Jim Crawford: 'Grassroots is where the fire is lit in players, the place they fall in love with the game'

Crawford was speaking about the growing schism arising from national clubs taking over the elite youth function.
Jim Crawford: 'Grassroots is where the fire is lit in players, the place they fall in love with the game'

Republic of Ireland Under-21s boss Jim Crawford. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

When the FAI’s new director of football wants to hear some home truths about what he's facing into, Jim Crawford’s door will be wide open.

The association are on the brink of announcing their latest guru, understood to be an English-based coach with a track record in the Premier League.

Not only is Crawford tasked with bridging the gap between 18-year-olds and the senior Ireland team as boss of the U21s but he’s lived and worked through virtually all other aspects of the game.

For a late bloomer, the Leaving Cert student was parachuted into the Bohemians first-team, moved to Kenny Keegan’s Premier League challengers Newcastle United in 1995 before resuming his League of Ireland career as four-time title winner at Shelbourne.

There was an introduction to management as caretaker at Shamrock Rovers while they headhunted Michael O’Neill. Thereafter, the FAI have been the beneficiaries. From U18 manager to assisting Stephen Kenny during 2019, he earned promotion to the U21 post himself in 2020. Obtaining the Uefa Pro License and then tutoring the course has expanded his horizons too.

Conceivably, Crawford could become the first manager to smash the glass ceiling of reaching the U21 Euro playoffs. Victories over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro in the home double-header in early June, or even four points, should be sufficient to see off Sweden, whom they’ve beaten twice, for second place.

As alluring a prospect that it is, bigger picture issues occupy his thoughts too. Soldering the warring factions at underage level carries added importance in the post-Brexit era of home-grown development.

He can’t tell his new boss to produce a crock of gold out of thin air but is anxious for a fresh approach to be taken in mending fences.

“Grassroots is where the fire is lit in players, the place they fall in love with the game,” Crawford said about the growing schism arising from national clubs taking over the elite youth function.

“We’ve all done it and that can’t be ignored. If that still needs to be addressed, then we’ve fallen short.

“I’m sure people have tried their best to strengthen relationships but it hasn’t happened.

“We have to find the root cause and address it because it’s about keeping kids playing football, making football in this country work overall.

“We need people in a room coming up with solutions because better relationships have to be built.” Funding the system to replace the professionalism budding talent can no longer get in the UK until they’re 18 is the main deficiency.

The FAI remain €65m in debt, while the cost of creating the industry and infrastructure to replicate the UK model is beyond any outlay expended previously by national leagues.

Only Government intervention can provide the cure and Crawford believes the case for support is compelling.

“I think we’ve probably undersold ourselves when it comes to State funding,” he admitted.

“As much hard work and graft is put into the Academy system, it could be better. Take the example of Jason Knight, who left Ireland for Derby County at 16. He’s went straight into a high-level programme, playing tough games every week, within a professional environment and contact hours.

“I’ve looked at the stats here and see how far we’re behind even England’s Academy Level Two clubs when it comes to contact time with players.

“We have to put something together to approach the Government seeking assistance and ensure our players are at peak physical condition and are tactically aware when they reach 18.

“Hopefully our clubs can then sell on players to the UK, generating money to feed back into the Academy system. That’s a financial issue and another that our Director of Football will have to deal with.”

*Ireland U21s face Bosnia & Herzegovina on Friday, June 3 (7.30pm) and Montenegro on Monday, June 6 (KO 5pm). Tickets for the Tallaght double-header are available on Ticketmaster.

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