Monday 25 September 2017

'If most League of Ireland clubs can't provide clean toilets, they can hardly be expected to run academies'

From a lack of leadership at the top to apathy in the public and a disconnection from the grassroots, domestic football continues to fight a losing battle for recognition. David Kelly analyses where things can go from here

Postcard from the edge of Irish football.

Thursday night in Richmond Park. Standing alone on the Camac Terrace because UEFA decree that only one side of the ground, the seated stand, can be opened as St Patrick's Athletic begin their Europa League campaign.

Here, as in Dalymount Park across the city, this is Irish football's other Euro 2012. Neither side are beaten, but then there are precious few people to witness either event.

All the while, rumours are sweeping both venues -- well, skipping lightly like tumbleweed -- proclaiming the death of another club, the once mighty Dundalk, whose annual gate is less than a quarter of the FAI CEO's annual salary.

At a geographical mid-point between the old grounds, the Stone Roses are pleading with 50,000 people that they wanna be adored. The aforementioned loner on the Camac Terrace had had tickets for them.

But his plea was a mite more desperate. "I don't wanna be ignored."

It's too late. Or is it?

Postcard from the heart of Irish football.

June. A throbbing old town square in Poznan. Ireland are 0-2 in Euro 2012 and hurtling with impressive consistency towards a 0-3 record.

A green-clad fan of, at first, indeterminate sex, approaches the same man who will soon be standing alone on that Inchicore terrace but is now surrounded by thousands of singing Irish people.

"What are they saying about us at home?" he slurs. "Well, there is a certain intransigency about the manager's stubborn adherence to the 4-4-2, not to mention ... "

"Ah Jaysus no," exclaims the merry figure whose luggage, containing two trays of Lech, is fostering indignant impatience. "What are they saying about us?"

We didn't have time to reason. Perhaps he was off in a fetishist's quest for the footwear of top-ranking FAI officials. Who knows where he was going.

He didn't even know why he was there, other then to get stocious as quickly as possible on cheap beer, the only cunning demonstrated in the fact that at least it forced the 270 minutes of risible football to the dark recesses of memory.

There is a link between these two stories. Or maybe not.

The League of Ireland meant nothing to this young man submerged by strong Polish beer. Just as Euro 2012 meant nothing to the League of Ireland.

And yet, ironically, seven Irishman shared a link between the League of Ireland and the original Euro 2012 squad But the trivia was declaimed with a similar sense of puzzlement as if all seven shared the same birthday. It may have been fact but it was also fiction.

The DDSL -- Dublin's schoolboy league -- also claimed its share of players with equal vigour and with arguably more authority.

These players passed through the League of Ireland but they were not of it. They were predominantly creations of the schoolboy leagues.

But all had ultimately graduated to the historical finishing school that is English football, the cradle of civilisation that has always been its most generous benefactor, even if so many accuse it of being Irish football's biggest enemy.

No, Irish football's biggest enemy is itself. It has always been thus.

Irish football's dysfunctional nature has perennially mirrored its society; the emigration of its best players has been a consistently comforting safety valve.

How could anyone be bothered to see a way out of this dead end when they didn't perceive a problem in the first place?

Every time a John Giles or Liam Brady or Paul McGrath departed these shores and become superstars, Irish football could afford itself a pat on the back. Nobody ever stopped to wonder if the achievements of these great players found their genesis by individual, rather than collective, design.

When Ireland struck lucky and began competing at major championships, bright men like Dr Tony O'Neill, Noel O'Reilly and Liam Tuohy were ignored when they saw an opportunity to lay the foundations for a secure structure to the sport in this country.

So instead, Ireland's greatest exports became its travelling supporters and an administrative predilection for ticket exchange; RTE's fine 'Green Is The Colour' recently offered a clever synopsis of how the cleavage between perception and reality grew exponentially in the last 25 years.

The stronger it seemed Irish football grew on the foreign stage, the weaker it became at home. The recent jaunt in Poland merely papers over the cracks of the rank division within the game here.

And so, Irish international types despise the manner in which League of Ireland types refer to themselves as 'real' football fans; patriotism is at once the last refuge of the scoundrel and the last resort.

Schoolboy football folk remain suspicious of League of Ireland folk, arguably with good reason, given the thousands of euro that professional football has squandered in recent times.

Schoolboy types are 'pure' whereas the LOI types are fumblers in the greasy till, even though the schoolboy types go weak-kneed every time they see the euro-filled whites in the eyes of Premier League club scouts.

For every five men -- or women -- on the street -- who reckon that FAI chief executive John Delaney is responsible for Ulster Bank's wonky computer, Stephen Ireland's wonky brain and Aiden McGeady's inability to complete 90 minutes of football without falling over himself, another five will proclaim unadulterated fidelity to his leadership.

The sad thing is that he is a rudderless leader. Sure, it seems like he is in control, but of what? The FAI are nominally in control of the most popular sport in this country but they are not in ownership of it.

True, there is an Emerging Talent Programme which processes thousands, but where are they to go when England doesn't come calling? To what end do the regional development officers develop?

The League of Ireland should be the highest calling in this country but none of the clubs have functioning academies; as is the practice in the developed world. Their academies are the schoolboy clubs, where they acquire players who haven't made it to England. Kids still need to go to England, for obvious reasons, but why can't they have somewhere to go in this country, too?

There is no proper pyramid structure. There is little, if any, relationship between the various strands of football in Ireland, be it professional, schoolboy or junior.

"There needs to be a better connection between all football people in this country, it's as simple as that," says former Ireland international Liam Buckley, a man desperate to see an indigenous football industry develop in this country.

That would involve a direct synergy between junior and schoolboy clubs, with a professional league club at its apex, partly funded by government and FAI and augmented by daily coaching in specialised academies.

It seems like the impossible dream. Buckley should know as it is one he lived, so briefly, until a couple of years ago.

Sporting Fingal offered a north Dublin-based vision in microcosm of how an Irish football pyramid structure could work.

Except it didn't, due to a uniquely Irish set of circumstances involving investors living beyond their means, local government pulling the plug and punters showing little interest.

"I put 18 months of work into that and we had enthusiastic commitments from all strands of football, 50 junior clubs, the north Dublin schoolboy leagues," recalls Buckley.

"The council had planning permission and were committing €8m to an academy in Clonshaugh.

"The League of Ireland club would be the pinnacle, but for a variety of reasons it just didn't work out."

His is a familiar lament in Irish professional football, which has failed itself as much as it has been failed by others.

Buckley now believes that the FAI should insist on developing academies on behalf of all the League of Ireland clubs, a tacit admission that if most League of Ireland clubs can't provide clean toilets, they can hardly be expected to provide football academies.

It is clear not enough people are interested in it as an entertainment product -- and quite rightly given the appalling facilities.

So perhaps the FAI -- who are supposedly in control of the thing -- should enable the League of Ireland to perform its proper function, as the sporting pinnacle of a coherent, integrated soccer structure in this country, wherein the schoolboy game can also maintain its status.

"We're all part of the problem, so why can't we all become part of the solution?" pleads Buckley.

The practical details are not as important as the collective vision required from all involved in Irish soccer.

Instead of berating John Delaney for wearing easily removable slip-on shoes, we should ask him whether he has the leadership required to oversee such a radical transformation.

It is extraordinary what Irish football has achieved in spite of itself throughout the years, even though examples of co-operation have been seen as rarely as canals on Mars.

Just imagine the limitless possibilities if everyone in the game here were actually pulling in the same direction.

As the banner proclaims so proudly in Inchicore, "Ni neart go cur le cheile." There's no strength without unity.

Irish Independent

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