Like the rest of the country this summer, my whole life will revolve around willing a very special group of management and playing staff – whom embody all that is so very magical about what it means to be Irish – to huge success during the European Championships in France.
But as much as I look forward to supporting our lads, as a man that has only never known football since entering the professional game at Arsenal nearly two decades ago, I worry about whether our huge youth development issues in Ireland will still allow us to remain competitive ten years from now.
Nearly 20 years ago under the guidance of Brian Kerr and the late Noel O’Reilly, our underage set up was seen as one of the best and most productive set ups in Europe.
This period of time is seen as the birth of what has been referred to as a “golden generation of players”. Over 20 players from five different age groups emerged from our junior teams to earn a combined total of over 600 senior international caps over the best part of the last two decades, and our success was unprecedented.
Compare the consistency in our productivity at youth level from that period of time to that of the past 15 years and there is just no comparison.
So why such a change now in our fortunes at youth level?
Our issues are simply down to the fact that we stood still while the football world around us moved on. While other countries professionalised themselves from an earlier age, investing into new facilities whilst also implementing measures to increase the quantity and quality of qualified coaches, we did absolutely nothing and now it has come back to haunt us.
All around Europe, aspiring young footballers aged 8-12 train between 8-12 hours a week, whilst players aged 12-16 can practice as much as 12-15 hours a week at fantastic training facilities. Compare this to our children’s hour on a Tuesday and Thursday, more times than not, on very poor surfaces that are sometimes more fit for the local gangs piss up rather than a technical football session.
The very drawn-out FAI development plan to improve grassroots football in Ireland is just so – so, and though some parts of it are good, they have failed to even scratch the surface of attacking the issues that could really give us the foundation to kick on.
Our lack of facilities and qualified coaches in comparison to our competitors is obviously a major issue. However, it is the unwillingness of the many stakeholders within our game to put their egos aside, which is the main contributor in really holding us back.
As a man that is full-time in football almost 19 years, I warn that the Irish public must not believe that we are on the right track when it comes to youth development, and given the current facts, unless something drastic happens, we will produce a level of football player nowhere near good enough to compete at a top level over the next two decades and more, adventures like this Summer in France will one day become unrealistic.
What is so very sad is that if we showed a willingness to pull all our resources together, whilst being imaginative and indeed brave, I am very certain we could make huge strides very quickly.
For example, professionalising and merging our geographically most dominant League of Ireland clubs with some of our most productive and well facilitated schoolboy clubs all around the country. Creating these real professional entities that could house youth structures running from 6 year olds right up to senior, is in my opinion a logical step and such an idea could help realign and improve our business and technical model all in swoop.
Incorporated in such a programme should be an initiative to establish partnerships with local schools that would allow the current children’s education syllabus be combined with a football education, for a set number of hours a week – provided the child’s education is not compromised. This in turn would make up for the hours our children are not getting, with sufficient practice hours in a ‘day-release’ styled initiative evident in England already.
Despite what we lack there is an opportunity now to achieve something ground-breaking, but only if people are prepared to put the betterment of Irish football ahead of any personal agenda.
But unfortunately, there are decision makers within our game that quite disgracefully are more obsessed with preserving their own position and enjoying celebrity, than actually aggressively attacking the right issues to effect change.
As a man who loves Irish football, and more importantly as a parent, I feel very saddened that many children all over Ireland, who may one day hold ambitions of emulating their heroes this Summer in France, may no longer realistically have that opportunity. As a football community, we have been negligent, selfish and allowed this self-serving attitude get in the way of allowing our children realise their dreams – a fact of which I find utterly shameful.
I will leave you with this. Win, lose or draw, after every game at underage level, Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly would gather us together downstairs at the hotel and Noel would get the guitar out and we would have a right good sing-song. I remember seeing other teams and coaches staying at the same hotel, looking on not knowing quite what to make of it as we belted out the “Fields of Athenry” or some Christy Moore or Luke Kelly classic. They were mystified and could not understand our culture, so no wonder they could rarely beat us – but without going off the point, there was one song – written by The Wolfe Tones, ‘On The One Road’ – that was forever my favourite as the lyrics were the perfect illustration of everything that we stood for as a country and as a group.
“North men; South men; comrades all… Dublin; Belfast; Cork; and Donegal
we are on the one road…”
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