Irish football: The next step

What a journey it was. Whether you were over in France or jammed into a packed pub back home, it has been impossible not to be carried away by the ups and downs of the Irish team at Euro 2016. From the kick off in that first game against Sweden to the ultimately futile scramble for a late equaliser against France in Lyon last Sunday, the Irish public was once again captivated by their football team.

Ireland emerged from the tournament with a new captain (Seamus Coleman), a new midfield general (Jeff Hendrick) and a new creative force (Robbie Brady). Perhaps most importantly of all, the team emerged from Euro 2016 with their relationship with the Irish public renewed and refreshed. We spoke on the Hurlers on the Ditch podcast prior to the tournament about how the public had finally fallen out of love with the squad. However, the nature of the performance throughout the tournament, the emotion and commitment displayed as much as the style of play, re-energised the love affair between fans and team.

While Euro 2016 can largely be viewed as a success for Ireland, it does not mean we can stop ourselves from asking hard questions. Our squad was the oldest at the tournament (aided by players like Shay Given and John O’Shea who are now likely to retire) and while a core of younger players emerged as our time in France went on, this will soon be a squad in transition. With Ireland’s under-age squads far from setting the world alight (our Under 21s have never reached a European Championships), we must look to the future of Irish football and ask ourselves how we can build on our most positive major tournament experience since arguably Italia 90.

The most common route for Irish footballers to reach the senior international squad since the beginning of the Premier League era has been through leaving Ireland at a young age to seek glory in England. We all know someone who knows someone whose young lad is over in the Sunderland or West Ham academies and has high hopes of making it all the way to the first team. However, the reality of the situation is that where once upon a time Irish youngsters were competing with British players in these Premier League academies, such is the scale of the operations involved that players come from every corner of the world to take places in Premier League academies. Irish kids are now up against players from Spain, Argentina and Nigeria as often as they are up against English or Scottish lads. This increased competition at a young age has changed the dynamics for Irish players, who often fall through the cracks of these top academies and down the leagues. We only need to look at the last Irish players to fully make the grade through the Manchester United youth ranks (John O’Shea) to see that we cannot rely on Premier League clubs to turn out ready made superstars for our national team. It is time for a serious rethink of football in this country.

Firstly, we must dispense with the notion of England being the be all and end all for exporting Irish footballing talent. Though they are our nearest neighbours and our countries share so much in terms of culture and language, the extent to which we rely on English infrastructure producing our footballing talents is unhealthy. For one, I don’t know if anyone has noticed but English football is not in the rudest of health itself at the moment; are we sure we want to entrust our best young footballers to a system receiving so much criticism?

It is not only this, but the smallness of ambition that the reliance on England reveals. It is the easier option to take, to go to a country less than an hour’s flight away, where you speak the language and understand the culture. The braver, more ambitious option might be to seek opportunity further afield, to fly the nest and attempt to gain a footballing education in European countries. It is not the fault of the players that England is the first and last consideration when thinking about their future. That is all they know. It is up to the administration, those in charge, to encourage and incentivise a broadening of the horizons. An Irish footballing prospect moving to Holland or Italy, at whatever level, would display a serious intent to grow and improve, to move beyond what has become the norm and aim for different standards.

Another important step which must be taken by those in charge of football in this country is to promote the idea of second and third chances, of perseverance paying off. For all my talk of reducing reliance on England, the likelihood is that Britain will always be the incubator for nurturing our footballing talent. This being the case, as I have said, many will fall through the cracks of the big clubs, lost in the shuffle in the rat race to the first team.

But the FAI and other administrators must promote the idea that to be let go from a Premier League side, no matter who they are, is far from the end of a footballer’s career. There must be a negation of the idea that footballers must be fully formed superstars by the age of 21 for them to be a success. In countries like Germany and Spain, who boast large playing populations and vibrant leagues, there may be a pressure to be fully formed in your early 20s or risk being left behind, but in an Irish context, it is very much a case of better late than never.

Luckily, a new poster boy for this notion has just stepped forward; one Robert Brady. Ireland’s hero in Lille and Lyon made his way up the ranks in Manchester United’s academy all the way to first team appearances in the League Cup but was eventually let go. Brady was picked up by Hull City and eventually moved on to Norwich. Being relegated twice in two seasons was hardly the club career Brady would have envisaged for himself while at Old Trafford but he has not allowed this to derail him. Instead, he is coming into his stride more and more with every passing year, showing the quality on the ball which saw Manchester United pick him up to begin with and was Ireland’s standout performer in France. Brady perfectly encapsulates the idea that you do not need to be playing at a Top 4 side to have international prospects and that ability counts for far more than what club shirt you wear.

Perhaps the biggest tool the FAI have at its disposal for re-engineering football in Ireland is the League of Ireland. Creating a viable football infrastructure in this country starts with reforming this ailing league.

Not enough has been made of the eight players in Martin O’Neill’s Euros squad who began their careers in the LOI. This is a unique platform upon which to build a new image for the league. There exists an opportunity to show young Irish players that their futures can be shaped just as successfully at home as it can be by heading to England at the age of 15. The FAI needs to show that staying on an extra few years in Ireland can actually lead to a better outcome than being released from a Premier League or Championship club before your 20th birthday.

The FAI should shift the focus of the league to better benefit the national team.Fill it with promising young players, lads who have decided to stay at home for an extra few years before heading abroad to further their careers. Turn the league into a finishing school for the cream of our crop. To do this would require serious investment in not only facilities but, crucially, coaching. Engage ex-players as coaches for the League of Ireland teams, promote coaching courses for those nearing the end of their careers. Get Brian Kerr back involved for goodness sake. Eventually, maybe pick u17 or u18 squads of solely League of Ireland players. Make the league matter and let it be nearly an academy of sorts. When the best players move on to England, the league will endure with those left behind and those young players coming through. Foster the best of Irish talents in Ireland and send them off with the best chance to achieve their goals, and the goals of Irish football.

While not everything I have suggested in this piece is viable (ruled out by money or practicality) what I think is absolutely achievable, and indeed essential, is a reform of the footballing infrastructure in this country. I wholeheartedly believe we must shift away from packing our best young talent off to England at 15 and 16 years of age. We must aim for something more ambitious than that. Keeping them here, in a tweaked League of Ireland or through some sort of central academy, is a must. Irish football once again has an identity. Now is the time to protect and develop it.

Phil Greene

You can follow Phil on Twitter here

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