Ireland players have lot of catching up to do – Packie Bonner
Legend insists technical and coaching expertise must improve to compete with world's elite
Packie Bonner has been watching this World Cup with a mixture of awe and fear; seduced by the quality on show in Brazil, while worrying about the growing gap between the game's elite and Ireland.
And, as his fascination with football's tactical evolution deepens, his blunt assessment of where Irish football currently stands is slightly alarming: "Can we compete at that level right now?" he asks. "I'm not so sure.
"We have to do a lot of work in the next couple of years. Players have got to step up. One of the things that has interested me in this tournament has been the questions it has asked of players in terms of tactics. They now have to be thinkers and able to adapt to different scenarios.
"Look at the number of teams who have changed systems in this World Cup – Louis van Gaal shifted formation three times in one game.
"The reality now is that teams are no longer just built around good technical players, but also around men who have had to work really hard on their knowledge of the game.
"From an Irish perspective, yes, we need to get better technically. But our coaches also need to be thinking about different systems. That's where the education of our players has to be improved."
For nearly a decade Bonner was at the coalface of the education process, serving as the FAI's technical director. Yet, he now believes the structures he put in place require updating.
"As a nation we have always produced good enough players. However, we have never been able to finish them off in this country, resulting in them having to go to England and Scotland. And while we have been trying hard over here, a change or two is needed.
"Take the Emerging Talent programme which was set up to try and fill the (quality) gap. Players on that get together just one day a week. But that was our starting point way back when we started (10 years ago). The number of practice hours has to increase, so young players get more of a chance to develop.
"If we don't do something like that, how are our young players going to get into the first teams of Premier League clubs?
"Yes, Irish players will still be signed as potential stars, but that does not guarantee they will break through not just at the top level, but also in the academies. Our players, like it or lump it, need to get exposure to the Champions League."
And that has not been happening, with Anthony Stokes being Ireland's solitary representative in last year's competition.
Accordingly, standards have dropped here while the last three weeks in Brazil have highlighted how the world game has moved to a higher level.
"As a tournament, it's been wonderful to watch," said Bonner. "For me, the South American teams have been brilliant to watch, but I'm becoming more and more convinced that a European team will win it.
"Initially, Brazil was my tip but at this stage they just seem overly dependent on Neymar, just as Argentina are with Lionel Messi.
"With this in mind, Germany and Belgium are the teams I now fancy; more so Germany because of their strength in depth, the fact they are a team without one outstanding star, but a team with so few weaknesses.
"I've really been impressed by (Manuel) Neuer and the sweeper-keeper role he has developed.
"It's risky and if he makes a wrong judgment coming so far off his line then he could look silly. But his decision making so far has been impressive as has the standard of goalkeeping in general.
"So many have impressed me. Claudio Bravo has been my number one and Barcelona have a real find there, someone who can fit into their system and be so much more than just a man who stands there to save shots.
"The modern goalkeeper has to be integrated with the outfield players. Bravo, more than anyone else, has perfected that, Neuer too has stood out and Tim Howard, against Belgium, was magnificent."
The quarter-finals begin today, France playing Germany before Brazil face Colombia, and Bonner admitted: "I'm worried for Brazil because the tension appears to be getting to them. Watching their penalty shootout victory over Chile, what struck me was how the emotion was getting to them.
"Yes, you need some emotion, but too much is a waste of energy. That needs to be kept in check. Coping with the pressure will be hard for them."
Packie's quickfire on...
"It will be interesting to see how it unfolds and I can see why he took the job because he has only eight games a year as Ireland's number two. To get back on the pitch and get involved on a daily basis must have appealed.
"The big question is how will he devote his time between the Irish scene and the club job?
"Will he be able to go to club games at the weekend or during the week and, if he does, is he watching them for club or country? In fairness, Ireland have enough staff to handle that."
Keane turning down Celtic
"I don't think he was getting the conditions he wanted to make the job happen for him.
"There is not going to be £30m-£40m in the kitty to spend, and there is no guarantee that Rangers will come up next season so Peter Lawell is sitting there thinking, 'why would I spend £30m-£40m this year?' Whether Roy will be offered it again, who knows?"
New Celtic manager Ronnie Deila
"I met him eight weeks ago when I was out at his former club doing work for UEFA. He impressed me. At that time I didn't realise that he could even have been considered for the Celtic job.
"Ronnie is intelligent and talented but he has to get into the Champions League group stage. It could be an incredibly difficult season from the fans' point of view if he doesn't."
State of Irish goalkeeping
"Any goalkeeper who is going to play for the Irish team needs to adapt to the way we play. Do we want to get the ball and just knock it long, which I did, which Shay Given did under Trapattoni?
"We made the big saves, of course, but you have to do more than just make saves these days.
"Goalkeepers don't tend to come for crosses any more, so that skill is not as important anymore as it once was.
"The importance for a goalkeeper now is that they do need to make the big saves but the modern goalkeeper needs to be able to play, to adapt to the way the team plays, and the rest of the team needs to adapt to him too.
"That is the piece of work that needs to be addressed."
Decreasing number of Irish players emerging via the granny rule
"What you find is that if a team is successful, players will come. I don't know the specifics of the young lad Bamford, (Patrick Bamford, the Chelsea forward who is on loan at Derby County is eligible for Ireland but has turned down Martin O'Neill's advances.)
"Once the team is doing well, players want to be a part of that. Guys were chomping at the bit to play under Jack."
* Packie Bonner was speaking on behalf of Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland and will be holding a golf classic on their behalf at the K Club on Friday, August 22. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org