Once more the Republic of Ireland are faced with the sting of the has-been tale, as the Boys in Green count the losses following last week’s 5-1 hammering to Denmark at the Aviva Stadium. The result; which sharpens a rough qualification campaign from the Irish, means that by Qatar 2022 it will be twenty years since Ireland qualified for the FIFA World Cup. Following on from the successes of Euro 2016 this result only serves as a wakeup call for Martin O’Neill’s men as a nation gathers its thoughts and looks to the future.
Looking back at the summer of 2016 the waters where optimistic. Warming from the cold light of Euro 2012, Ireland regained international recognition following tooth and nail wins against Italy, Germany, Bosnia and Georgia all created momentum which recaptured the golden years for the Boys in Green. Accidentally Martin O’Neill had stumbled across a younger formula seeding a bed of optimism for the now disastrous World Cup qualification campaign.
It was not the emergence of youth that breathed fresh light or the tactical masterclass, but rather a renewed sense of pertinence from the ‘problem child’ of Irish football, more commonly known as the ‘League of Ireland’.
Coming out of the halls of domestic football came James McClean, a talisman for Derry City, Shane Long and David Meyler, formerly of Cork City FC, Wes Hoolahan from Shelbourne, Stephen Ward from Bohemians, the empathic captain Sheamus Coleman from Sligo Rovers and the added depths of Stephen Quinn, formerly of St. Patrick’s Athletic. Even emerging now we see Daryl Horgan, of Cork City and UCC fame, Cork folk hero Seani Maguire and defender Andy Boyle from Dundalk making the step up to the Boys in Green from the League of Ireland.
Common misconceptions have been laden in the pub debate and around the water cooler have been the ‘lack of talent’ in Ireland and how we will never ‘have the players’, with a casual eye turning to the populace and the competition for game. It in this same argument Ireland are faced with Iceland, who are currently riding the crest of a wave through last summer’s quarter final appearance at the European Championships and awaiting their World Cup debut next summer in Russia. Looking at Iceland, a land with a population of 337,949 (smaller than that of County Cork alone) the argument of populace is out the window. In drawing comparisons to the Nordic team, the problems with Irish football are clearly structural.
Irish football has potential. Dundalk showed this potential in 2016 in reaching the playoff round of the UEFA Champions League, only slipping to a 3-1 aggregate defeat to Legia Warsaw (albeit a controversial penalty decision in the first leg), before going on to the group stages of the Europa League. In a group of Zenit St. Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Lilywhites claimed four points, including a first ever win for an Irish side when Stephen Kenny’s men toppled Tel Aviv at Tallaght Stadium. Alongside this, Cork City FC travelled through three rounds of European football, knocking out Linfield, BK Häcken (Swedish Cup champions on a budget of €25 million against the Rebel Army’s €1 million) before succumbing to eventual quarterfinalists KRC Genk, with the Rebel Army’s under 19 side also knocking HJK Helsinki out of the UEFA Youth League.
Against these strides, Irish sides have been fighting an uphill struggle for investment and support. In 2016, under a five year plan, the FAI pledged €5,000 to each League of Ireland club as part of an initiative to aid the growth of the domestic game. Once broken down, the weekly sum invested amounted to €24.03 a week to league clubs, a plan which was hit back with by criticism including St. Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City refusing the grant, with the Saints commenting that the FAI have, ‘utterly failed’ the domestic game.
Lack of regulation has been a consistent issue with regards to funding and investment. Since 2005 Cork City FC, Shamrock Rovers, Derry City, Bohemians, Shelbourne, Athlone Town, Dundalk, Galway United, Waterford FC, Limerick FC and Wexford Youths have all faced financial difficulty, while other clubs such as Sporting Fingal, Kildare County and Monaghan United have had to withdraw from the League of Ireland due to financial reasons. Looking passed a case by case inspection, what other league has been in a state of comings and goings consistently for the better part of ten years?
Drawing comparisons once more, Iceland in 2016 chose to donate €3,409,670 (453 million króna – roughly 25% of the total fee) of the money the country made from Euro 2016 to aid the development of Icelandic football domestically.
Yet, in terms of development, Ireland has been consistently relying off of a broken system to try and build talent. An age old system of sending youth off to England at 15 or 16 years of age to try and fight through the youth set ups, and establish themselves in a pressure cooker environment alongside worldwide catchment and the ballooning transfer market. It is of no surprise the statistics that 85% of youth players from Premier League clubs do not make the final cut.
While there has been success, the output greatly outweighs the gains. The key to success is not in shipping young talent off, but retaining, harnessing and focussing. To harness this we need to strengthen and focus the League of Ireland, enable youth development and talent so that when a player is ready to make the jump, they have been tried and tested by the Irish set up.
Following from the steps of Sheamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, James McClean, Shane Long and most recently Daryl Horgan and Senai Maguire, we need to harness and refine talent at a young age, and give young players the skillset domestically before diving into the ocean that are foreign leagues.
Positive advancements, such as at the formation of the under 15 national leagues alongside the under 17 and under 19 leagues have bridged the gap, but more needs to be put in place. Stability is key, and something the league format has been lacking throughout. In 2010 the League of Ireland consisted of a ten team premier division, before reverting back to twelve and now once more a ten team set up across two divisions. The underage set up has been consistently chopped and changed with an under 21 league in 2001 before an under 20 league in 2008 and now, in 2011, an under 19 league.
The key is in the youth. The key is in the coaches. The key is in the footprints laid out across the waters.
“The system is very good. You can see they are really pushing on the development of talented players at the clubs” said Iceland’s first team coach Lars Lagerback in 2016, “if you look at our squad for the Euros, and look at the younger players, I would definitely say these are well educated.”
Emphasis too has been placed in the development of coaches. Once more, Iceland praised the ongoing development of managers and coaches to enable the fruition of talent. Speaking once more in 2016, Lagerback was key to point out the foundations of coaching in the growth of the domestic game: “Part of the real success here even at the top level is they have very educated coaches starting at five or six years of age” a philosophy which has been seeping through the Irish channels.
It is the same vision which was channelled by schoolboys club Carrigaline United in recent weeks through the appointment of former Cork City manager Damien Richardson as Director of Football at the Cork club. Shamrock Rovers have been placing the emphasis on youth and progression with the appointments of former Leeds United midfielder Stephen McPhail as Sporting Director at the Hoops, as well as former Chelsea winger Damien Duff as assistant to Stephen Bradley as first team coach. Under these bridges at Rovers we have already seen Aaron Bolger press through, while the emerging talent of Graham Burke has been described as an ‘ongoing project’ by Rovers staff.
The key to success is not managerial. We are the makers of our own bed. Years of neglect of the national league has threatened the future of the national team. While the bearing of the fruits is the senior call ups, the soil and seeds laden should be the domestic bridges and lanes. Irish football is at a crossroads: the same story, the same hard luck and the same words are spoken. It is a time to rethink the question and ask the big ones. Something needs to change, and it not an overnight job.