“I benefited a lot from playing Gaelic football. It’s a high-intensity sport so when I moved to football I found my stamina and endurance was a bit above my footballing peers. You gain a lot.”
Newly capped Ireland international Chiedozie Ogbene has added his voice to one of the hottest debates in Irish sport — the pros and cons of early specialisation.
The current wave of discussion was triggered by two sentences in a ‘Player Development in Ireland’ document, produced last year by FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter.
“Rationale Behind Elite Player Pathway Starting at U13…. Focus more on one sport (football) in order to increase the chances.”
“Best practice throughout Europe suggests that playing more football from the age of 12 onwards rather than diluting it with one or more other elite level sports leads to the development of higher quality senior players.”
While the document also notes that “the FAI encourages participation in other sports and physical activities on days when there is no club football training”, those sentences have been widely regarded as ‘shots fired’ in the constant battle for young talent between football and GAA.
In making its case for early specialisation, Dokter’s document underlines that of current English Premier League senior squads, the average age of entry to a professional club academy is 10 years and 5 months.
So the argument is that Irish youngsters fall behind their international counterparts unless they are devoting similar hours to football at a young age.
However, there is also plenty of international evidence pointing to overuse injuries and burnout associated with concentrating on the same sport and the same movements too young.
Not to mention the psychological fallout that awaits youngsters who put all their eggs in one basket, then find themselves discarded by ‘the pathway’.
Earlier this month, Saoirse Noonan, formerly of the Cork ladies footballers, but who recently earned her first full call-up to an Ireland senior squad having focused on soccer this season, pointed to her multi-sport upbringing as vital to her development.
"Basketball definitely helped my eye coordination while GAA was great for quick sprints. The agility is the same. Playing GAA to such a high standard has definitely helped me and I really believe that, without playing all those sports, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“I certainly think it’s important for every child to get involved in all sports. Then get the option, as you get older, to pick which one you want to excel at.”
And now another former Nemo Rangers footballer, who grew up playing soccer with Noonan on the streets of Grange in Cork, backed that view.
Speaking to Virgin Media’s Six O’Clock Show, Ogbene said:
“I personally disagree. I played many sports growing up. Players can make a late decision like I did, choosing football instead of Gaelic football.
“It gives kids a variety of choice because you never know really what you want to pursue. You never know until maybe in your late teens.
“It’s always good for kids to play multiple sports, different backgrounds with other people. You learn a lot from other children. It’s a way to socialise.
“Especially at a young age, not every young player will play. You might learn other sports, other abilities and find out what you are good at.
“If I had kids I would encourage my kids to take up as many sports as possible.”
"I benefited a lot playing from playing gaelic football.— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) June 17, 2021
"It's always good for kids to play multiple sports."
Chiedozie Ogbene in agreement with @saoirse_noonan that children playing multiple sports can only benefit them as they get older.#COYBIG | #COYGIG | @SixOClockShow pic.twitter.com/eJeYLM7zHN
Having grown up in the same estate, Noonan and Ogbene played regularly on the street together and also briefly on the same underage Nemo teams.
Ogbene added: “We were blessed in my area. We had a lot of kids that loved to play in the park and Saoirse was one of them.
“Saoirse when we were younger was one of the most talented players.
“Out of the group she would usually be chosen first. It was a battle that I had with her. They would never let me and Saoirse on the same team.
“We were lucky that in my time anyway a lot of kids played street football. And I can tell you now Saoirse always matched our aggression when we were quite young.”