From Dublin to Delhi, from Arsenal to Shamrock Rovers and from player to coach, former international John Devine is bringing a wealth of experience to bear on a plan to save Irish football.
"Back to street football is the whole concept,” says John Devine, the former Arsenal and Ireland full-back who, as Coaching Director of the South Dublin Football League, is practicing and promoting an innovative approach to acquainting kids with the beauty in the beautiful game.
Whole-heartedly embraced by the SDFL, Devine’s player development programme begins by emphasising the fun aspect for children aged from seven to 11 so that they can indulge a love of the sport while developing their skills free from the pressure of results, tables and the all too familiar spectacle of apoplectic adults screaming ‘get rid of it’ from the sidelines. John Giles and Eamon Dunphy have both given Devine’s programme their public backing while the initiative has also received support from Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Niall Quinn.
And, for Devine, this is just phase one. Before Christmas, he met with the FAI’s Elite Development Director Ruud Dokter to unveil his vision of a ten-year player development programme, comprising three tiers — from seven to 11, 11 to 15 and 15 to 18 — with the move to full-sided games kicking in at 12.
Of course, in an age of generally much improved facilities and ever increasing road traffic, Devine’s reference to a return to street football is not literally a call to reclaim the streets. Rather, it’s about recapturing the joyful essence of that experience, initially through small-sided three v three games which are designed to allow the youngest participants maximum mobility and ample opportunity to get on the ball. Concepts of tolerance, personal responsibility and fair play are also integral to the plan.
“We’re playing non-competitive football to prepare the kids to compete,” Devine explains. “That’s the key. Kids are naturally competitive but they can’t win with the wrong fundamentals. The Irish mentality is win, win, win at all costs from the youngest age upwards on pitches and with goals that, as we know, are too big. I want to win in everything I do too but the children first need to learn how to win.
“But, instead, we have someone who thinks he’s a manager or a coach trying to play systems and shapes and then he’s screaming his head off at the weekend because the kids can’t control the ball. So we really have the cart before the horse. We need to get back to the fundamentals, work on the kids’ touch, control and passing and then when they do go into games they’re prepared to play the game the right way.”
And if they’re playing the game the right way at the age of seven then, Devine reasons, by the time the very best of them reach maturity, Irish football at the elite level, domestically and internationally, will reap the benefits.
Now 55, John Devine grew up on Church Street, in the very heart of Dublin city, not much more than a long ball away from the birthplace in Ormond Square of John Giles, the man who would later hand him his senior Irish debut. Initially playing centre-half for his local St Michan’s Boys, Devine was soon attracting the attention of Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Wolves, but when in 1974, at the age of 15, he walked into Arsenal for the first time, North London immediately felt like a home from home.
“Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and Dave O’Leary were already there and to hear the Irish voices made it a bit more welcoming, so my mind was made up,” he recalls. “I left home, left school, left everything and just went. My mother would have been having a seizure because she would have realised the importance of an education but when I asked her later, she said, ‘I couldn’t have stopped you. Wild horses couldn’t’ ”
Although his talent had already seen him capped at U15 level for Ireland, Devine’s introduction to the professional game in England was a steep learning curve. He recalls one of his coaches at Highbury telling him he’d have to fight for four shirts: the 15s, the 16s, the reserves and the first team. “He said you’ve got to pull the shirt off somebody’s back,” Devine recalls. “It was a tough, tough business.”
But the young Irish apprentice was both determined and talented enough to go all the way, finally making his senior Arsenal debut at full back in a 3-1 win over Leeds United at Elland Road in 1978.
“I did so well on Arthur Graham that he was substituted at half-time his tail between his legs,” John recalls with a chuckle, “but then I thought ‘oh no, what have I done’, because his replacement was none other than Alan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke. But we went on to win 3-1 and it was a fantastic day for me. I remember that game inside out. My first touch? It was a tackle and I won the ball and then just gave a simple pass.”
nd, as his Arsenal career progressed, the simple pass to a certain other Dublin Gunner was a strategy Devine was only too happy to employ.
“I was lucky,” he smiles. “I played behind Liam Brady and all I had to do was chip the winger into the second row, win the ball and lay it off to Liam. And it was only standing back behind him that you fully realised how good he was. Whenever you looked up, Liam Brady was there. All the great players are always available and, whether we were winning or losing, Liam was always able to do something. He really was the best I ever played with and having him in that team was a big help to me when I was starting off. That’s no disrespect to Frank or Dave. It’s just Liam was special.”
After Northern Ireland international Pat Rice moved to Watford, Devine earned a regular place at right back although, for the biggest game of his career for the Gunners – the 1980 FA Cup final against West Ham – he operated at left-back. The great day turned out to be a bittersweet, however, the Hammers’ Trevor Brooking famously upsetting the odds by scoring the game’s only goal against the hot favourites. And there was more disappointment to come for Devine before the week was out, as an exceptionally long and hard season caught up with the Gunners.
“Within the space of four days we lost the FA Cup final and then the European Cup Winners Cup final to Valencia, on penalties,” he recalls. “I came home devastated that summer.”
Happily, five years later, and having moved on to Norwich City, John would finally pick up a winner’s medal at Wembley, albeit as an unused substitute – when only one sub was allowed – on the day the Canaries beat Sunderland to lift the 1985 League Cup in front of a capacity crowd of 100,000.
Meantime, having been given his international debut in 1980 before John Giles made way for Eoin Hand as manager, Devine would go on to clock up 13 appearances for his country, adding to the 30 he’d earned as he rose through the underage ranks. And although World Cup and European qualification continued to elude Ireland in those days, Devine still cherishes the memory of every cap, with two matches in particular coming in for special mention.
“The 2-2 draw away to Holland in 1982, playing against all these great players who’d played in World Cup finals – Rudi Krol, the van de Kerkhof brothers — was a dream for me,” he says. “To draw with them in Rotterdam was a great result for us, and we might even have won that night. The other one that stands out for me was the 3-3 draw with Spain in 1983. That was an unbelievable game and Lansdowne Road was at its best.”
It’s likely that John Devine would have achieved even more in top flight football if he hadn’t been desperately unlucky with injuries. First, there’d been a broken foot when he was playing youth football for Ireland and then, at just 19 — even before he’d made his debut for Arsenal — he suffered what appeared to be a devastating cruciate ligament injury in a reserve game at Southampton.
“They thought my career was over,” he says. “Luckily for me, [England physio] Fred Street was the physio at Highbury and he was a genius, he saved my career. He got me down to the top doctors and they used what was then a new experimental carbon fibre treatment – and a year later I was playing at Wembley. The year out was the toughest year of my football life and one thing I vividly remember about Wembley was that I knew where my old man’s seat was in the stand and, in the warm-up after Abide With Me, I remember I just stopped and looked up and waved at him. And he waved back. And that was just magic.”
Unfortunately, Devine’s playing days in England would also be cut short by injury. In 1986, just eight years after he’d made his debut for Arsenal and, having moved on from Norwich to Stoke City, his career was brought to a shattering halt in a game at Brighton.
“That was a bad tackle,” he says with a grimace. “The right leg was broken in seven places, a compound fracture. I knew the minute I looked down that was the end because my foot was behind my knee. I knew I was gone.”
After undergoing two operations, he was told that he’d be lucky if would ever run again but a stubborn streak in Devine saw him working all-out in the gym to regain a decent level of fitness. His career at the highest level might have been over but by then his interest in coaching – in what he calls “the internal organs of the game” – was under development. And, on the look-out for a change of scene, he ended up just about as far from the playing fields of England or Ireland as you could imagine – in India, coaching and, despite his war wounds, even turning out on occasion as a libero for Kingfisher East Bengal, a club whose games against their biggest rivals could attract crowds of 70,000.
“In fact, I got a call from a friend out there recently to tell me that I’m in the Hall of Fame as the only Irishman ever to play in the Indian League,” John says.
“I saw a lot of India in the year I was out there. I was in Calcutta, where the poverty is really hardcore, very disturbing. Then I moved to Bombay and Delhi. It’s a place where you learn a few things about humility and modesty, let me tell you. The players would nearly all come to training on bicycles and the few rupees they got for playing would have gone to feed their families. Technically I couldn’t teach them a thing – their touch was remarkable – but one thing they didn’t have was tactical awareness. That’s where I came in.”
After leading his club to the title in India, Devine’s next stop was Norway where he coached and played for IK Start, helping them get promoted to the top division. And then it was back home to Dublin and, after a call from Shamrock Rovers manager Noel King, one final season which saw him end his playing career with a runners-up medal in the 1991 FAI Cup final when Galway United beat the Hoops – the team John had supported as a boy — 1-0 at Lansdowne Road.
Since then, Devine has concentrated on coaching. In 1997, Alex Ferguson asked him to set up a Manchester United academy in Dublin, bringing him into contact with then emerging players from north and south including Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Anthony Stokes and Jonny Evans. He also worked as a coach with Shelbourne and Sporting Fingal – helping the latter achieve FAI Cup success in 2009 – as well as travelling extensively in Europe to study the latest coaching methods.
All that experience has brought him to where he is now, vigorously promoting a programme designed to eliminate the many ills to which he feels the very youngest players are needlessly exposed. 95% of kids, he reckons, will only ever play the game for fun and, he insists, it ought to be a joyful not stressful experience for them. For the elite 5%, he envisages more specialised programmes from the age of 11 upwards with, ultimately, the top 20 or 30 players receiving the best coaching available in the country. The League of Ireland would benefit hugely, he argues, and so, ultimately, would the international team. In short, the goal is to improve Irish football from the bottom up.
“We haven’t produced players in recent years who have gone to the top teams,” he points out. “Who’s at Arsenal? Who’s at Liverpool? Who’s at Manchester United? Who’s at Chelsea? Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane can only deal with what they have. And we need to be technically adept for the future game because you’ll hardly be able to tackle half the time.”
The South Dublin Football League has fully bought into Devine’s concept and he also reports “phenomenal interest” in his ideas around the country. But now he feels strongly that the whole thing needs to be taken to another level.
“There are great volunteers putting time into the game all around the country,” he reflects, “but we need leadership to say ‘this is the way we’re going to play from this age’. And that has to come from the FAI. It wouldn’t cost a fortune and it’s ready to go. It’s made for the Irish game. The FAI need to make the decision and take it by the scruff of the neck.
“We don’t have time to waste, we need to get into this now,” he stresses. “When you look at other countries’ underage teams that we play against – technically they’re miles ahead, the Spanish, the Germans, all way, way ahead. The Belgians now are going to reap the rewards of a ten-year plan going back to the drawing board. And unless we do something we’re going to get left behind.”
Cup Gunners’ best chance of silverware
As Arsenal prepare to host Liverpool in the FA Cup tomorrow, John Devine reckons it’s now the cup rather than the league which holds outs the best promise of silverware for his old club this season.
“Anyone can win a cup game,” he observes. “It’s a one-off and Arsenal can rise to the occasion. I’d be more concerned about the long-term and the depth in the squad, especially with Walcott out and Giroud being the only natural forward.
“Wenger has a fantastic team playing fantastic football but they have a lack of strength in depth compared to Chelsea and Manchester City. I think the cup is probably their best prospect for a trophy now. After the heavy defeat against Liverpool I think they should be able to bounce back against them, whereas my concern would really about consistency over the remaining games in the Premier League. That’s why the FA Cup is so important now as a chance to finally get some silverware.”
A life like Posh n’ Becks
John Devine and Michelle Rocca were married in 1981, the marriage ending in divorce in 1990. They have two daughters, Natasha and Danielle. For a time in the early ’80s, the then celebrity couple were like Irish forerunners of Posh n’ Becks – he the dashing young professional footballer, she the beauty queen who’d been crowned Miss Ireland at the start of the decade.
“I was never entirely comfortable with all the media attention,” Devine says now. “All I wanted to do was play football. But I suppose we were the Posh n’ Becks of that time. We were young kids back then, both of us. We both had careers where we didn’t realise what was going to happen. There was an innocence then.
“But there was a time when I did wonder, ‘what’s going on here?’ – Miss Ireland, European finals, FA Cup finals – and five years earlier I was on the streets of Dublin. It can be over-powering. But we’re great friends now and I’d really like to make the point that Michelle is a great mother to our two daughters. Did I marry again? No, I’ve got one family.
“I have a great relationship with my ex-wife and my children and my 13-year-old granddaughter. They’re my life.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved