At midday today, Ireland’s production factory for footballers will be on show when we meet our nearest neighbour and rival England for a place in the U17 European Championship semi-finals.
Unlike previous squads which reached major underage tournaments, there is a distinctly home-grown hue to Colin O’Brien’s panel. Only striker Rowan Roache, a striker on the fringes of League One outfit Blackpool, was born outside of the country.
There may be satisfaction that, in this case at least, a reliance on the granny rule is not required and that the domestic development system so derided for the paucity of graduates into the senior team is improving. However, evidence of how far that progress has gone is being judged in the context of Wednesday’s mauling by Germany.
Never before had an Irish team been subjected to a seven-goal humbling and the worrying aspect for those watching back home live on television was the reflective nature of the winning margin. Had the Germans been more clinical, in fact, double-figures may have been racked up.
Speaking yesterday, striker Roache admitted he’d never faced a side of that calibre before and the “game-plan” to thwart Germany fell asunder.
An ability to adapt in differing scenarios other than “Plan A” must be a requisite of a player’s upbringing within an international setting. To revel in the fact the late win by Bosnia-Herzegovina over Serbia in Wednesday’s other group game provided a lifeline into the quarter-final for Ireland is foolhardy. Both the other group opponents gave the Germans tougher games during the previous six days and they are considered the middle-ranking nations Ireland are realistically competing with at underage level.
There was a time too when the big guns were slain by the Boys in Green. Next summer marks the 20th anniversary of Brian Kerr’s Euro double when Italy and Germany were beaten in the Under-17 and Under-19 finals respectively. Only a last-minute equaliser prevented Ireland crowning their glory without the inconvenience of penalties.
Much has changed during the intervening period and not for the good in Ireland’s case. Once Kerr met an acrimonious end to his FAI employment in 2005 as senior boss, the public urge to have him reinstated within a development role has been ignored by the governing body.
Damien Duff has led the calls that have gone on deaf ears by an association prepared to leave the function of overseeing all teams outside of the senior structure to two Dutchmen.
Wim Koevermans came into the post as High-Performance Director full of ideas yet losing his budget to implement the ideas year on year as the debt amassed by the FAI on their Lansdowne Road project impacted on all areas of football.
Many of the staff tasked with enacting initiatives such as the Emerging Talent Programme, like Packie Bonner and John Morling, either quit or were let go as austerity swept across Abbotstown. The very epicentre they planned to hothouse the finest talent in the country at the FAI headquarters was postponed due to cutbacks.
Koevermans didn’t wait around either, upping sticks in 2012 to take over the Indian national team, to be replaced the following year by another disciple of total football, Ruud Dokter.
While Koevermans held a glittering CV that included senior international caps and the experience of coaching Robin van Persie for the Dutch at underage level, Dokter was less known. Neither Ruud Gullit nor Edgar Davids had even heard of him when the two legends were asked on visits to Dublin.
Almost four years into his tenure and the report card is mixed. Rarely heard in public, his involvement in the recent women’s international dispute didn’t earn him much acclaim and he’s generally played it safe when head coach vacancies arose at all the underage teams — U15s, U16s, U17s and U19s — by appointing from within.
Today’s opponents England, in the face of their dismal showing at the World Cup in 2014, went back to basics by establishing what was branded as the “England DNA Philosophy.” Apart from putting to paper a theoretical masterplan, they also undertook an overhaul of coaching staff, starting with the sacking of popular Under-19 boss Noel Blake.
A range of new personnel, including former Ireland midfielder Lee Carsley, were introduced to the set-up carrying fresh ideas to challenge the plague of group-think which had blighted the culture. Those possessing the misguided belief that a strong Premier League equated to success for the international teams were weeded out.
What constitutes the FAI’s DNA remains a mystery, and their willingness to change the guard is nothing on the scale of how swiftly their senior bosses can are discarded.
Dokter’s most radical step towards generating change was inviting a clutch of former internationals onto the backroom teams of underage teams. Keith Andrews is currently with the Under-17s in Croatia while Duff’s contribution at Under-15 level is said to be vital. Less successful was parachuting Kenny Cunningham into Tom Mohan’s Under-19s, with the former Ireland skipper departing the set-up midway through this season.
If the FAI are to develop an international model from the bottom up which gives squads a chance of holding their own with exalted company at tournaments, then resources are essential.
This season, for example, the youngest age-group at Under-15 level didn’t have their first international game until November and played just five more matches this season, winning once.
The Under-16 squad will conclude their season with a Uefa-funded tournament in Mayo, starting tomorrow against Northern Ireland in Westport. They also face Kosovo and Denmark.
Six graduates from that squad are in Croatia with the Under-17s and the positive vibes around the age group are in part due to their Victory Shield triumph last November. That was before they snared a gem in the form of Arsenal attacker Jordan McEneff from Northern Ireland and he’ll strengthen the chances of the U17s reaching the Euros next year for the third time in four years.
Getting there is one thing but making an impression at tournament level is a different mission.
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