Ruud Dokter: 'We want our best young players to go to United, Arsenal and Chelsea but UK not always the best step'
In an exclusive interview with Daniel McDonnell, Dokter discusses the absence of any experienced former internationals on the staff of underage teams up to U-21 level.
An exciting summer lies ahead for Irish football with Euro 2016 looming over the horizon but the age profile of Martin O'Neill's squad has prompted concerns about qualification for future tournaments.
Ruud Dokter, the Dutch High Performance Director of the FAI, is the man tasked with organising the structure of youth football in Ireland and preparing the path for the next generation. He has kept a low profile since his appointment in 2013 but this week he sat down with Daniel McDonnell to speak about the structural, financial and political challenges he has faced in a unique sporting environment.
Daniel McDonnell: Ruud, you came to Irish football in 2013. What were your impressions of the Irish football culture, and how did your research compare to what you found when you got here?
Ruud Dokter: I would know the Irish culture from an outside perspective, being an (underage) international manager in Holland for a long time and playing Ireland was always a challenge because of the culture, the positive aggression, they always gave us a hard time. I heard from my predecessor, Wim Koevermans, about the structures, the operations. It's a big challenge in Ireland to make improvements because there's a great sporting culture here. Ireland is unique in the sense we have the GAA - you wouldn't have that in Belgium, Holland and Germany where football is by far the number one. Football in Ireland has the highest participation numbers but GAA and hurling and rugby is competitive and we all draw players from that pool.
DMcD: When you grew up in Holland, what was the pathway to senior football? The unusual thing here in addition to competition with sports is that the schoolboy clubs and junior clubs and League of Ireland club are basically all separate entities...
RD: Yes, in the Netherlands, that's the difference, you can go to a club when you are 5 and you know you could stick with them until you are 65. That's a community club, all the way from a young age to a first team to a committee or whatever. That's the same with most clubs - not necessarily at professional level although Ajax would have. The others would have academies starting at age 13. But what you would say is that there's a pathway from a young age to the first team and that is important.
DMcD: Did it take you a while to get your head around the system here?
RD: No, I studied it, I understand it. You have to respect tradition and the culture because that's not easy to change because it is what it is. What we have to say is: "Is this the best way?' My phrase would always be 'What is best for the player?' Best for the player would be that he is in a good football environment and could move up the steps of the ladder. It wouldn't be good for a player to go from this club to that club and to this club. That doesn't work.
Ok, for some players it will work but the best players will always be up there, no matter what club they are at.. But it's the 80pc or 90pc that are in that range of 'Will they make it or not?' And for those players you have to create a good environment. That's why we set up a national U17 league and said to the schoolboy clubs...we have to create a pathway. I know the schoolboy clubs do fantastic work but we need to collaborate with each other, that's the keyword.
DMcD: In the FAI's new Strategic Plan, the line used is the need to increase the pool of players that are capable of playing at international level..
RD: Yes, because many can drop off. Players go to England. They think it's the be-all and end-all to go to England but there is evidence that shows that it's not. It's a very competitive environment and all these academies are full of foreign international players. The question is if that's the best environment for our players? We have an U19 league, an U17 league and hopefully in the future, there will be an U15 league, so there will be improved elite competition structures at local levels to provide a pathway to stay in the country.
Obviously, we want the best players to go to the UK of course, to play for Manchester United and Arsenal and Chelsea. And I respect players chasing the dream but reality shows it's not always the best step. We have players here in our senior team now which you know stayed a long time in Ireland and they are a little bit more mature because of homesickness and things like that. 16 is very young to leave your parents. We are working on elite structures, so there's a good reason to stay here for another year or years and say 'Ok, I'm ready to go now..'
DMcD: The Player Development Plan (launched in 2015) was the product of the time you spent with your Technical Advisory Group. How beneficial was that process and how close is the finished product to what you imagined it might be at the start?
RD: The process was very productive. It shouldn't be my plan. That's not always my strategy. We have to work with people around and say 'Ok, what do people want?' People had sometimes the perception: "Oh, he's coming from Holland, he's copying the Dutch model' but that would be very stupid. Every country is different. We can't copy the UK or Belgium or Germany. We can take the good points away. I've spent my whole life in football, I've worked in UEFA, I've been around so many countries from an international management point of view and I know what's going on. But Ireland is Ireland with its unique structures and that's the starting point. You can't ignore that and I won't. That technical committee gave me a lot of information but it's not always my ideas; there were people who are a long time in the game. And your second question was?
DMcD: What the finished product is like compared to what you imagined at the start?
RD: I'm delighted. Change takes time. It's not a matter of writing a book and saying, 'Ok go ahead, this is it, that will work.' It's an ongoing basis to influence people. That's what we have to do on the ground, engage with leagues - that's what we are doing now. The first recommendations are now being implemented, very important and they are about the philosophy - the player centred approach.
What we have done now is all these roadshows and engaged with the leagues. Now we have a workshop with the coaches. We've done 16 since the start of the season. Tonight, we will go to Limerick, and I will do a demonstration and say 'Ok, what does it mean when you are on the pitch working with the kids in five-a-side' to give an example of that. And coaches love to work. It's how you bring information from top to the bottom because there's a lot of strands in between and that's the challenge with us. But, again I'm delighted with where we are now. I came in 2013, now it's 2016, we have a plan, we work on the plan and that's what it is.
We have ten recommendations and there are timelines. We might not meet all the timelines but we will work on them. We have to accept that change will not come overnight. Its a change of mindset and culture. It takes years but the key point is uniformity, consistency always and bringing the same message and engaging with leagues and coaches. It's a board policy. The board is 100pc behind the plan and its phenomenal to work with that, very exciting.
DMcD: One of your goals has always been the best playing with the best and against the best. Is the climate there now to ensure that is the case everywhere around the country?
RD: What do you mean specifically?
DMcD: In Dublin, there's a strong schoolboys league and players will encounter each other on a regular basis. In the rural parts of the country, where there's a radius rule (players cannot play for a club more than 80km away from their school) in place, there may be an elite player who doesn't come into contact with other good players on a regular basis. Is this something that still has to be worked towards?
RD: We have the responsibility to develop all players in Ireland, not just in Dublin. In rural counties, there's big players - you see that in the international team - but we have to provide these facilities so that they can play. So that a young lad doesn't have to travel from Donegal to Dublin. That's crazy if you're young, isn't it? We have to find structures at local leagues so there's a club or a representative team to bring the best players together.
DMcD: There are 32 schoolboy leagues in the 26 counties. Is that too many?
RD: It is what it is. It might be too many, but I just work from where it is. That's the most easy thing to do. On one hand, you might say its too many. On the other, you could say it's not because we have to cater for all of Ireland. But the leagues have to collaborate and say 'Ok, if we have a small league here, how can we facilitate this player in this league?" They have to collaborate with other leagues. There are inter-league competitions there but we have to look at those structures and extend those leagues.
I'm not looking at it from the political side. I'm asking what is best for the player. There's great voluntary work done in the leagues, I see that travelling across the country. At the same time, we try to challenge them and say 'How can we improve?' One of our goals is to embed a high performance culture. We don't want to be left behind. We want to create better players with the pool we have and be better than we are. We have to improve and look at our results and say, what can we do for the young player, to get facilities, and better teams, and better coaches, so he can be a better player. We have to look at coach education. It's a holistic approach.
DMcD: To go back to the rural areas. There are Emerging Talent Centres but the criticism is that its just one training session per week. How effective is that programme (ETP) as it stands and where do you see it going and improving?
RD: It's very important. And the ETP is not a club. So you can't do two or three training sessions a week because the base is that you need strong clubs. Club development is very important. ETP is important for development and also for player ID. We started from 14 or 15 before. I brought the age down to 11. Now we do U11 Player ID and then we bring elite levels from U12 and we work in blocks to get more quality time for that. Of course we would love to do more but is it realistic in terms of the financial? Probably no.
But that's why we need to have these national competitions. It's not just the ETP.. Niall Harrison (ETP co-ordinator) has done a brilliant job in terms of structure and also for the girls as well, it's important to mention that. But you need to have proper structures in place to identify players and that's what ETP is. The leagues send us the best players to the centres of excellence. Don't forget the infrastructure in Ireland. The travelling time, the huge distance and I think the changes we've made are very good. We have a good eye on the talent in the country, that is the responsibility of the FAI. Would we know the talent in the country? You'd have to say 'Yes', we don't miss any players. Also, we have to look at improvements. We don't have a domestic scouting system and we're working on that, so we have designated scouts looking at the players. It happens with Niall Harrison and the development officers but from the elite point of view, you have to have a proper system in place. We do have that now in the UK.
DMcD: I wrote a piece before Christmas and I know people in here (FAI) didn't agree with it and I gather that you weren't impressed with it - but I spoke about Northern Ireland and how they have a system run by Jim Magilton where they have three training sessions a week for their elite players for 35 weeks a year. And they have former internationals prominently involved. What's wrong with looking at Northern Ireland and seeing what they are doing and asking if it's achievable.
RD: Well..I think in the North, they are doing brilliant work. But I'm more focused on Ireland. This is a different structure. They have a smaller country and that suits best for them and that's brilliant. It's not a case of saying 'Can we copy this?'. We have to look at our structures and say, this is our country. These are the issues we have to deal with, the challenges, and this works for us best. And that's basically it.
DMcD: But would you like to have a situation where the FAI could get access to the best players more than once a week? Or is that realistic?
RD: It's probably not realistic. What you have to look for..is quantity of course. We're looking at launching national academies, that's what we are looking for.
DMcD: There is a target of 80 FAI Approved Club Academies in place by 2020 for age 6-12 year olds. You say FAI Approved - what does that mean?
RD: Well, they have to meet criteria. It means you should have a syllabus, the facilities, the qualified coaches, a proper structure. Now we have the ETP that runs all the way up from U11 to U16 and below that, there was nothing. This is a challenge for a club. And any club can be an FAI Approved Academy. That is encouragement for the club to improve the standards.
DMcD: And the National Academy for Boys and Girls aged 12-15 with a target to be set up by 2017. How do you envisage that working practically in terms of numbers and hours?
RD: To start off, bring the best players at the youngest age to Abbotstown. Abbotstown should be the desired place for the young player and so next year we will start with the National Academy. It's a big word for just having them here but we want to increase that as well because, as you know, the best players leave at 16. In the meantime we have to be sure that we have this pathway in place here for those who stay here, so that they have a proper education. We don't control after 16 or 17 if they go to England. What do we do control is our own ETP, we do control the FAI academies then and our underage international teams at U15 and U16 and I'm looking there also to have increased training programmes. We can do more and that's a financial challenge of course.
DMcD: But as it stands with the 'National Academy' next year. How often do you envisage these players being in Abbotstown?
RD: First of all, only for the summer but also it would have increased structure to get there. Within the local leagues, and then a challenge in the regions and then taking the best players from there and then the next step is to get to Abbotstown.
DMcD: So it will be camps during the summer?
RD: Exactly. Not only for the best, but the players below that. And that's an extension of the ETP.
DMcD: But is it the ideal world scenario - do you want to progress that to where it's not just the summer?
RD: It would probably not be realistic to do more and more with that. We have to be focused on clubs because that's the future, a solid basis. That's the policy here.
DMcD: The U17 national league was a necessary idea, to get League of Ireland clubs to consider an area they'd never really considered before but was it difficult to leave out the schoolboy clubs that wanted to be involved?
RD: We engaged with the schoolboy clubs. And those are difficult decisions but you have to do what's best for the player. What's the best pathway? And how, as a nation, can we work together and collaborate and we thought that was the best. We want to create a pathway to the first team. But we encourage the schoolboy clubs to get in partnerships, make these connections with the League of Ireland clubs
DMcD: But that's historically been a difficult thing to do..
RD: I know. And that's the history.
DMcD: There's anecdotal tales of leading schoolboy clubs urging players not go on trials with League of Ireland U17 clubs. It's a complicated relationship. Is it realistic to expect them to create those partnerships?
RD: Yes, it's attainable, absolutely but it needs the mindset from everybody involved to be: What's the best for our players? You have to take the step above that and say 'It's not about me, the club, the league' It's about the players and how we can improve football. It is difficult. It can't happen overnight. And we have to bring the same message all the time - what's best for football in Ireland.
DMcD: Is an U15 league viable?
RD: We have our own steering group and we meet every week, the SFAI (Schoolboys Football Association) is involved and people from other committees and we have to look at improving elite competition structures for U15 and how we shape that. Hopefully next year we will try and kick off with that.
DMcD: Does the same apply to switching to summer football?
RD: It's not summer football, it's a single calendar season from March to November and that's the most debated recommendation.
DMcD: Has the weather this winter made a good argument for a change in calendar?
RD: Good evidence. But it's not rocket science. There's so many advantages. Anyway, most of the games are played in that window now. In September and October and March and April. With player development, it's important you have continuity. You play a few games here, and then you have this frustration of a break of two or three months with cancellations. That's frustrating for young players. I say just start in March and go to November, it's doable.
DMcD: You say it's not rocket science, but it's still a big change to get it through...
RD: Yes, we have seen examples with Roscommon, Mayo, and Clare, where they changed, and they have doubled numbers, and it was only positive. They will never go back. And Mayo is a GAA county so if it's doable there. Of course there's a fear, I understand that. But we have the U17 league and U19 league on that calendar and you then create continuity in player development. It's more fun to watch and play games in a better climate and temperature. The cost will be reduced, with floodlights of course. There's so many advantages.
DMcD: You mentioned that players aged 16 will want to go to England. With the market in England being so crowded, would you be worried when you see a lot of Irish players now not going to the top clubs and top academies and going further down the leagues? Is that the best step for their development?
RD: I don't think so. There are some good academies and they have to make good choices. What does it mean if you go? Are you ready to go? Not just this attitude of, they want me, I sign, I go. There needs to be a lot of information given to parents as well and that can be improved too I think. I don't know if they're open to it because that's their goal - 'My son has to play in England' - but is that the best step because as you know so many come back and stop playing. Is that the best step for your son, if they stop playing football? Maybe the best thing is to stay here, play in the national league and in a couple of years make the step because if you're good enough, they will come for you.
DMcD: We've had a situation recently where four players from St Kevin's Boys, one of the top schoolboy clubs, went to Stevenage in League Two. This is a personal opinion but it doesn't reflect well on the system if they think that's a better way to go..
RD: Well I don't know what the academy of Stevenage is like, it could be a brilliant academy and a great step but in the first instance, I would say, ok, I'm curious - 'Why would you make that step? There must be a good reason?' Do you just take any club because you want to go? Would you play games? As you know some international players don't play games which is not good because as a young player you have to play. It takes courage to say no and wait so good advice is needed.
DMcD: They will just say they want to be professional players and that's it. It's about going away. What they need, surely, is the clubs here giving them a real alternative when they are 16
RD: Well they are chasing the dream, and we shouldn't take away that. It's not about taking away the dream of being a professional footballer. Everyone wants that. But in order to become a professional footballer, you have to take the right steps. You need guidance and have to accept that. It doesn't mean that everything is bad in the UK. Not at all.
DMcD: One talking point is that in our underage teams from u15 to U21, there aren't any former senior international players involved. Is that something that needs to be addressed?
RD: I think it's important the commitment of ex-internationals, they bring a huge experience to the game. That's why I involved Kenny Cunningham, he was involved with the U15s.
DMcD: But that was an ambassadorial role..short term
RD: It was still involvement. And the positions are there. Any application would be considered. My objective is to have the best person in the role.
DMcD: When the U16 job was up last year, it appeared that the application was only for internal FAI candidates who were already working for the FAI. Was that the case?
RD: That was the case, we have some very good people internally, absolutely. My point is that the most suitable person should have the job. Playing experience is very important of course but so many things are important.
DMcD: Is there a financial consideration here if you look to someone from outside for those roles?
RD: Again, as I say, the most suitable person comes in and that's the next question. I'm not starting from that issue.
DMcD: The point was made that Lee Carsley is now working with the English U19 set-up and there has been suggestions that he had, at one point, looked to work with the FAI. Was that the case? Was that something that was discussed?
RD: Not with me. No.
DMcD: You didn't speak with Lee?
RD: I didn't speak with Lee about the position, no. Again, I won't go into names but for me, the best suitable candidate should work with the players. When I came in, there were coaches in the roles, like Noel (King, U21 manager), Paul (Doolin U19, manager) in the roles. If there's a new position, I will look at the availability and the applicants and decide who is the suitable candidate.
DMcD: I don't mean at all to be negative about homegrown coaches. But does there need to be a balance? If we have U15, U16 players that are about to go to England on this big journey, is there an argument to have ex-internationals involved at their point of their development with advice and mentoring and talking about what's coming next.
RD: Yeah that is important but other coaches will be suitable for that as well. Don't underestimate them. Of course that would be important but who is available? Who wants to take the job? That's key for me. Because if you work with young players, that is development. If there are opportunities I will look at again at who is the most suitable candidate.
DMcD: So the U19 position is coming up this year (Doolin is leaving in the summer). Will the process be similar? Will it be internal or external?
RD: External..and internal of course too. Anyone is free to apply.
DMcD: There is discussion in the Strategic Plan about 2020 and assessing if there is a playing style in place across teams? What is that style?
RD: Playing style at the top is not based on one system because football evolves - the good teams can play different systems and adapt quickly. At a young age, it needs consistency. You need to have a preferred system to develop young players and the 4-3-3 is viewed as a system that develops players through the balance of the players on the pitch, the angles you create. When you get older you can adapt from that system and it's never set in stone. The playing style is more what I encourage for young players here and coaches is to play to win, play through the third because a high level you need to be able to play a passing and possession game. At a competitive level, there's a strategy, you might play more defensively, you might play in a different system which is a fantastic.
DMcD: You mentioned at the start about the Irish mentality - the almost stereotypical fighting spirit, is that always going to be a part of our DNA?
RD: It has to be, because that's great. I was watching a women's U19 game with the Dutch manager recently and he absolutely enjoyed it. He could see that the Irish girls are tough, they would rather die than lose on the pitch and that's something we should never lose but at the same end we have to ask how we can improve these football skills, playing skills, playing out from the back.
I go around the country and meet coaches and what kind of goals do you see on the pitch, in training? What size of goals? Small ones. You see the small goals and that is not encouraging scoring because you stand in front of it and you can't score, so the focus is on defending. You have to facilitate scoring. Everyone says to me - we don't have goalscoring players. So do we work on that? I think we can do better than that and allow young players to score goals. That's the kick of playing football, to put the ball in the back of the net. They gain confidence from it, they can start taking long distance shots.
You have to focus on attacking, that is the playing style I encourage because in an attacking style, players will develop themselves. Freedom of expression. If the emphasis at a young age is too much on winning games, what happens? You don't develop. A fear factor comes in. 'I can't make mistakes. Don't do this. Get rid of the ball.' That's a phase I hear many times. 'Get rid of the ball'. No, keep the ball. Allow them to make mistakes. You have to find a balance because every coach wants to win but winning is for the players and it means for the coach not having the best XI players on the pitch. If your son doesn't have playing time, would you like that?
DMcD: Educating parents is something that comes up a lot in the plan
RD: That's a huge thing. The player centred approach, the player is in the middle. You have the club, the parent and the coach as the most important stakeholders for the players and they have to collaborate. They all have to understand what is the philosophy to develop this player. Coaches need to engage with parents as well, before the season, sit down with the parents and explain that 'Ok, this is how I work with the team'. It means that little Johnny, who may be the best player, he will also have to rotate and everybody will have playing time because the best player today is not the best player of tomorrow. You make sure that you facilitate everyone to play. That's your job as a coach, not to drive them to success and put the biggest player on.
DMcD: In constructing this Player Development Plan, as someone coming in from outside, how much did you refer to the previous technical plans?
RD: I've read them and they were good, there were good things in that absolutely.
DMcD: Did you ever speak to people involved. Have you ever spoken to Brian Kerr for example?
RD: No, no
DMcD: Were you tempted at any point to seek out someone like him and speak to him?
RD: I spoke to so many people and I have no problems with them whatsoever. I'm open to speaking to anybody, absolutely.
DMcD: Is the difficult part of this job that to measure the success..you have to look back in hindsight ten years from now and discover what worked. What is the tangible goal that you are looking to achieve? Ten years from now, what would be success?
RD: It will be tangible to see what's there. The game format, the 32 leagues working together. That's a measurable outcome. Currently, all the leagues are in compliance with the plan, and still there's a lot of work to be done if you go into detail. If everybody takes on board that this is the concept. 4 a side is playing at this age. 5 a side, 9 a side. . In terms of philosophy, there can be an outcome - that every underage coach has a mindset. We don't see them on the sideline yelling at players and this typical focus on winning games. Don't get me wrong. It's not to take away the winning concept at all, it's more the concept of how to coach and develop the players and that's something that's definitely measurable. The season calendar, that can be an outcome. The FAI academies, that's an outcome. We have Abbotstown here. Improved elite structures. These recommendations are very measurable in a number of years.
DMcD: Ok, but in terms of the senior team that is going to France this summer. It's quite likely that Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick will be the only two homegrown players under the age of 25 in the squad. Is it realistic to see a situation where you could have five, six, seven players from that profile in the senior squad?
RD: It's very difficult to say but we have to focus on developing our underage players and increasing the pool so if you have better players then hopefully they have a better chance in the UK to develop themselves. At the top, it's unpredictable. Of course, we would like to see that.
DMcD: Is the state of play in England - it's tough for young English players never mind Irish ones - putting more pressure on the FAI to get structures right? Because traditionally we always depended on England to be the finishing school...
RD: Well you always have to improve. We have to be sure of what we're capable of and controlling. We have a duty to develop players in Ireland. Not only the elite players, but every player. We have to facilitate them with good leagues so they don't lose interest in football if they are winning every game 10-0. Otherwise, they might go to GAA because it's more challenging. We are the governing body and that's our duty.