Jamie Carragher issues stern warning to Irish youngsters chasing the cross-channel dream
Almost 30 Irish teenagers have moved to the UK since July of last year. They are all chasing the same dream – to make the grade as a professional.
The standard of the English and Scottish clubs (and their academy and underage structures) range from ‘Category 1’ – which includes the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Aston Villa, West Brom and Wolves – all the way down through Category 2, 3 and 4 – Yeovil Town, Stevenage and Rotherham are among those on the lowest rung.
The category system ranks clubs in terms of facilities and coaching philosophy, academy staff and personnel, the quality of the players’s contracts, education and more.
But is the risk of chasing the dream worth it? The statistics say no – more than 95pc of the players are released and return home at the end of their first contract.
So why are so many making the jump, with no guarantees?
Graeme Souness explains: “Every young Irish kid going away will think he can be the next Roy Keane, Paul McGrath or Liam Brady – we all thought that when we were young.
“They won’t be deterred, they won’t be put off, but unfortunately the stats say the likelihood is you will be going home.”
Souness, who managed Liverpool, Blackburn and Newcastle after an outstanding playing career, believes that the academies are failing.
“They are not producing. It used to be that you wouldn’t recommend a young player to go to a big club because he wouldn’t get an opportunity there.
“Now, that’s happened all the way through the Premier League, simply because of the pressure to win every game at the top and survive at the bottom. You just cannot take a chance with a kid.
“As a manager, you used to say ‘I’ll buy him and in two years he’ll be a right good player’. Now, you’re buying him for the next six games and to have an instant reaction.”
Paul Merson, who made the breakthrough at Arsenal at the age of 18, also believes that the current system of developing young players is not working despite the huge sums of money being spent.
“Will we see another Joe Cole like he was as a youngster at West Ham? Coming through and beating players and doing tricks?
“I visit these academies and I don’t see one kid laughing – they’re all like a bag of nerves. There is not a lot of young players who are not playing who should be playing.”
Jamie Carragher signed for Liverpool as a 12-year-old and made his first-team debut aged 19. He has spent time recently at the club’s academy.
“Of course, the best ones will come through but then it’s about an opportunity with a certain type of manager,” he said.
“Look at Marcus Rashford. If he hadn’t got that chance (when Anthony Martial got injured in the warm-up in the Europa League clash against FC Midtjylland), we probably wouldn’t know who he is. Then, he doesn’t go to the Euro finals.
“You need that manager to say ‘go on, I’ll put you in’, but those opportunities are becoming less frequent.”
Another issue facing promising young Irish prospects, and their parents, is being approached by agents – in some cases when they are as young as 12.
Carragher has definite views on this: “That’s the way the game is going now. The agents want to get them young, build a relationship and then have a superstar player in the future, but I don’t think there’s any need for a young player to have an agent.
“What’s the best an agent can do? Get you a boot deal? The young players need to focus on their football.”
Kealan Dillon, 22, now plays part-time for Longford Town, who are bottom of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division.
He was one of the hottest properties in his age group as a teenager and signed for Derby County from Belvedere at the age of 16 in 2010.
Dillon spent a year there before moving to Hull City for two seasons and then went on to St Mirren. He returned home in 2014 and signed for Athlone Town.
“If you’re 16, the chance to take a step towards following your dreams is extremely difficult to turn down, but the reality of the situation is often very different to the perception people have of the life of a young footballer,” he said.
“The high level of turnover in academies is frightening. Even clubs who may have four or five academy graduates in their first team have probably sifted through hundreds of kids in that space of time. And many of them are probably out of the game completely now.”
Dillon, who now divides his daily life between a full-time office job and playing football part-time, believes players and parents need to be careful in making what could be a life-changing decision.
“Looking back, even with what I know now, I feel that I would have made the same decision [to go to England].
“But, it’s so tough over there. There isn’t enough emphasis on how mentally demanding it is to be a young professional footballer living away from home.”
There are, of course, several success stories but the reality is that they are in the minority.
Souness, Merson and Carragher were speaking at the Sky Studios in London. Sky Sports has a record 159 live Premier League games this season – up to four times more than any other broadcaster – including Saturday 3pms for the first time. Upgrade to Sky Sports by calling 0818 904 082 and get HD with Sky Box Sets free for 12 months.