Where are the players: Rebuilding the supply of talent in Irish football

The World Cup play-off defeat by Denmark cast Irish football into another period of introspection. Where are the players? 

Where are the players: Rebuilding the supply of talent in Irish football

Just 16 Irishmen in Premier League squads, a new low, and none with the top clubs. Our most technical footballer 35 and playing in the Championship.

Our talisman, our sportsperson of the year, regularly found on the West Brom bench. Grumbles over our playing style, but also acceptance of our limitations. Where are the street footballers, the kids playing in the parks?

The FAI are rebuilding player pathways using the League of Ireland, and everyone accepts that process will be slow. But is it the right way to go?

Schoolboy clubs feel threatened. Finances are tight. The political timebomb that is summer soccer is about to explode. Larry Ryan talked to people from all sides of Irish football to canvass opinion on our seemingly broken supply lines.

‘It’s a very bleak situation. It’s scary’

THE LEGEND:

Liam Brady Former head of the Arsenal Academy

Liam Brady would have loved to preside over another greening of North London, as took place in the 1970s when he, David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton arrived from Dublin to take central roles in an Arsenal team that once featured seven Irish players from north and south.

But it never happened in his 17-year reign as academy boss. By the end, the influx of hopefuls had dried to a trickle. “Going back to when I was in charge of Arsenal and had people scouting for me in Ireland, there were very few boys that they thought were of the standard to come to a club like Arsenal. That’s a worry, in my opinion. It’s a completely bleak situation generally. There is no John O’Shea, there is no Richard Dunne, there is no Robbie Keane, no Damien Duff. That’s scary. Players who can play at the highest level, We haven’t got them any more.

“It’s not a numbers game. We have thousands of kids playing football in Cork and Dublin and around the country. But it’s not happening for whatever reason.

Liam Brady
Liam Brady

“John Delaney has made two appointments, two Dutchmen, Wim Koevermans and Ruud Dokter, but the people I talk to are not optimistic that it is going to happen. The last player I had over that made it through was Anthony Stokes. That’s going back more than 12 years.”

One of those hopefuls who made it as far as the Arsenal youth team but no further, Limerick FC’s Shane Tracy, found an uneven playing field, as he told Kevin O’Neill in Where Have All the Irish Gone?, a new book examining the stalled supply of Irish players.

“What did I learn about Irish players and their ability to compete in England? Well Irish players have the same level of talent as the English youngsters. But the coaching systems in Ireland are way behind. That’s not having a go at Irish coaches but the facilities and resources in England are so much better. The young English players are training and playing with better players and getting proper coaching from a young age.

“That’s really what we miss in Ireland and our younger players, once they get to England, are playing a massive game of catch-up.”

Brady says it is taken into account, at a Premier League academy, that an Irish kid may not have been exposed to as much football as a local youngster. “You’ve got to look beyond that. You’re looking at the player’s ability, his football intelligence and then you weigh up the fact that he’s not been in an academy, that he maybe hasn’t had the training regularly.

“But we do need to do something to make sure the players at 14, 15 are not behind the lads in England and they know the game and know the skills of the game. I told it years ago to people in the FAI, that you’ve got to identify these kids a bit younger. Get them into development centres.”

The FAI will argue the Emerging Talent Programme does that, assembling the best kids, from 11, for weekly sessions. And the League of Ireland-based Player Pathway aims to concentrate the best talent together younger.

But politics, conflict and self-preservation dog Irish football and make progress slow. “My take on it is we have a guy who can put it right, Brian Kerr, and he’s being overlooked for reasons that are nothing to do with youth development,” Brady says.

“You’ve got a guy who was really passionate about our youngsters. He won U16 and U18 European Championships (Ireland’s only major international trophies), and yet there’s no place for him in the FAI, which I find staggering.

Brian Kerr
Brian Kerr

“I’m not a friend of Brian Kerr’s, we know each other, we say hello, but I’m not a pal of his. I’m just thinking about what he’s done for underage football. He created a situation where teams were very proud to play for their country, created a great environment for kids, and prepared them tactically.

“But the supply has gone wrong. And Brian has the personality and strength of character to go into the schoolboy clubs and sort out what needs to be sorted out.

“And if he had the power of the FAI behind him to make decisions for the good of the Irish game, then people would have to go along with it.

“I don’t think the Dutch experiment is going to work. I think it’s got to go deeper than that. And we’ve got to find out why, with so many kids playing soccer, we just don’t find the standard of player we once had.”

Crucial to have clear pathway to top of pyramid

THE MAN IN CHARGE:

Ruud Dokter, FAI High-Performance Director

In October there was a pivotal moment in the evolution of Irish football, though it didn’t grab many headlines in the days after Ireland had beaten Wales in Cardiff.

Jason Donohue named a Republic of Ireland U15 squad for games against Poland in which all but four players were affiliated to League of Ireland clubs — and that quartet belonged to St Kevin’s Boys, the Dublin schoolboy club which has been included in the U15 National League (somewhat controversially, in the eyes of other schoolboy sides).

Just a year earlier, an Ireland U15 teamsheet featured clubs such as Belvedere, Cherry Orchard, College Corinthians, Nenagh AFC, Lakewood, Gweedore Celtic.

Now some schoolboy clubs sniff about political selections. “Word is that players would have to join a League of Ireland club to be selected for their country,” one schoolboy club spokesperson said. But that suggestion was strongly dismissed by the FAI.

Ruud Dokter
Ruud Dokter

Scouts throng the U15 games. Players can sign professionally in England at 16. The best usually do. That is the traditional way in Irish football. Schoolboy club to England, perhaps League of Ireland later if you don’t make the grade.

The stars of previous U15 sides, some of whom have since graduated to Colin O’Brien’s impressive U17s, have mostly made the switch cross-channel. It remains to be seen if the latest crop stay on the pathway the FAI are plotting.

Ruud Dokter, the FAI High Performance Director, says the squad makeup is an indicator the FAI’s strategic plan is working.

“It is working very well, and we are only at the early phase of the U15 League, with the recent completion of a first inaugural season. There is a big appetite for change.

“Part of the whole approach to the Player Pathway has been to get the very best young players in the country playing against each other, all of the time. This increases the level of competition and also aids their development at a younger age — which you will see developed further with the introduction of the U13 league in March 2019.

“It is also a demonstration to these kids, and their parents, that to perform at the best underage level there is no necessity to go to England to develop when the structures which can lead them to the professional game are in place at home,” said Dokter.

“It is crucial to have a clear pathway to the top of the pyramid and League of Ireland clubs are in the best position to provide that.

“This model is best practice across Europe. All countries are very different in terms of structures, numbers, culture and playing style. However there is one consistency — they all have a similar underage academy structures.

“Look where we were 10 years ago. Players around the country had to go to Dublin to be challenged.”

Richie Ryan, now in the MLS with Miami FC, talks about the weekly drives from Tipperary to play with Belvedere in the capital.

“Now we have established an elite pathway with National Leagues at U19, U17 and U15 levels, with the U13s to come,” Dokter adds. “The success of this can be measured at European level with Cork City and UCD competing in the UEFA Youth League.

“We have seen already evidence in the international U17 team that reached the quarter-final of the UEFA European U17 Championship finals in Croatia. Ten players in Colin O’Brien’s squad were attached to SSE Airtricity League clubs.

“In recent times, more than 35 different players have featured for the Republic of Ireland at either U21, U19 or U17 level having been attached to SSE Airtricity League clubs.

“We are also putting much emphasis on the development of the coaches. We have redesigned the coaching pathway, introduced new courses for coaches who work with elite players.”

It is a persuasive, logical argument that many in Irish football are on board with, but can League of Ireland clubs afford it?

Cork City taking on Dundalk in the League of Ireland
Cork City taking on Dundalk in the League of Ireland

“League of Ireland clubs have taken the responsibility for elite underage football and they have embraced it. The FAI will continue to support the clubs, which receive travel grants from the Association, and receive UEFA funding for youth development.”

However, the arrival of the U13 league terrifies traditional schoolboys clubs, with the prospect of losing players at 11. The training fees earned for sending players to England keep clubs afloat. And without schoolboy clubs, who gives young footballers of all abilities a game until the League of Ireland is ready to pluck the best?

“No club is pushed out of elite youth development,” argues Dokter. “I have always acknowledged the great work schoolboy clubs do and have done. However, I am looking at the bigger picture. I am looking at what is the best structure for Irish football and what is best for developing elite players countrywide.

“We encourage clubs to arrange partnerships. St Joseph’s Boys are working with Bray Wanderers. St Patrick’s Athletic have links with Crumlin United, Belvedere and Cherry Orchard. Dundalk has a relationship with Malahide United, while Shamrock Rovers work with Corduff FC. It was also recently announced that Bohemians and St Kevin’s Boys have partnered together.

“There is Cork City’s partnerships with the Cork Schoolboy League U14 and U16 teams. It is vital to collaborate in developing players.”

But collaboration has not always been achievable in Irish football.

‘What record has any League of Ireland club got with developing young players?’

THE SCHOOLBOY CLUBS:

Terry O’Donovan, Co-ordinator at College Corinthians academy, and Vincent Butler, director of football affairs at Belvedere FC

Belvedere Boys produced Wes Hoolahan. David Meyler came through the College Corinthians ranks. The clubs have nourished some of our current hottest prospects too. Belvedere recently sent Troy Parrott to Tottenham and Sean Brennan to Southampton. Adam Idah left Corinthinans for Norwich City and is breaking scoring records for Ireland underage sides.

Their bona fides are sound. So is it wise to cut them out of player development, as some suggest is happening?

Adam Idah
Adam Idah

Belvedere’s Vincent Butler is stark on the repercussions.

“We survive on the training compensation we get for the players who go to English clubs. The compensation relates to the season of the player’s 12th birthday. So if the U13 league starts, all the best 11- and 12-year-olds will be gone and we won’t be entitled to any compensation.

“We have heavy costs. Our base is north-inner city Dublin. There’s no place to build or buy. We rent our grounds, top facilities.

“Every year, our costs might be, say, €120,000. We might be able to raise €40,000. Every year, we transfer money from our savings account. We might have to pay €70,000 to clear the overdraft and maybe get in around that from compensation fees from English clubs.

“But if that dries up, and it will, in a few years our savings will be down to nothing. We won’t go into debt because that would revolve around personal guarantees, your house. So the club would pick up our tents and fade away.

“And we have a proven pathway. We have 223 different players who have had international caps for Ireland, from U15 to senior.

“We have 30 players on average every year playing on League of Ireland first team squads. We have 26 players abroad on contracts. That’s a pathway.

“Pat’s, Bohs, Rovers, Shels; they’ve all had schoolboy sections long before we were formed in 1971. If you add all the international players they have produced, between the four of them, they wouldn’t match us.”

As Liam Brady puts it, “what track record has any League of Ireland club got with developing young players, none whatsoever..

“Shamrock Rovers are doing very good work at youth level, but none of the other League of Ireland clubs in Dublin are. Why should a club like Belvedere or Cherry Orchard be compelled to let their players go?”

Terry O’Donovan of College Corinthians is ready to see pros and cons.

“It could work out. I can see 100% why the FAI are doing it. Standards have risen. The Finlands, Austrias, they all have professional academies associated with professional clubs. You can’t just pull fellas from local clubs and expect that you can compete against these teams.

“The Dublin Schoolboys league — the best league in the country — went over to play Everton last year with their U13s. Everton had to put out a team a year younger to make it a fair match. The English academies are so strong. The Irish kids are competing against players from all over the world. Plus you see England are getting success at U17 and U19 level. Full of big, strong, powerful players.

“So the FAI had a dilemma. And this is the solution they dreamt up. The principle is right, but money talks. If the FAI had money to structure it properly, put proper coaches in place, it would have a much better chance.

“But finance is a problem. Can we afford to run U15 National Leagues, U13 leagues? The League of Ireland clubs can’t really afford it. But it’s being forced on them. Will it work, I don’t know. Time will tell.

“Look at Cobh Ramblers, a great club. They will have to field an U13 team in 18 months. Take a team to Dublin every second week, it’s hard. How are they going to do it?”

Corinthians lost four players to Cork City’s U15 team last summer.

“If you’re looking after players from six or seven years of age and suddenly they are gone, it’s obviously a disappointment. You’ll probably find teams break up. If you lose your best four players that might tempt other lads who are good at hurling or football. They may drift. You may lose coaches. There is a negative effect.

“Our view is we would like players to play at a higher level. If a lad can do better for himself, that’s great. If a young lad comes out of it and goes to England at 20 or 21, like Seanie Maguire etc. they are probably better off for it. The question is, will they come through it.

“In theory, the young fellas are playing at a higher standard. Better coaches, better facilities? A lot of that is questionable. I don’t know if Cork City have better facilities than we have. But I’d rather see them stay here than going across to England because their chances these days are almost zilch. It’s a one in 10,000 chance. They could spend three years over with an Ipswich or whatever, end up coming back at 18 or 19 and no Leaving Cert, nothing whatever.”

Butler has fears too about dropping 11-year-old kids into an environment where they’ll be asked to sink or swim, “I think it’s far too young. A lot of the League of Ireland clubs won’t have the backup services of the English clubs, who take them in at that age, psychologists etc.”

There is also the step from small-sided games at schoolboy level into an 11-a-side National League.

“They play non-competitive soccer — four, five, seven, nine-a-side up to U12 at local level,” points out O’Donovan. “The small-sided stuff is very good for the kids. We have no problem with it. But now you’re talking about at the age of 12 putting them into a competitive League of Ireland. There seems to be a gap there somewhere.”

And then there is the other political timebomb about to detonate across Irish football.

The FAI has instructed all schoolboy leagues to introduce a ‘summer soccer’ March to October season — with a break in July and August — by 2020. Many leagues are not in favour, while experiments in Dublin this season have had a mixed reception.

“It gives you better pitches, better training facilities. But you are competing headlong against the GAA,” O’Donovan says.

“That’s there anyway. A premier team of ours recently were in a final. Their game clashed with a Cork U14 hurling game in Dublin. Four of our players were on both. Two went and two stayed. The coach, who felt let down, decided this wasn’t for him any more. He quit.

“Now we would be well used to that. It’s a fact of life. That’s what happens in Cork.

“But it shows you the difficulty. If you’re trying to bring through the best players for the national team, straight away you have that competition for players with hurling, football and rugby. They are all looking in the same pool of players.

“The League of Ireland coming down to U13 will force young lads to make choices at a younger age. Do I play soccer or go to the hurling development squad. It’s going to bring that pressure on kids earlier.

“In England, if the kid is good, he’s going playing soccer with Everton’s academy or whatever. That’s it. No competing sports. We’re not used to that here.

“It’s hard for a young lad to decide whether to play soccer or play for the Barr’s or whoever.”

TOMORROW: The League of Ireland view plus The Coach, The Scout, The Parent, The Player and The Agent.

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