Sunday 4 December 2016

5 reasons soccer is losing out to GAA

Published 06/12/2011 | 05:00

IT IS unlikely that Wim Koevermans was particularly aware of the existence of the GAA before September 2008.

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Three years into his job, the FAI's international performance director has identified the rival game as a key problem for Irish soccer, with young players who fail to make the grade in England coming home and switching to Gaelic football rather than sticking with the sport.

That means that domestic soccer is losing players who have been schooled in the game from a young age, who were considered to be the creme de la creme of their age group but who didn't quite make the final cut across the water.

They are players who would boost the Irish game at whatever level they would end up in, be it the Airtricity League or even the amateur game. They might not fulfil their early promise, but the sport would be richer for their involvement.

Last Sunday, Blanchardstown's St Brigid's progressed to the Leinster club football final with former Ipswich goalkeeper Shane Supple between the posts. Facing him was Paul Cahillane, who once played for Celtic, but now takes the frees for Portlaoise.

Here were two players who were once destined for soccer careers, but who left it behind for their local GAA club. Soccer's loss appears to have been the GAA's gain.

Koevermans has broadened his focus from just working with the international teams to defining a pathway for the country's elite footballers to succeed.

His appointment always looked like a progressive move from the FAI and the former Dutch international has enjoyed his time here so much that he would like to continue beyond the duration of his contract, which expires in September next year.

Facing off the competition like Gaelic games and rugby cannot be something he faced regularly in his home country, where soccer is king, but why has the FAI been facing a losing battle to keep some of their best young players from defecting?

Since arriving in Ireland, Koevermans has identified a lack of elite competition for players in their late teens as a bridge between their schooling and senior soccer.

Players were being signed up by schoolboy clubs to play in local leagues or League of Ireland clubs for spells in the reserves.

His hope is that an U-19 national league involving senior clubs will help to bridge that gap, providing a pathway to the top of the domestic game that incentivises players to stay in soccer rather than taking up another sport with perceived better structures.

The GAA may not be in a position to pay a wage, but the support structures in top counties are akin to professional outfits and the pathway to the inter-county scene is clear to see, making it attractive to youngsters who want to play at the top level.

The return for any teenager who has failed to make the grade cannot be easy as the dreams of the big time are crushed.

Of course, the reality is that there are plenty of examples out there of players who bounced back from that initial rejection. But the road the likes of Keith Fahey and Richie Ryan have taken can be a hard one and can't have looked promising when they first returned home.

When the local GAA club comes calling, it could be seen as a fresh start away from the crushing disappointment just suffered and a route back out of disillusionment.

League of Ireland managers might ring, but what they are offering is hardly going to get a young player fresh from England jumping out of his seat.

Few league clubs are in a position to offer a senior professional more than a season's security, so when a player is being signed purely on his potential, then the offer is bound to be even less attractive.

The last thing a youngster, having returned home, wants to face is another bout of uncertainty like that facing the majority of professional footballers in Ireland and while he might not be paid for playing Gaelic football, there is a degree of stability available.

Soccer has been suffering from an image problem in Ireland over the past decade and after qualifying for Euro 2012, Damien Duff brought up the need for the team to reclaim the limelight from rugby.

When Duff was growing up in Dublin, the national team were the biggest show in town, but the oval ball game has been grabbing the headlines as well as plenty of the marketing euro.

Heineken Cup success and the IRFU's ability to keep their internationals in Ireland have seen Brian O'Driscoll and Co marketed as clean-cut role models who companies are dying to have as brand ambassadors, while the GAA takes over in the summer with big crowds and plenty of attention.

Whatever about the international team, domestic players just cannot compete for air-time and the ancillary benefits of the professional game are not available to them.

Euro 2012 will help restore the national team's reputation, but for a youngster facing a climb back to the top the rewards do not look as attractive as they do in other sports. Playing for your county or achieving with your local club just has a better ring to it sometimes.

Although millions have been pumped into wages in Irish football in recent years, facilities have been neglected, while the organisation of many GAA clubs means they are often better run than so-called professional soccer clubs.

Many local clubs have invested in state-of-the-art all-weather pitches, floodlights, gyms and clubhouses that put what is available to many soccer clubs to shame.

Last season, financial problems at Bohemians meant that their players had to use the bars at Dalymount to do weights work, while they trained on the pitch all season. That would be anathema to the groundsmen at most GAA and rugby clubs, who often consider the firsts' pitch off-limits for all but the most prestigious of matches.

After their apprenticeship at professional clubs in England, perhaps young soccer players see their standards being reflected in the GAA.

Irish Independent

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