‘Why throw it all in to go to England at 16, where 99% won’t make it?’
When the former Ireland U21 international watches the seniors these days, what he doesn’t see is an example being set. A philosophy to trickle down.
“The international managers at underage levels are trying to play the right way and when they see the first team launching it, it must be very frustrating. I know there’s pressure to qualify and for revenue so it’s hard. It’s not what kids are taught. Though I’m still watching some schoolboy football with lunatics on the sideline, demanding their kids win at nine, 10, 11. Parents need to take a step back too. So you won an U10 cup, but does it matter?”
Cork City, with former players like Woods, Dan Murray, Colin Healy involved, have embraced the underage National Leagues. Woods is adamant the club can provide an alternative route to the well-worn path cross-channel.
“I was fortunate, I went to England at 17 and a half, completed the Leaving. I spoke to a parent recently, whose son was offered a contract at a Championship club. The boy is 15 in Junior Cert. I just don’t understand why he’d go. When you have the pathway we’re offering, and the link in with UCC, it doesn’t make sense.
“Why would you throw it all in to go to England at 16, an environment where 99% won’t make it?”
Cork City’s U17s won their league this season, beating Bohemians in the final. “If we win U15, U17, U19 cups, it’s great,” says Woods. “But are they going to be first team players at Cork City? That’s the important thing. It’s about improvement. We took lads from Midleton and Corinthians last year and they had just won 17 out of 18 games with the clubs. To me there’s no test in that.
“We didn’t win any cup, we finished fourth out of six. But the demands are higher. Drawing and even losing games is more beneficial to them in the long run, I believe, than winning six- and seven-nil every week.
“With the 15s, we trained twice, with a game at the weekend. It’s a massive commitment for parents. But we believe it is not enough. It should be at least three times plus a game.
“But they are also going into Junior Cert year, so you have to be fair too. It’s a challenge. Those contact hours are so important. I know it’s boring and you hear Johnny Giles talk about street football and whatever but the kids don’t go out and play. The only contact with a ball is at training. Dan and I are singing off the same hymn sheet, telling the lads you just need to go out with a ball and a wall — 1,000 touches a day.”
‘Dublin Schoolboys was once Europe’s strongest league’
Billy Byrne, Leicester City’s Irish scout is crossing a few t’s. A lad from St Joseph’s Boys in Dublin is ready to sign. He already has two over from Belvedere and two from St Kevin’s Boys.
“I’d always try and get a kid over at 16. It’s the start of what can be a great road for him, but if he doesn’t work hard, he’ll be back in two years’ time. I still think if they go away with the right attitude, are motivated enough, they’ll come through.
“It is hard. They haven’t got their parents. My lad Shane went. He’s still over there. He got a good Junior Cert before he went. He’s studying over there now. You don’t have to sit around the house all day.”
There is now more paperwork, more clearance needed from schools to get youngsters away. New FA rules mean clubs get six weeks to assess a player then can’t bring him over again for another year.
“You have to be more selective now,” Byrne says. “The U15 National League has further complicated matters, since players can’t sign in England until they are 16. It has put a lot of pressure on us as scouts to get a player before the League of Ireland clubs become involved. Because once they are involved, the compensation becomes crazy.”
Byrne doesn’t believe boys are going across ill-prepared. In many cases, he feels the Dublin youngster, in particular, hardened on competitive football, has an advantage over the boy in a Premier League academy since he was six.
“There is still good talent here. And I don’t believe in all of this training hours stuff. You either have it or you don’t.”
He accepts the Premier League sides typically get 10-13-year-olds on a “one-day release” each week for a full eight hours.
“But otherwise, Kevin’s and Joeys and Belvedere are doing as much work in the academies as they are in England.
“We have kids here who are used to competing at a good level. Who are used to competing to win. The academy kids in England don’t compete to win, they only compete to play. So when our kids go over, they have that advantage.
“Why would we want to copy the England academy format. When did they last win the World Cup? I fear for the schoolboy clubs. The Dublin Schoolboys League was once the strongest league in Europe but it’s being dismantled bit by bit.”
‘The best strategic decision the FAI has made that I can think of’
ow working as an intermediary, Neal Horgan sees his role as advising young footballers, and informing parents of the options when it comes to building a professional career without sacrificing an education.
“Throughout my time in football I’ve seen players and parents under savage pressure to go away, ‘this is Johnny’s chance to play in the big-time.’
“We’ve all seen where this has worked out, but more often it hasn’t and with increased competition in the UK, the chances are getting slimmer. There has to be a risk-benefit analysis. And in all but the most exceptional circumstances, I think a legal minor going to England or anywhere else to work in this professional industry shouldn’t happen — particularly not now when English football is so competitive.
“Also from a player’s social development point of view — the welfare of the child, and we are talking about children — should be paramount.
“Of course there will be exceptions. The Scandinavian model seems to be that the rare exceptional player goes.
“But for most players, they would be better off staying in Ireland, completing the Leaving Cert, playing full-time League of Ireland — perhaps play in Europe and then leave if he’s good enough and more mature.
“I’ve been a critic of the FAI in relation to the League of Ireland, but I see these underage leagues as the best strategic decision the FAI has made in relation to the League.
“For the first time, a 15-year-old in Cork can say, I want to join Billy Woods’ and Dan Murray’s U15 team at Cork City FC, continue with my education and see if I can get into the first team at Cork City, perhaps get a scholarship to UCC.”
St Pat’s manager Liam Buckley recently pointed out a problem with the pathway approach, the difficulty breaking into first teams when the player leaves the U19 team, and has nowhere else to go.
“Sure some players will fall off the pathway but at least if that happens, they haven’t moved country, lost contact with their friends, and fallen out of their education system,” says Horgan.
“That said, I do think what’s absent is a plan for full-time professional football in Ireland. To allow the top player a pathway from 16 that is a real alternative. You don’t have the security at the moment that you should have as a professional in any industry.
“Rugby here has shown us the way. And the likes of Iceland have shown what can happen if you plan for a pro game, even if you have limited numbers. If you don’t have pro teams at the top in a supported model, ideally with the FAI in charge of the clubs in some centralised way and driving the league forward — not individual clubs going on solo runs — then you’re really not maximising what a small country can do.
“I’ve been lucky to play full-time and part-time football and full-time football is completely different. Irish kids need to be exposed to full-time football at 16, 17 or 18, ideally in Ireland while completing their Leaving Cert. Then, if you leave, you’re arriving into the English or European clubs as an adult rather than as a kid. Our close relationship with the UK, for all its historical benefits, has also tainted our view of ourselves as a soccer nation.
“I think people are unaware how recently some countries have gone pro; Denmark in the 70s, Norway in the 90s, Iceland only in the last few years. A lot of people think everyone went pro when the UK did, more than 100 years ago, and think we can’t ever do this.
“We’re comparing ourselves to the wrong market. We need a bespoke solution based on what other small nations have done.
“The underage structures are the first step — the next is a graduated plan towards professionalism in the League of Ireland, for five, 10, and 15 years’ time. As well, players from the other small countries, their top players go to the Netherlands, Belgium, and other markets as well as to the UK. We need to decrease our dependence on the UK — while keeping it open as an option.
“The doomsday scenario is that we aren’t producing players at home and the UK is no longer helping us — and even when we do produce a quality player the UK market is too competitive and every other door is shut too.”
‘There’s a lot of good things happening. But we need to join the dots’
A boy of six flicks the ball through his legs, turns and slots into the mini goal, wheels away in celebration, and gets ready for another go.
There are around 40 boys and girls here, from five to 14, at the Riverstown academy at Old Christians Rugby Club astroturf pitch in Glanmire, Cork. Jason Brown from Coerver Coaching oversees three other coaches. The night before, Coerver set up camp at Douglas Hall FC, with 80 kids. They run 30 academies in Ireland, 15 in Munster.
A Mancunian, in Ireland 17 years, his take on Irish football is interesting, sitting, as Coerver do, close to the system, but outside it, without the vested interests.
The Coerver coaching method, based around mastering the ball, small-sided games, and repetition of key skills, was developed in the 80s. It’s used in academies worldwide and boasts a litany of endorsements, from Liam Brady to Alex Ferguson, AC Milan to Benfica.
“The mission statement was to create technical, individual players who can be effective as part of a team. It’s not to create showboaters who do tricks and flicks,” Brown says.
“It’s like grinds for soccer. Weekly sessions. We give them home study to go away and practise. And none of it conflicts with what they’re being taught at their clubs.
“Maybe 20% of the kids that come would be deemed the elite. And possibly 30% are very weak, where parents say he or she is not really ready to play with a club. Kids who need to work on their confidence, self-belief.
“Nobody is born with the innate talent to pick up a ball and be fantastic. But if you break down the skills and techniques in the right way, and create an environment for the kids to practise, anyone can learn.
“We don’t teach tactics, we don’t teach formations. That would be us going into the clubs’ space. We’re not going to tell you what position you should play.”
Coerver fills in some of the ‘contact hours’ Irish youngster miss out on, though as a business, it comes at a cost, with parents footing the bills.
“We work with clubs, partnership agreements. We educate their coaches and run an academy at their venue. They want their kids to do extra training and we facilitate it.”
Brown, a Uefa B License coach since 2009, began working with Coerver since 2011 as he saw a flaw within the Uefa coaching pathway.
“The FAI coaching pathway follows the Uefa model. You’re building up via A license and PRO licence to managing an 11 v 11 team.
“Within that coaching pathway, there’s very little technical contact coached. Because your focus is on the team, whereas we are are based 100% around the individual.
“We are not about getting players trials, or getting players selected for this or the other. We’re saying to them we will make them the best player they can be.
“Kids don’t play outside like we did. A lot of their playtime is more isolated now. We can’t change it. It’s the way things are now. We give them videos, go online, then go out and practise.”
Brown is enthusiastic about the FAI’s underage National League plans and urges they be given a chance to succeed.
“We endorse 100% the FAI development plan. From a child development point of view, should we be encouraging young players to aspire to trials and academies in England? When the success rate of it is massively flawed.
“If the child is good enough, wouldn’t they be better off staying in Ireland, going through the development path with the National Leagues, go somewhere like UCC on a soccer scholarship, get their education, then go?”
While schoolboy clubs will lose players younger, he points out another knock-on advantage.
“In Cork, say the top 40 14-year-olds go to play for Cork City and Cobh Ramblers at U15. That means the next 25 players are playing for Cork Schoolboy League development squads. So more players are getting access to playing representative football.”
But there are gaps. “There’s a real need to join the dots in Irish football.
“If you’re a good young player, you might hear one thing from the schoolboy league selection, another from the FAI Emerging Talent Programme. Then there’s your club telling you something else.
Maybe the kid goes for trials, gets his head turned.
Onto youth league level. All managed by different people, pulled from pillar to post. And if he goes to a League of Ireland club, the clubs haven’t yet been given a remit on what coaching they must give the players.
“If the FAI managed everything, we could join those dots, we could build a player profile.
“We’re still producing good 14- and 15-year-olds. It’s then we have the problem. The quality of coaching is improving. There are a lot of good things happening. We’ve just got to join the dots.”