Sending promising Irish youngsters across the Irish Sea to pursue a career in professional football on academy contracts is ‘just not working’, with success rates ‘scarily low’, insists Shelbourne defender Luke Byrne.
“I think 16 is too young to send a kid to a part of Britain they have been to once on trial and have no support,” Byrne adds. “Taking a kid out of school and putting him on a two-year scholarship is just not working.
“The stats on kids getting second and third contracts are scarily low. You have to have something like a guarantee that the kid is going to complete his Leaving Cert,” said the former Ireland U21 international.
Byrne accepts the allure of Premier League clubs and acknowledges “the footballing education and financial stability” a player will have if he can earn just one three- or four-year contract at a club such as Manchester United. But equally, he argues this is the experience of just “the one percent”.
Having broken into the Bohemians first-team while still a teenager, Byrne believes many Irish hopefuls would be better-served honing their craft on home soil.
“I think staying in Ireland is the model the governing body should be pushing, it’s the more secure route. The influx of kids from all around the world into English academies has made it much more difficult for Irish kids to come out the other end of a three- or four-year academy upbringing. There are lads coming home every week with, not a sob story but a very legitimate story, where there has been injury, loneliness and rejection and it can be very difficult for those kids to recover.” Byrne believes an ‘England is the be-all and end-all’ mentality still exists among some coaches in Ireland. But he is optimistic that having former Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny at the helm of the Irish U21s will have a positive influence and will alter that viewpoint.
If you’re playing U23 football for Oldham or Peterborough, why is that a better level than playing for Bohs or Cork or Rovers every week? There are kids playing in this league who are playing at a higher level and being overlooked but I don’t think Stephen Kenny will do that.
Even at this early stage in Kenny’s tenure, his approach has impressed Byrne.
“I think he has created a good buzz and given lads a lot of hope, there is now a pathway there for them.”
Similarly, senior boss Mick McCarthy has been in attendance at domestic fixtures this term and Byrne admits “it is good to see the interest being shown”.
“This league has produced a lot of players for the international team and while they might not be there now, there are lads in the league who are probably on the verge of getting a move and that’s their springboard into the squad. So from Mick McCarthy’s point of view, why not have an eye on them now?”
Like many of his peers, Byrne went on trial at English clubs as a schoolboy in a bid to secure a coveted academy spot. He was, by his own admission, “a late developer” in footballing terms and his slight frame meant no such offer was forthcoming. Although a source of great disappointment at the time, he now views staying in Ireland as a positive. “I never really lost belief in myself. I just knew that a lot of the lads to go at 15 or 16 were just the biggest kids. Come 18 or 19, the majority of them had come home having been released and I was playing every week in the Premier Division here for Bohs — it worked out for me.”
His performances with Bohemians soon caught the eye and a move to Dublin rivals, Shamrock Rovers later ensued. An Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury scuppered his progress, which was further hampered by a serious ankle injury. It was, he admits, a trying time, both physically and mentally, that made him realise how fragile a footballer’s career really is.
“I was out for a year with my knee and It can be tough. You have to do your rehab in the gym but even with that you’re away from the team and spending a lot of time lying around thinking about things, which isn’t ideal.
That’s when I thought ‘I really need to start planning’. I got stuck into the coaching and started a business degree at the Dublin Business School which I am halfway through now.
A PFAI committee member, Byne’s own experiences have served to emphasise the importance of support structures being available to footballers, such as a recent mental health initiative held by Shelbourne FC in conjunction with Aware.
“I think it’s very important to have these things (seminars) as there could be a lot of lads suffering behind closed doors, it could be anyone and the more comfortable you make people feel about opening up and seeking help, the better. I think everyone has a role to play in that.”
As hard as those injury-hit months were for Byrne, they afforded him the opportunity to further his coaching education with the Rovers U15 side, then under the tutelage of current Celtic coach, Damien Duff. And that hunger to progress his coaching work was a contributory factor in his decision to drop down to the second-tier of Irish football.
“I had options to stay in the Premier League but there was more to it than that. I wanted to play a new position this year and they (Shelbourne) also offered me the chance to continue coaching and studying so there was more to it than just what league they are in. It’s not (English) Premier League football where you can earn £100,000 a week. You can’t play football until you’re 35 and then get thrown into the real world and think ‘what have I done.’ I’ve just finished my Uefa B licence so I want to keep that going. I really do enjoy the coaching and ultimately want to be a manager.”
During his time at Shamrock Rovers, Byrne became accustomed to top-class facilities and believes that further investment would greatly enhance the image of Irish football.
I think facilities need to improve, they are a big issue. Ultimately, for the league to grow, you need more fans coming through the gates. Even in terms of TV deals, it would be very difficult to have Sky TV into some of the grounds as they just don’t look good enough.
“You need to grow the league with kids, who hopefully in years to come will bring their kids. But if you are a parent bringing your children along and the toilet facilities are dirty and broken or there is nowhere to get food, it will stop you from going back and you’ll spread negative word about it.”