Brian Kerr: Long way to go
Shane Long's presence in a Wembley Cup final tomorrow is a major thing - because four years have passed since an Irish player won a major medal in English football
If you wanted to, you could look at the world of Irish football right now and trick yourself into believing everything was perfect.
After all, 2016 ended with Martin O'Neill's team top of their World Cup qualification group following on from three credible performances at the European Championships when Irish people began to feel good about their national team again.
More immediately, you could point to the presence of Shane Long at Wembley tomorrow and point out that he is just the latest Irish international to visit the home of English football within the last three years, following on from the trips David Meyler, Stephen Quinn (both Hull City), Damien Delaney (Crystal Palace), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa) and John O'Shea (Sunderland) made to the London ground for either FA Cup or League Cup finals.
Yet scratch beneath the surface and cracks are visible. Yes, Long - scorer of Southampton's clinching goal in their EFL Cup semi-final victory over Liverpool last month - will be in Wembley, but, more than likely, it will be to sit on the subs' bench.
And yes, Meyler, Quinn, Delaney, Clark and O'Shea also got there - but their teams all lost and have all either been relegated or are floundering at the bottom of the league ever since.
In fact, you have to go back to 2013, and Wigan's unexpected but superbly executed FA Cup final win over Manchester City, for the last sighting of an Irish international (James McCarthy) with a major English medal.
You wouldn't mind this so much if we had an elite group of players getting game-time at even one of the Premier League's top six sides - or top teams elsewhere in Europe.
Except when you glance through the Premier League team sheets, it quickly becomes obvious that we have no representatives at Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs or either of the two Manchester clubs.
In fact, Jeff Hendrick - who turned 25 on the final day of last month - is our youngest Premier League regular.
Of the 23 players who made up Ireland's Euro 2016 squad, 13 ply their trade in the Premier League (for clubs positioned 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 18th and 20th in the table), nine in the Championship, and one - Robbie Keane - has just been released by LA Galaxy.
That is where we are. And it is unlikely to change any time soon because I don't see, or hear, of any player emerging who makes me stop to think of the late 1990s when Robbie, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Stephen McPhail all emerged from the same age group.
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People sometimes forget the impact those four made - Robbie earning a move to the Premier League from Wolves and then another to Inter Milan before his 21st birthday; Damien breaking through at Blackburn just a couple of years after they won the Premier League; Richard establishing himself as an Everton starter when he was still just 17, Stephen getting into a Leeds team that would contest UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finals.
Shay Given, Kevin Kilbane and Ian Harte were a couple of years older and they too became Premier League regulars. Then there were other teenagers, John O'Shea at Manchester United, Joe Murphy at Tranmere, Keith Foy and Andy Reid at Nottingham Forest and Thomas Heary at Huddersfield, who were all playing first-team football before their 20th birthdays.
Since then, the broadening of the top clubs' scouting network, as well as the deepening of their pockets, means they're increasingly shopping abroad and placing much less emphasis on bringing players through from their academies. Look at Manchester United as a prime example. Tomorrow's League Cup finalists have used 19 players in three matches since their last league game, only two of whom - Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford - have been brought through their system.
Elsewhere, it's a similar script. Chelsea's policy is to buy up the best young players around and then loan them out, financing this system from the loan fees they receive. Even a player as accomplished as Romelu Lukaku didn't get a reasonable chance at Stamford Bridge.
In this context, what chance have the next generation of Irish players got of making it there or at any of the top six?
You could say, it doesn't have to matter, that cases like Long's prove that you can still get to Wembley for a major Cup final by taking an alternative route to the top.
While very true - especially when you see the other graduates who have come through the League of Ireland onto the international scene, men like Stephen Ward, James McClean, David Meyler, Stephen Quinn, Wes Hoolahan, Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey, Daryl Murphy and Seamus Coleman - part of you still is concerned for the future.
The reality is we have not even challenged at underage levels for many years, and in my book exposure to a winning mentality at that stage of a player's career, is an important asset to assist in our players making the breakthrough at club level.
There has been an emphasis on skill and technique since the Tuohy-Tots days of the early '80s, and apart from the Charlton-Setters era of high-flying missiles, this has remained in place since.
However, developing traditional Irish qualities of passion and a will to win are just as important. And having an obsession with 4-3-3 - or sticking with a trademark shape at the expense of developing a holistic approach to winning - is wrong.
Maybe the FAI's decision to fast-track former international players to their underage teams will have an influence. We'll see.
When I look at Long, meanwhile, I see a symptom of the wider problem.
Long is a good player, who has scored key goals for Ireland, but he is not a consistent enough goalscorer to hold down a starting place every week which is why he has to compete with Charlie Austin, Jay Rodriguez and Southampton's new signing, Manolo Gabbiadini, for game-time, with 14 of his 21 Premier League appearances this year coming off the bench.
And it isn't just Long and Irish football that I'm concerned about. But Southampton, too.
While post-match statistics have never obsessed me - to the extent that I often find they can be misleading - nonetheless a red warning light went flashing in my head after analysing Southampton's games en route to this final.
Against a weakened Arsenal in the quarter-finals, they enjoyed just 37 per cent of possession, which was noticeably more than they managed in their two-legged semi-final against Liverpool, when they had the ball for just 27 per cent of the first leg and 32 per cent of the time at Anfield.
So if, as expected, a similar trend unfolds in tomorrow's final, and United control possession for large chunks of the match, then Southampton are going to have to base their game-plan around a resolute, well-drilled and organised defence again - and hope the presence of Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic in their wide areas, can be as effective in the final as they were against Liverpool.
Others, too, were influential in that two-legged victory, none more so than Virgil van Dijk, who excelled in the first leg victory, but who is absent, through injury, for tomorrow's final.
The Dutchman was also missing from the return game at Anfield, which allowed Jack Stevens, a 23-year-old centre-half, to deputise to brilliant effect.
And yet in spite of Stevens' semi-final excellence, there is compelling evidence to suggest he - and his Southampton team mates - will have considerably more to deal with tomorrow, largely because of United's preference to play with much more width than Liverpool.
Whereas Jurgen Klopp's tactics in those two semi-final games were largely predictable, Jose Mourinho's dazzling array of attacking talent will allow him send out a team who can play with greater variety than anyone Southampton have faced thus far in the competition.
Their initial plan will be go wide, fully aware that if Anthony Martial fails to penetrate on the left that a switch of direction can bring in Antonio Valencia on the opposing flank.
With Juan Mata likely to drift 10 or 15 yards infield from his position on the right of midfield, Valencia - a winger masquerading as a full-back - will have the space to come forward.
Of course while this has the potential to stretch the Southampton defence and open up sizeable gaps between their defenders and midfielders, in football every challenge can also be quickly turned into an opportunity.
Tadic is a player I rate. He's fast, technically good and a smart decision-maker, while Redmond can be effective, although he lacks Tadic's consistency.
So, if Southampton can detect a punishable flaw in United's set-up down their right-hand-side - and if he can link with Gabbiadini - then it is not inconceivable that openings could present themselves for Southampton.
My intuition, though, is to predict a United victory, based not just on the trouble they can cause on either flank but also because of the variety they are capable of bringing.
Should Plan A fail, they can revert to the physicality route. In Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Martial and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they possess a real threat at set-pieces. Liverpool didn't have that aerial presence.
Nor did they have the same kind of focal point to their attack as United. Since arriving from Paris in the summer, Zlatan has been hard to fault. The possessor of a profound confidence, Ibrahimovic - in my mind - looked finished at Euro 2016, but he is clearly energised when surrounded by quality players, a luxury Sweden couldn't offer him. His physical attributes allow him to dominate almost any defender who comes up against him, while the assuredness of his touch and absolute conviction in his shooting, has resulted in him breaking the 20-goal barrier already this season.
And then there is the fact that Mourinho is a big game player - a man who has won his previous three League Cup finals, not to mention two Champions League deciders, the UEFA Cup plus seven other cup finals in his illustrious career - whereas, by way of contrast, Claude Puel has only one minor trophy on his CV.
That's not to say an upset can't occur. Of course, it can. Fraser Forster is an outstanding goalkeeper, Long is a fine option to hold in reserve, United may have an off day, Gabbiadini, Redmond, Tadic or Long may convert the few opportunities Southampton are likely to create.
All these things could potentially happen. But I just don't think they will - not with Jose and Zlatan standing in the opposite corner.