Liam Brady’s dose of realism amid the current euphoria surrounding the European Championship-bound senior team is a timely reminder of the ticking time bomb for Irish football.
When Wes Hoolahan, 34 by the time the Euros kick off in June, is so relied upon to carry the nation’s hopes in France, as Robbie Keane was four years ago, the penny has to drop about the paucity of ready-made replacements.
Shane Duffy and Eunan O’Kane demonstrated their credentials over the friendly double-header but both are in their mid-20s and products of the Northern Ireland system.
Deeper problems become apparent when assessing those coming behind the current bunch.
With three games left, Ireland’s U21s have no chance of reaching their major championship next year, while the U19s didn’t get past the preliminary qualification phase in theirs. The U17s need to beat Poland tomorrow to participate at the Euro finals in May.
The concerns of Brady, Arsenal’s Academy Director for 26 years until 2014, stretch well beyond the here and now.
As he sat in admiration watching an England side, backboned by home-produced talent, beat the world champions Germany last weekend, he could connect it to the investment and infrastructure pumped into the Premier League at underage level.
That clubs like Arsenal have technical programmes for players from as young as eight was made possible by financial resources and appetite for change.
Just last year, the English FA vowed to match the €70m funding the government earmarked for facilities at grassroots level. State-of-the-art full-size 3G pitches, both outdoor and indoor, are being built in 150 cities around the country under the scheme.
Nobody is suggesting Ireland will ever keep pace with the might of England but observing his country frantically attempting to play catch-up on nations with a similar demographic profile makes Brady bristle.
As he correctly points, only for the “good schoolboy clubs” like his former nursery St Kevin’s Boys, the bleak situation would be far worse.
His gaze focuses on the FAI, asking what measures they’re taking to arrest the decline.
Sure, high-performance director Ruud Dokter unveiled a Player Development Plan last year but admits himself it could take up to 15 years for the benefits to bear fruit and depends on sufficient investment at a time his employers carry debts of €50m.
Achieving inexpensive, cultural changes are already proving problematic. In the statement last month announcing the Dutchman’s contract renewal until 2020, it stated recommendations one and two have been accomplished.
Abolishing league tables for all aged U12, designed to reduce the competitive aspect at young ages, was at the centrepiece of the charter, yet tables for U9s are still freely available on the websites of some schoolboy leagues.
These are the age-groups Brady feels should be prioritised. It was a viewpoint shared by Dokter’s predecessor, Wim Koevermans.
Unless players are technically sculpted before they reach 12, the productive window for development is generally missed.
There’s little point in citing the U17 national league, and proposed U15 equivalent, as remedies to the crisis if the raw material doesn’t exist in the first place.
Dokter’s vision includes an alteration to summer football, or the “single calendar season” in FAI jargon.
Having articulated this desire in the first of his rare media appearance in 2014, it has since provoked a lengthy debate, yet appears an inevitability from 2017.
It is ironic then that St Kevin’s Boys, the first-class providers of talent to Martin O’Neill in the shape of Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Jack Byrne, are steadfastly opposed to the shift.
So if the purpose is to ultimately increase the volume of gems for the senior ranks, how does it square with the stance of Dublin’s factory for elite talent?
The counter-argument of St Kevin’s, that a six-week break occurs in December and January instead, would be sensible were a functioning system operating in Ireland.
That period, traditionally the worst time of the year for weather, could be utilised by bringing the players indoors.
Full-sized indoor dome pitches are prevalent across Europe but they’re virtually non-existent in Ireland.
When the national training centre is completed in Abbotstown, the FAI will have access to a full-sized indoor pitch, albeit sharing with other sports.
Put simply, in a country of Ireland’s climate, it’s nowhere near enough to create the right environment to hothouse youngsters.
Football is the country’s most popular sport, as John Delaney frequently informs us, but how much of that interest stems from the English Premier League?
It certainly isn’t reflected in the League of Ireland, where attendances are sparse and the weekly highlights programme fills the graveyard slot when kids are tucked up in bed.
Gaelic and rugby have no such problems attracting primetime slots with the national broadcaster.
Ireland might have squeezed into an enlarged Euros, but it shouldn’t mask the fundamental flaws with the game here.
Perhaps, in the country’s hour of need, the FAI should enlist the services of experts like Brady and Brian Kerr to start formulating a cure.
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