Inspiration in short supply as FAI get cold feet on Dokter's cure
"This is an inspiring time for Irish football," said the FAI's high performance director Ruud Dokter as he neared the end of his speech at the association's AGM in Sligo on Saturday.
The Dutchman's comments were met with applause from a room that appeared satisfied with a series of positive pronouncements about the state of the game.
Dokter's presentation was a central selling point of the meeting, the launch of a 'Player Development Plan' which was the culmination of a process involving the establishment of a Technical Advisory Group and a series of meetings with stakeholders around the country with a view to shaping a vision for the future.
In the tidy 44-page A5-sized booklet, Dokter's opening comments referenced the '"huge appetite for change right across the country".
Certainly, the need to develop better youngsters is an obvious populist cry, especially in the fall-out from disappointing Euro 2016 results. The worrying age profile of Martin O'Neill's dressing room hints at trouble ahead.
If Robbie Brady can engineer his transfer to Norwich, then he will be the only homegrown Irishman under the age of 25 in a Premier League first-team squad in this coming season.
John Delaney likes to use his appointment as the FAI's CEO as a reference point for progress.
For the third year in a row, he neglected to speak to the national football press after the AGM but he did conduct two local radio interviews. That Ocean FM advertised their playback as Delaney speaking on "Sligo, politics and romance" delivers a hint about the subject matter.
But when actual policy was discussed, the Waterford man opted for the now familiar 'When I took over' soundbite as the start of an upturn.
Delaney assumed control in 2004. The kids who were in the U-10/U-12 age-bracket at that point, and at the start of their journey, are the generation that has prompted serious concern. It has not been a vintage decade for player production.
Dokter's appointment was intended to counter that, but his plans have been met with opposition. The booklet that was digested by guests at the Clarion Hotel lays out changes in terms of playing format, specifically smaller-sided games at underage level, with skill development prioritised ahead of "winning at all costs".
Kids at U-6/U-7 level will play 4 v 4 games, U-8/U-9 will play 5 v 5, U-10/11 will play 7 v 7 and so on. The implementation of this common structure across the country includes consistency on pitch sizes, the type of ball used, and no league tables until U-12 level.
It may sound radical to older generations who grew up in an entirely different system yet, according to sources the majority of the proposals outlined at the weekend were agreed without much fuss.
Crucially, however, they don't tackle the structural, geographic issues which hinder the belief that the best players should be playing with the best and alongside the best from an early age.
The Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland is made up of 32 member leagues from the 26 counties.
Key figures involved in the Technical Advisory Group wanted a reduction in the amount of leagues - possibly to as little as 10 - along regionalised boundaries to facilitate the elite performers in each age group coming into frequent contact.
The FAI's Emerging Talent Programme had that remit, but interaction is effectively restricted to one training session per week. Prominent voices in youth football believe that is insufficient.
However, merging leagues is a political landmine that would make long-standing administrators surplus to requirements. "Like turkeys voting for Christmas," according to a source involved in the process.
"If you don't dismantle the 32-league situation, then you're going nowhere. You need someone strong in the FAI to implement that. All the major things that were talked about - none of them happened."
Clearly, the 'appetite for change' had a ceiling. Another innovation that was favoured was moving the schoolboy calendar from winter to summer, but that has also been resisted.
Critics made the fair point that moving into direct competition with GAA would be a risky, especially in the provinces.
Supporters argue that the better weather would be more conducive to learning than standing around in the cold and rain and having gatherings cancelled due to the elements. They say that playing during the school holidays would offer flexibility in terms of arranging midweek matches.
Dokter wants the summer switch, but has been unable to get it ratified. The establishment of an U-17 National League, with plans for a U-15 equivalent, are the closest to his vision and will tackle the power bases in a portion of the 32 constituencies.
In his emotional speech on Saturday, which was met by a standing ovation from a good number of the delegates present, Delaney spoke of his pride in the FAI's work.
"We are united, a confident organisation and the support is incredible," said Delaney, who was described as the "best signing the FAI has ever made" by local man Noel Kennedy after he'd been voted in as a Life Member.
Turning the AGM into a travelling roadshow has strengthened Delaney's rapport with the grassroots. A full implementation of the ideas floated by Dokter's Technical Advisory Group would require unpopular decisions.
When Delaney was under fire because of his €5m deal with FIFA or his ballad singing, he cited the backing of the FAI's 'members' as evidence that all was healthy.
Certainly, the absence of concern from the floor about debts of €51.2m and the alteration of language about when it will be cleared must be a source of reassurance for a board who feel they get a rough ride from outside the tent.
Finance director Eamon Breen says that the aim between 2015 and 2020 is to make "significant inroads" into the debt. Last October, Delaney said: "If we choose, we can be debt-free by 2020."
In response to his refusal to speak to the media, a list of 20 questions have been submitted to the FAI dealing with issues such as the terms of their lending arrangements, Delaney's salary, 10-year tickets and the security presence at the AGM and the Aviva.
The communications department have indicated that a response will be considered today. On Saturday, they were satisfied with an exercise that seems to revolve around telling people what they want to hear.