Neal Horgan: Net gains from U17 League

Credit where it’s due. Might Irish football be finally set to plug the gap that has dogged our game for so long?

Neal Horgan: Net gains from U17 League

The new national U17 League was officially launched on Monday by Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane and FAI High Performance director Ruud Dokter. While it comes on the back of the success of the national U19 league that was introduced in 2011, this new league promises to have a more profound impact than its predecessor.

The reason? It finally involves the FAI engaging with one of the most counterproductive features of Irish football since at least the 1960s; the ‘gap’ or divide between Irish schoolboy teams and the League of Ireland.

This gap is probably best evidenced by the often very intimate ties that many Irish schoolboy clubs enjoy with professional clubs in the UK (rather than with League of Ireland clubs).

The most obvious example over the past 20 years or so involves famous Dublin schoolboy club Home Farm FC. As most Irish football fans will be aware, Home Farm FC have a splendid history of producing players that eventually play for the Irish national team. Their list of former internationals reads like a ‘who’s-who’ of Irish football over the past 70 years and includes the likes of Johnny Carey and Liam Whelan, who starred for Manchester United in the 1940s and 50s, to Liam Brady, who moved from the club to Arsenal in 1973, and Ronnie Whelan (Junior) who moved to Liverpool in 1979.

More recently, Home Farm forged closer links with particular English clubs. Between 1995 and 1999 the club changed its name to Home Farm Everton to highlight a link-up that would allow Everton FC first choice over their players. This reaped immediate benefits for the English side in 1996 when they signed Richard Dunne from Home Farm.

Following a break with the Everton connection in the late 1990s, Home Farm also had the logo of Leeds United FC branded on its shirt for a period and it has been linked with Portsmouth FC as recently as 2009.

However, the six-part documentary ‘Premier Ambitions’ screened on Setanta Sports in 2013 showed the relationship with Everton FC was still alive and well. The documentary featured the Home Farm FC U15 team and is worthy of a watch for anyone interested in the health of Irish football. In one scene from the show, a meeting was arranged for the young players who were told attendance was crucial. At this meeting — in what looked to be a classroom — a middle-aged scout from Everton FC was introduced to the players and took centre stage — as if he was their teacher at the top of the class. He then preach a few lessons.

Lesson 1: You must stay at Home Farm FC to get to Everton FC.

The scout made it clear any players interested in a move to Everton FC should stay at Home Farm FC rather than join any other schoolboy club in Dublin. This lesson helps explain to an outsider how an Irish schoolboy club might seek to prosper locally from forging a direct link with an English club.

Lesson 2: It’s all over if you miss the boat to England at 16.The scout continued: “What you do for the next six months until the end of the season is going to determine what you for the next 20 years in football… if you don’t apply yourselves boys, then it’s your fault, but just be aware I’ll be here I’ll be watching.” The screen cuts to an image of the same scout in an Everton FC padded coach’s jacket on his tippy toes on the sidelines, trying to catch a view of the U15 matches. This short snippet captured the sober reality that is the main pathway for Irish boys to professional football over the past 60 years.

In another scene, a mother of one of the players stated how she felt the players were too immature to go to England at such an age. She would know — she explained — as she had a older son who had gone across and subsequently come home again. But even chastened by this experience, what alternative pathway did this mother have to offer her younger son?

Wait three or four years and attempt to get into a League of Ireland team and then try to get a move? Quite a long time to convince her boy to wait if an English club was already looking for him to sign at 15 and especially when her son’s own schoolboy team were bringing in scouts from England who were essentially telling him ‘Go now or it’s over.’

However, the example of Ireland and Everton star Seamus Coleman seems to counter both of the Everton scout’s lessons. Coleman developed by playing a lot of GAA and soccer in his home town Killybegs before playing two seasons of League of Ireland football for Finn Harps (on loan) and Sligo Rovers before moving to Everton at 20. His example might easily be explained away as an exception by the Everton scout, were it not for the numerous other recent examples of players going to England at a more mature age through the springboard of our national league.

Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, David Meyler, James McClean, Damien Delaney, Wesley Hoolahan are examples that spring to mind, amongst many others, of players who have very successfully used our national league as a springboard to professional football in the UK. All these players moved to the UK as adults not minors. In short, a response to the two ‘lessons’ of the Everton scout referred to above;

Answer 1: Seamus Coleman didn’t need to join Home Farm to play for Everton.

Answer 2: It certainly wasn’t all over for Coleman or any of these other players at 16.

Home Farm was the easiest example for me to use, and they are probably the most well-known, but a similar scenario can be found at many other schoolboy clubs in Dublin, Cork and around the country, where UK clubs have, to an extent, exploited the gap between Irish schoolboy teams and the League of Ireland.

This is why the new U17 league is so important. An agreement has been reached between the schoolboy clubs and National League teams in respect of compensation for players that move from the schoolboy clubs to the league clubs and then onward (for a transfer fee) to England. Of course, the potential transfer fee a British or other foreign professional team is likely to pay multiplies when the selling club is a National League club rather than a schoolboy club.More importantly, players who travel to England or elsewhere later will be more mature and experienced to deal with the change.Overall it should prove to be a ‘win-win’ situation for the player, the schoolboy club and the national league. And of course should an individual decides that he desperately needs to go to England at 16, nobody is standing in his way. However, the new U17 league can at least offer him, or his parents, a viable alternative, especially should the player wish to complete his Leaving Certificate. FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter has said: “This is an important improvement to the elite player pathway… the SSE Airtricity U17 National League will give elite players a national platform to play, and develop in Ireland. Previously, we might have lost some elite players at this age group.”

Clearly, this is a positive step in the right direction for Irish football, but it is still merely part 1 of a plan to provide a viable alternative career path for Irish footballers. Part 2 will involve a plan for the National League itself to progress towards supporting sustainable and professional clubs. In my opinion, this plan will involve the bridging of another divide that has existed in Irish football since the day of the FAI’s creation — the divide between the FAI and the IFA. But that is another day’s work. For now, let’s be thankful for the new U17 league, which kicks off in August.

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