Stephen Kenny and his Swiss friend Christophe Moulin have many things in common such as their coaching philosophy, a Pro Licence qualification from the Northern Ireland FA and even their year of birth.
Moulin is head of elite development at the Swiss FA since 2011 and the fruits of his work will be evident at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow night through the age profile of the visiting team for this Euro 2020 Qualifier.
Most of Vladimir Petkovic’s side will be 24 or younger, a dividend of a system where talent is hothoused within a well funded domestic league and, in the vast majority of cases, snapped up for millions.
Germany’s Bundesliga powerhouses are the primary recipients, with over €60m in transfer fees flowing to Swiss clubs over the last seven years for the tyros on show tomorrow.
Kenny, in contrast, since taking on the U21 job and the promise of senior post next year has quickly learned about the challenges of international football for Irish players.
Just two of the 15 players on his competitive managerial debut against Luxembourg in March — Dara O’Shea and Connor Ronan — were then playing first-team football in a professional league. Those within his group still operating at home do so in a league starved of investment.
The Swiss faced a similar scenario and realised proper — and paid — coaching had to be the priority if they were to stimulate the sector from within.
“We now have over 100 full-time coaches working with players with teams outside of senior level,” Moulin explained.
The Swiss FA don’t just subsidise the cost of their coaching courses but also, assisted by the state, pay 60% of their salaries. We are not in the business of throwing out money.
"We expect a lot in return from clubs, such as sending their players to our Swiss squad sessions and working to the national programme.
"For example, if we feel the club are missing a defensive coach but don’t recruit one, they don’t get a grant. It is an investment we feel is essential to professionalise our system.
"There is no point developing young players if our clubs don’t have the resources to manage them.”
Success has been widespread. Switzerland were crowned U17 World champions in 2009, followed two years later by their U21s reaching the European final against Spain. Granit Xhaka starred in both tournaments.
An U19 Euro qualifier in 2014 between Ireland and the Swiss highlights the disparity in yield across tomorrow night’s protagonists. Nico Elvedi and Ricardo Rodriguez were two of four future senior internationals on show at the Waterford RSC that day. None of the Irish team have won a full cap.
Domestically, a quest for four straight seasons in the Champions League group stages was ended last week by a narrow play-off defeat for Young Boys against Red Star Belgrade.
Their representatives are by now considered a constant presence in the group stages of the Europa League, evidenced by a ranking of 12th in Uefa’s overall coefficients. For all the strides made on and off the pitch by a country with a population of just eight million people, Moulin cites some unusual challenges.
“In our country, people get laughed at for being footballers,” he reveals.
They are asked what their real job is. Whereas in Ireland and England there is prestige attached to playing professional football, that is not the case here. Respect in Switzerland comes from working as a doctor or a banker.
“The culture is for youngsters to study at university or learn a profession. It is impossible for them to have the necessary six training sessions loaded on top of preparing for exams. That’s why we have some struggles with delayed development. We want more professionals signed to our clubs at the age of 18 and therefore are discussing with the government and universities ways of them postponing their studies for a few years.”
Resolving that first-world dilemma still guarantees the cadet remaining on home soil. “We don’t understand why16-year-olds emigrate to England,” Moulin muses about the familiar career path for Irish kids.
“Player development is about producing good and balanced humans too. That can be difficult living outside of their own country.”
Moulin spent a spell working at the Irish Football Association and returns to the island this week for two matches. First up, he’ll be in Dublin 4 tomorrow cheering on his native Swiss before switching tack in Tallaght the next day.
“Stephen is a good friend of mine and I will be hoping his team will beat Armenia,” he said of the Ireland U21 boss.
“Irish football often gets spoken about for high balls and physicality but Stephen has a different approach. On our visits to English clubs during the Pro Licence course, we would ask the same questions.
“We are like-minded on styles of play, so I am delighted he is now going to the top with his national team.”