to develop, you need a common philosophy of how do we play, what style to play, what kind of shape and how do we develop our players and coaches.

“I hear all the time, ‘we don’t have technical players’. We do, I’ve seen technical players, but we need creative players and also players who can make good decisions in a game, and that’s why coaches should be focusing on allowing the children to make mistakes. It’s very important because in that way they will develop their creativity. That’s what we have to develop.”

Dokter said he would be happy to meet with former Irish international John Devine, who has been busy putting flesh on similar ideas in his role as Coaching Director with the South Dublin Football League.

“I have an open mind, I will speak to him, yes. Underage football is a joint responsibility for the association and the clubs. Everyone who is involved in football should have a joint responsibility. If you go from that point of view, you always meet each other.

“But it’s a long-term project,” he continues. “I was lucky, you know, to start back in the 80s with Rinus Michels in developing the Dutch system. It’s always a long-term project but you have to start somewhere. It’s about a common philosophy. That’s the key in developing. You have good players but the key is getting everyone on the same page doing the same thing.”

Is it feasible to import a template from the Netherlands, Germany or Belgium or is there a need to take account of Irish footballing characteristics?

“You can’t copy a style,” he says. “You can’t copy Barcelona, you can’t copy whatever. But there are certain principles in youth football. If you go to school you have the same principles whether you go to school in Switzerland or Germany. It’s the same in youth football.

“It’s not about me saying ‘I am from Holland and this is what you have to do’. That would be nonsense. No, you cannot copy it but you can take the good parts. The Irish are known across Europe for the direct game, the passion for chasing the ball. You have to keep that but the game has evolved and we have to adapt to that too.

“What is the continental game how should we play and how should it be developed? That’s the key and takes time. There is so much work to be done but I have met so many good people in this country and there are so many opportunities. There is also a great desire for further development.

“But if you want to improve football you have to start at underage. Period.”

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