If rugby can play pro game, why can’t we?

Just last week on Second Captains Niall Quinn declared he would not advise his own son to move to an English club at 16.

If rugby can play pro game, why can’t we?

Quinn, who in his previous role as chairman at Sunderland signed many a 16-year-old Irish boy, said he would prefer if the best Irish players were more mature before they left for the UK.

This is all very well but Quinn, to be fair, recognised the problem is in getting them to stay. These boys need a viable alternative to going to the UK to pursue their goal of becoming a full-time professional footballer.

How many would turn down an apprenticeship with Sunderland to join a club in the League of Ireland as it stands today? Not too many. This is the problem.

Theoretically, the ideal alternative would be to join a full-time professional club in Ireland before leaving for the UK at a later more mature stage. Scandinavian countries employ such a policy, encouraging players to remain in their professional leagues until at least 18. This means their clubs receive better transfer money and the player is in a more mature position when he does move overseas. The problem is that today in Ireland this alternative does not exist and, what’s worse, the FAI doesn’t seem to have much interest in creating it.

Yet the IRFU has managed to employ professional rugby players in Ireland. Thus an ambitious young rugby player can dream of becoming professional, representing his country and even getting called up to the Lions without the need to leave the comfort of his family home.

The divergence with rugby exists despite the fact that each and every year Irish soccer is granted a ticket to one of the biggest annual competitions in the world, the Champions League, a competition far bigger in revenue earning capability, viewership and commercial exposure than its rugby equivalent. The money on offer in European soccer far outweighs that for European rugby. Access to European soccer should be a significant advantage to soccer clubs in Ireland, and in the long term to the national team.

Even so, Irish professional rugby is not dependent on European earnings. The IRFU formulated a plan that involved taking the revenue from the senior Irish international matches and using it to fund professional provincial teams.

So far this has proven to be a success with the retention of star players in Ireland and success in Europe for the provincial teams. The national team has undoubtedly profited from this also with improved performances, a player welfare scheme and a fuller trophy cabinet. It would be interesting to compare the amount spent by the IRFU on their provincial teams to the amount spent by the FAI on the League of Ireland.

Irish soccer and its clubs are in dire need of financial assistance, protection and an overarching plan. Currently, and in the absence of such a plan, our domestic football set-up resembles that of many African countries. African countries experience a deskilling of their domestic leagues by stronger European leagues taking players at a young age. This is a well understood phenomenon, described varyingly as the ‘Brawn-Drain’ or the ‘Foot-Drain’. It describes a cycle of under-protection of young players, the taking of young players to a foreign country and the deskilling and impoverishment of the home league.

We have one important advantage over African countries though. They have no access to European club competitions. It is time we started to exploit this advantage which we take for granted and under-utilise.

To appreciate what Irish football has access to, one only has to consider what huge English clubs across the water such as Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle and even Manchester United would currently do to have a ticket to the Champions League every year. Irish football has one such ticket. In order to exploit this properly we need full-time clubs and full-time players.

The FAI should devise a strategy to support our domestic teams to proceed in European competitions into the future. This strategy would need to involve full-time (12-month contract) professional football. The young Irish soccer player would then have the same options available to a young Irish rugby player today.

Otherwise the following question remains outstanding for the Irish footballing community; if the rugby can do it, why can’t we?

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