Wednesday 23 October 2019

Aidan O'Hara: Young, gifted and on the scrapheap

NEXT September, Marc Kenny will stand in front of a room full of parents whose children are among the best footballers in the country and try to inject a dose of reality. He has done it for the last five years and, as head coach in the South Dublin centre of the FAI's Emerging Talent programme, the message remains the same.

"If, in four years' time, just one of these 35 kids is playing in the Premier League, that'll be way above the average," he says. If they need proof of what that average is, this is the time of the year when it should hit home.

The figures show that 94pc of Irish players who are good enough to get deals with an English club don't get as far as a second contract. Of that number, 75pc come home and never play at League of Ireland level, preferring instead to either join a team with their friends or give up the game they had spent most of their lives dreaming of playing for a living.

"Most of the kids are made to feel special by their family, friends or club growing up, which is understandable," explains Kenny. "Then the rejection comes when they don't get another contract and a lot of them feel like they've let the whole family down.

"The reality is that they're just a drop in the ocean to the clubs. We tell the parents that their kids, at the moment, are the pick of the bunch and everything is rosy. Two years down the line they could easily be home, back living with the parents and maybe on the dole and their life starts again then. It's hard for parents to understand until they've been through it."

Kenny went through it at Liverpool, where he arrived just before his 17th birthday, having been captain of the Home Farm schoolboys team who earned a place in the 'Guinness Book of Records' for being undefeated in 203 games. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was home again. This summer, for every James McCarthy, who is likely to significantly increase his weekly wage with a move from Wigan, there are hundreds of players in their late teens and early 20s who have earned better money than their friends back home but now don't know where their next cheque is coming from.

One of them has watched his club go through promotion and relegation in his four-year stint, hasn't played a first-team game and is a pawn in the Catch 22 scenario of the unsettled club who don't trust young players to save them from relegation nor to get them back to the promised land of the Premier League.

"It's very tough to break through, especially at an up-and-coming club who have financial backing," he says. "There's not enough emphasis put on developing young players and a lot get pushed down the ladder even when they are doing well, like I was."

MARKET

That player preferred to speak anonymously and hopes to have a club next season but, as the 'Transfer Listed' section on the English PFA website shows, it's very much a buyer's market.

From an Irish perspective alone there is James Daly (18), Stephen O'Halloran (25), Peter Murphy (32), Francis McCaffrey (20), Michael Spillane (24), John McGrath (33), Leon McSweeney (30), Dylan McGlade (18) all of whom are at various stages of their career and all, with hundreds of others, are effectively unemployed.

At this time of year, the conveyor belt is at its fastest and players are shipped out to make way for new recruits, with clubs going to varying lengths of morality in order to get rid of the players they don't want and then pick up the players they do want.

One young Irish player reached a deal on the third year of his contract to be paid up after two years when he showed promise but the club were no longer bothered to deal with his injury problems; the family of another have been encouraged to move to England so that their child – who is barely a teenager – can join the club's academy; other clubs will find some job to put parents on the pay-roll so that they can get their man – or get their child.

Gaelic games will usually find a spot for somebody to be involved with a club while, in Irish rugby, schools often act as both educators and academies, allowing their students to develop as players and as people at the normal rate. The reality for Irish footballers of being taken out of their home environment and going to England as 16-year-olds is entirely different, even if they can often earn in the region of €1,000-a-week.

"Give teenagers money and most of them will spend it," says Kenny.

"They'll buy the best clothes or a car because there's pressure within the dressing-room to have all the newest gear. Schooling is provided but not exactly encouraged because training is the priority.

"Two or three years on, the players are released into the real world without many qualifications and all the money they had which their friends at home didn't has gone very quickly."

Yesterday, the Premier League came to a close and its many multi-millionaire players headed for their holidays safe in the knowledge that their five- and six-figure-a-week contracts will be there for them when they come back. They are the exceptions who create the perception that all footballers are rolling in money.

The reality for hundreds of current players and thousands who have been thrown on the scrapheap in the past is far, far different.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Ireland fall short again, 2019 slump and what Andy Farrell must do as head coach

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport