Sunday 24 September 2017

Player unrest remains a sore point that refuses to go away

The absence of key players is yet again hampering the hopes of an Ireland team, writes John O'Brien

IT is surely regrettable that by the time the whistle blows on Ireland's first outing in this year's UEFA Under 19 Championship against Greece on Wednesday, Rob Brady and Sean McGinty will probably have taken the field for Manchester United reserves in a friendly at Fleetwood Town on England's north-west coast. In an ideal world both would be spearheading Ireland's hopes of following up their historic triumph in Cyprus in 1998.

Meanwhile, Shane Duffy will likely be enjoying a short break in the middle of an arduous pre-season schedule that has already incorporated a training camp in Austria and a club under 21 tournament in Moscow. "It is always a good experience to get away to a different country with the lads," Duffy told the Everton website. Yet would it not be better for everybody -- club, country and player too -- if he was lending his experience and talent to the cause in Romania this week?

It is a shame, of course, that Ireland's progress to a major championship finals for the first time at any level since 2002 should be blighted by chatter about player disharmony and managerial fall-outs. The 3-0 dismantling of Italy in May was arguably the finest performance by an Irish international side in a decade and, since taking over from Sean McCaffrey last September, Paul Doolin boasts a record that shows one loss in 10 games, all of them played on foreign soil. How can there be clouds on that horizon?

Doolin, for one, won't see anything but azure blue skies above. He has selected a squad based around those who negotiated the Becher's Brook of the elite stages in Poland -- no goals conceded in three games -- and who mostly ply their trade at mid-range English clubs. In this, Doolin was sending a strong signal of the type of manager he wishes to be: eager to stamp his authority, taking a leaf perhaps out of the coaching manual as composed by Giovanni Trapattoni.

Yet if the Italian has faced tough inquisitions over his dealings with players, Doolin can hardly expect to escape a similar fate, if on a more temperate level. Friction between managers and players isn't a uniquely Irish phenomenon, of course, but seems to happen here with alarming regularity. And regardless of how Ireland perform in Romania, it's beyond time surely that the FAI seeks to get to grips with what has been a troublesome and recurring issue.

It won't escape their opponents this week -- Greece, the Czech Republic and Romania -- that Ireland arrive without their three most accomplished players. Nor will they have forgotten that Ireland is the country that expelled its only truly world-class player from the 2002 World Cup finals. Or was it the other way around? Did Roy Keane quit and abandon his team-mates to their fate? You can never tell with those crazy Irish.

It is to Doolin's credit, naturally, that he has guided his team to a rare major finals appearance, but he has also left himself open to the charge that he has compromised Ireland's chances by refusing to select his star players. All three played in Ireland's first three qualifying games, Brady captaining the side each time, yet none has featured since and for reasons which are anything but clear. It is too important an issue to ignore.

Where else would this happen? England managers routinely encounter problems with top Premier League clubs, but although Arsene Wenger was his usual gruff, belligerent self, the debate about Jack Wilshere's involvement in last month's UEFA Under 21 Championship was admirably grown-up and restrained. Wilshere was happy to play if they wanted him, but it was decided that rest was the better option.

Spain set the template, of course. In the past decade they have farmed underage titles -- an under 21, four under 19s, three under 17s -- and laid the foundation for their all-conquering senior side. Should we be learning something from that model? The idea of a Spanish underage team fielding without a Torres or a Fabregas, for instance, would be laughable. The system is balanced and player-centred, although it helps that there isn't a culture among top clubs to regard the international set-up as a threat to their own self-interests.

Without knowing the full circumstances, we can't be too harsh on Doolin who has, after all, a record most managers would kill for. Yet his rather vague comment last week that he only wanted players "who want to play" was, rightly or wrongly, interpreted as a stinging rebuke to the absent stars and seemed needlessly provocative when you consider Ireland's poor recent history in player-development and the fact that one of the absentees still has the option of switching nationality.

For his own reasons, Doolin has gambled on building a squad shorn of quality but strong on organisation and spirit and so far it has served his purpose. He has been fortunate too in that Ireland have been drawn in much the easier group with Spain, Turkey and Serbia, who inflicted Doolin's sole defeat in charge of this team, in the other group. Brian Kerr's 2002 side reached a semi-final and Doolin has realistic hopes of emulating that achievement.

Whether his squad houses any future stars is hard to say. For all their potential, Kerr's last under-age team yielded only Stephen Kelly and Stephen Elliott to the senior team. And while future senior internationals poured forth from the history-making under 16 and under 18 1998 squads, you only have to retreat a further year to the over-achieving under 20s in Malaysia which gave us precious little beyond Damien Duff, to appreciate how unreliable under-age trends can be.

What we can say is that, to dispatch Italy and get this far, Doolin's squad must be decent. Sunderland's John Egan, son of the Kerry legend, is an inspirational captain. You could see Sami Carruthers, a wispish play-maker at Aston Villa, having a big future if Ireland ever abandon the rigid approach championed by Trapattoni. Consider too that in 2009 defender Matt Doherty was on a FáS soccer course and on the fringes at Bohemians. In January this year Doherty made his debut in the FA Cup against Doncaster for Mick McCarthy's Wolves.

So there are a few shards of light. That seven of the 11 who started Doolin's first game in charge last October, a 5-0 defeat of Luxembourg, haven't made the cut for Romania is an illustration of the sweep of talent available to Ireland underage managers. Irish clubs are even winning a few games in Europe again. Good times. The only disappointment, it seems, is that just one Ireland game, against the Czechs next Saturday, has made it onto Eurosport's live roster.

And if it doesn't seem right that they travel with their three best players otherwise engaged, we can give thanks at least for such small mercies.

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