FAI bottom of the class for player development
Magilton's Team Northern Ireland showing how it should be done at schoolboys level
Published 30/11/2015 | 02:30
We were presented with prime ammunition to have a good old laugh at Northern Ireland last week.
The source was the storm that erupted over an SDLP motion to Belfast City Council which proposed a joint reception for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams on account of their progression to Euro 2016.
Declan Boyle of the SDLP, who put forward the idea, spoke of a "genuine and long overdue attempt at inclusiveness and reconciliation" and pointed out that the vast majority of the population north of the border support one of the two teams.
Alas, he veered into over-optimistic territory when he concluded that he would be "surprised if anybody could vote against it".
Boyle's plan was always going to run into bother and Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers insisted: "If this is the road we are going down, then we must invite the English and Welsh teams as well."
In these parts, the flashpoint was viewed as a quirky aside in that detached way that most people tend to view Northern Ireland politics.
On the same day that story generated headlines and bluster on the airwaves, there was a far more interesting football tale that should remove any smugness from the tricolour-leaning side of the debate.
The IFA's newly-appointed Director of Performance Jim Magilton spoke about the restructuring of youth football in Northern Ireland under the umbrella of 'Club NI'. He explained that the best players in that part of the country were training and playing together three times a week.
"In the previous system, the boys might meet up once a week for 24 weeks," he said. "Now it's three times a week for 35 weeks. It's the 'best versus the best'. It's more intensive."
His description of the North's old regime is closer to the current state of play in the FAI's Emerging Talent Programme (ETP) which was flagged as a solution to developing the next generation of players for the Republic.
High Performance Director Ruud Dokter has found it hard to push through some initiatives that would have put the best youngsters in contact with each other more regularly.
The Dutchman launched a 'Player Development Plan' at the association's AGM in the summer which was put together following several meetings of a Technical Advisory Group.
That select committee was keen on cutting the number of schoolboy leagues in the country - there are 32 affiliated to the SFAI (Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland) within the 26 counties - in order to increase contact between the brighter talents and establish proper regional centres.
As it stands, the ETP is trying to improve from a situation where elite performers get together only once a week.
Dokter's broader plans were halted as there was enough opposition in the SFAI to prevent smaller leagues from being merged; the turkeys weren't going to vote for Christmas.
What it means is that Northern Ireland's leading lights are growing up together and building up an understanding from an early age which is comparable to a professional club.
Magilton has previously said that the mission is to "expose our players to the sort of contact time they would get at a professional club in England."
Significantly, the structure put in place by Magilton features the leading coaches in the region, including former senior internationals, whereas the FAI's Emerging Talent Programme is staffed by Regional Development Officers, who are drawn from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom have little experience of coaching elite players.
The coaches with the top schoolboy nurseries are a greater influence on the players in their formative stages, yet they are not really a part of the FAI's strategy.
There is a school of thought that argues the best players are not being developed by the best coaches in the FAI's scheme of things.
Magilton feels that the selection of the right tutors is a vital part of the process, stressing: "Our players need to spend more time with quality coaches."
As ever, there is a danger in tarring everyone with the same brush. That would be harsh as there are coaches within the the FAI set-up, including U-15 manager Colin O'Brien, with excellent reputations.
Yet the Irish football climate at that level is a political minefield, whereas a feature of the Club NI initiative seems to be that all the parties are pulling in the same direction.
Magilton's team are also working hard to tie down players who would be viewed as open to following the same path as James McClean, Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and others by switching allegiance.
If it succeeds then it will put greater pressure on the FAI to improve their player production line.
Right now, there is real cause for concern. A few weeks ago, the DDSL's U-13 and U-14 development squads took on their Club NI counterparts in Abbotstown and observers were stunned by the superiority of the visiting teams.
"We need to be very careful with what we're doing with young players in this country," tweeted Shamrock Rovers coach Stephen Bradley, a former Arsenal midfielder who still scouts for the Gunners. Bradley added that the DDSL players were "miles behind".
Last year, the Milk Cup introduced an U-13 grade on a trial basis, and the Club NI team thrashed Manchester United 5-1 in the final.
Ease of access to high-quality team-mates and expert coaching means they are further advanced than their southern counterparts.
"A 16-year-old now might have played for 60 times for Northern Ireland," enthused Magilton.
Certainly, the geographical concentration has made his job easier but, in a complicated climate, they've got the schoolboy operation running smoothly and geared towards the upper end of the scale.
The FAI would be well advised to take note and act sooner rather than later.