The Republic may qualify for Euro 16 next week, they may not. The double header with Bosnia & Herzegovina will be an extremely difficult tie to navigate. On paper, they certainly have better players than we do. Their population of just under 4 million produces better footballers than ours does. I guess we are used to that sort of thing now. Other countries with comparable populations have been putting us to shame for years – see Croatia and Uruguay. Heck, even Iceland’s population of just over 300,000 (roughly half of Dublin’s figure) is starting to churn out decent players.
The reasons for our stuttering production line have been discussed to death.
“We need to restructure how we do things at grass roots level”
“We need more education for coaches”
“Ireland needs to adopt the model used by country X”
The same tired clichéd reasoning is used, the same suggestions rehashed. We waste ink and energy paying lip service to Irish football fans, but nothing changes. If anything, we are getting worse.
It hurts to say that our nation will never be able to provide the optimal environment for talented young players to thrive and develop. But it’s probably true.
The call for more highly trained coaches seems somewhat redundant seeing as there are very few career opportunities in Ireland for top level coaches. Why would an aspiring coach spend so much time and money attaining qualifications and badges when there are no positions to fill. I take my hat off to the volunteers and hobbyists who do, but you won’t get many people training to UEFA A-licence level off their own backs. That’s why Ireland only has approximately 200 coaches with that qualification. That’s also why we will always be stuck with so many of the self serving, tribalistic coaches, who put themselves and their results before a young player’s advancement. From my own experience there are as many of that type as there are decent coaches.
Incidentally Spain has around 15,000 UEFA A-licence and pro level qualified coaches, Germany around 7,000. England only has about 1400, which leads me to my next point.
Due to cultural similarities and the proximity of our near neighbours, our best and brightest continue to migrate across the Irish Sea to Premier League and lower league English academies. But is it time to close these one way trade routes? Why are we exporting so much talent to a system that is failing its own nation?
This week the CIES Football Observatory released figures showing that the percentage of club-trained players in Premier League squads has reached a new low. They found that 11.7% of top-flight players graduated from their club’s academy, down from 13.8% last year.
With the Premier League awash with TV cash, it’s easier for teams to sign readymade footballers instead of having to rely on developing their own. With more TV money on the way, you can expect that 11.7% percentage to sink even lower.
Brendan Rodgers made this point a couple of seasons ago:
“It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”
On the face of it, his hypothesis makes sense and if it were indeed true, Ireland’s problems would be compounded even further. But if you look at our current squad, Ireland’s better players were the ones developed away from the English system. Seamus Coleman was 20 when he joined Everton from Sligo Rovers, Wes Hoolohan was 24 before he signed for Blackpool and Shane Long was 18 when he swapped Cork for Reading.
It’s pretty much a given that coaching methods in the UK pale in comparison with the rest of Europe, so once again I ask: Why do we continue to let our best young talent get lost in such an obviously defective system?
If as Rodgers says, England are institutionalising their young players from the age of 8 and they STILL can’t produce top players, shouldn’t that be evidence enough for a rethink on our part?
Ok, so we haven’t the standard of coaches, the facilities or the funding to develop players properly ourselves. Nor can we trust our English neighbours to develop our nation’s best anymore. So what can we do?
Back in February of this year, Ireland took an entirely home based under 18 squad across for a friendly against their Welsh counterparts (a game they won 1-0). It was seen as an opportunity to showcase their talent – a chance to be spotted and thrown into the British football “clinic”.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to bring similar squads for showcase games in Spain, France, Italy and Germany? Why not establish links and forge stronger relationships with the foreign associations and clubs that could actually help to develop the Irish stars of tomorrow? Clubs in those countries could provide much better coaching and clearer pathways to first team football.
It’s an exciting thought to imagine 20 or 30 of our best young footballers being farmed out across the continent every year. It’s even more exciting to try to imagine the type of player the continent would return to us a few years later.
This would of course, require some really hands on FAI involvement at a contractual and player advice/services level. It would also mean the severing or weakening of many long standing Anglo-Irish club and interpersonal relationships. But maybe it is time to embrace such a drastic alternative to current arrangements.
Alas, the FAI, kings of short termism and financial anaemia, will never provide the right structures or planning for such a move, certainly in their current guise. For the foreseeable future, it seems Ireland will be forced to rely on blind luck and the perpetuation of “Operation Granny Hunt” (which is nothing to do with Stephen or Noel), to unearth the next boys in green.