With an ageing squad Ireland have so far negotiated a strong path towards Russia but the man responsible for harnessing the next generation, Ruud Dokter, is confident there’s sufficient talent to fill the gaps in the next campaign.
For Wes Hoolahan, Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan and John O’Shea, this World Cup tilt will be their last in a green jersey and others will be on the way to joining them in international retirement when the qualification series for the 2020 Euros kicks off in just over a year.
That imminent time-bomb is hardly surprising given Martin O’Neill’s squad was on average the oldest amongst the 24 nations in France last year at the ripe age of 29.
The problem in the forward department is particularly acute. Walters will be heading towards his 35th birthday by the end of the World Cup, Murphy a year further ahead, while Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and David McGoldrick will be the other thirty-somethings behind them. With no goalscoring contenders in the U21 squad, the search for firepower may stretch into the ancestry ranks.
Still, Dokter has witnessed enough in his role as the FAI’s High-Performance Director since succeeding fellow Dutchman Wim Koevermans in 2013 to be hopeful.
He accompanies most of the underage squads to mini-qualification groups as well as the U17s trip to Croatia last May for the European Championships and is confident the tools are available to keep the senior team equipped to compete in future campaigns.
O’Neill is notoriously cautious about testing young talent yet, with an eye on next season, he drafted 18-year-old Declan Rice into a training camp at Fota Island in Cork last month.
The West Ham defender had captained Ireland’s U19s at the elite qualifiers in Belgium two months earlier when boss Slaven Bilic received a glowing report convincing him to blood the youngster in the final Premier League game of the season.
“I feel the future is bright for Irish football,” said Dokter. “We have talented players coming through from the U19 team which were very unlucky not to reach the European finals this summer,”
“They beat Italy and Belgium, two great nations of European football, missing out to Sweden on head-to-head for a place in the finals. From the squad, we have players with great potential like Declan Rice, Conor Masterson, Connor Ronan and our goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher.
“It is difficult to say they will definitely make the final step because there are so many variables to reaching the very top. Most of our players go to England at 16 and the industry there is massive. The Premier League Academies are full of players and 80 per cent of first-teamers are foreigners.”
That blockage is central to Dokter’s vision of a U15 national league, the composition of which to be announced by the FAI on Monday with fixtures kicking off in August.
“It is important League of Ireland clubs have academies so they can see players at a young age,” he reasons. “I know in the past it has all been about the first-team but more must be done. Getting the U15 league up and running with the U17 and U19 leagues is a vital step in developing talent.”
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