By John O’Hara
Noe Baba, Ryan McConnell, Kyle, McFadden, Peter Burke. What do all four of these young lads have in common? They have all been released by their English clubs in the past month, following several years as youth players in their academies, once again highlighting the ineptitude of our underage football set up in Ireland.
These lads may well go on to have successful careers with other clubs in England, but the percentages are not on their side. All four left these shores as sixteen year olds, with the dream of becoming professional football players in England, all four are now being discarded to the top of an ever growing mountain of young players whose potential has never been realised.
The four chosen are merely for illustration, there are many more who could have been picked to highlight this growing problem, that the FAI and John Delaney casually ignore, as they sweet talk their way through another AGM, where the media is not allowed to ask questions. We are continuing to make the same mistakes, continuing with a system that is broken and no one seems to be taking any notice of this malaise, especially the man earning the six figure sum at the top of the organisation.
We were told that the introduction of the Emerging Talent Programme would herald a new beginning for underage football in Ireland, yet almost a decade later, we have seen little or no results. Look at our national team at present, James McCarthy is the most technically gifted player in the group, he was trained all his life in Scotland. Seamus Coleman is obviously the exception to the rule, but it should be noted that he went completely unnoticed by the FAI throughout his teenage years, his obvious ability not so obvious to those who mattered. We are relying on English academies and English born players for our national team, while we continue to ignore the vast pool of talent that grow up and play their football on this island.
Look at James McClean, as an example. He obviously has the talent and the desire to play at the highest level, but even his biggest fans will note his lack of technical ability, which is simply down to a lack of coaching at a young age. Players shouldn’t have to go to England to learn these trades, they should be available here in Ireland to all players.
Go to any tournament around the country, from the Galway Cup to the Milk Cup and you will see hundreds of kids with enormous potential. But you will also see the winning teams have superior physicality and these are the kids that are getting noticed and these are the kids that are going across the water. Young players who are still growing and have brilliant potential are cast aside at an early age, feeling like failures, because they are getting beaten by lads who are bigger and stronger than them. Xavi of Barcelona has spoken of his battle as a teenager, trying to deal with physicality, while Ajax have come up with a system of playing their youth teams a year or two out of their age group in order for them to rely on football intelligence, rather than their physical presence.
The other problem you see at football tournaments around the country is that ambitious kids often have even more ambitious parents, patrolling the touchlines, with unhelpful advice, in the hope that their lad is the lottery ticket they have been looking for. Coaching should be done by coaches and qualified coaches only, not the doting dad of the star striker. All too often it’s the big lad at centre-half or the pacy striker who catches the eye of the scouts and all of a sudden, he’s alone in England with the biggest pool of talent in the world and feeling a little out of his depth.
Fast forward two years and you have an eighteen year old with no education, an ego that’s been smashed to pieces who lands home with his confidence shattered and he’s given up on football altogether. This may seem like hyperbole, but it is happening all too often in this country.
What is wrong with young lads staying in this country, getting an education, playing with their local League of Ireland underage teams and if they’re good enough and progressing to the League of Ireland? This should be the model that the FAI should be aspiring to, but they know that the money is not there to invest in the adequate coaching of the young players, so they prefer to throw them all into the net and pray that one or two prevail. The problem is there are less and less players getting through then ever before, so it is up to the national manager of the day to scour the British Isles and beyond to look for players of Irish heritage.
The crux of our current problem starts and ends with both the League of Ireland and the FAI. When the CEO of the football federation describes the national league as ‘The Problem Child’ you really know that you’re in trouble and it’s this apathy that is the root of the problem. The prize fund for the League of Ireland is miniscule. Couple that with decreasing attendances and you will see the hardship that is facing Irish clubs. And yet, some of the greatest successes have come from the League of Ireland. Roy Keane and Paul McGrath both played League of Ireland before enjoying amazing success at club and international level. More recently, Shane Long, Seamus Coleman and James McClean have proven that it’s possible to make the step up, but all three players have been hampered to a degree by the part time coaching they received in Ireland. If more players stayed and the coaching was improved and the league was given more money, we would see an increase in these success stories.
The fact that John Delaney can bring on board a multi-millionaire like Denis O’Brien to pay the wages of the national manager, but does not try to get the same level of funding for the grassroots game is criminal. Paying the senior boss more money or getting the best international boss in the world is not going to solve our problem; we are not producing enough players!
Niall Quinn spoke recently about Belgium and their youth academy, which has produced the likes of Hazard, Benteke and Mignolet. They take the best players from each age group to eight training facilities dotted around the country where they go as both players and scholars, ensuring the continuation of education, whilst also receiving daily training, resulting in more face time with coaches, during a critical phase of their development. In a country as small as Ireland’s, we should be looking to emulate this strategy, not pack them off to England, in the hope they might make it. Players are also free to train with their clubs in the evening. Although Hazard went to France at an early age, the changes in the development of football in the country had a direct effect on him.
Noe Baba, who was mentioned at the beginning of the article, was seen by many as one of the greatest prospects of the current underage set-up. He was chased by all the top clubs, before settling on Fulham, where he seemed to be making progress. The former Castlebar Celtic player has captained Ireland’s U-19 team, but has been deemed surplus to requirements by manager Kit Symons. The line between success and failure seems to be getting smaller all the time. He has since been picked up by Birmingham and we all pray that he does make the grade, as he is one of our finest prospects. Look at Joe Coll, another Donegal man who hit the headlines, when Brian McClair came to his home to capture his signature. He’s now playing junior football back in Donegal. His story is a warning to all aspiring stars, the road is long and success stories are few and far between.
So as John Delaney continues to disenfranchise real fans, while happily cashing his ludicrous pay cheque each week, he should remember that the malaise of Irish soccer has continued unabated under his watch.