AidanO’Hara: Nothing will change unless we do
IN MY first game of organised football, I managed to score a goal from the halfway line on an adult pitch but, unlike David Beckham's effort at Selhurst Park in 1996, mine would never make a highlights package of great goals.
Instead, it happened in the classic manner of U-9s football just over 20 years ago as a booming kick from a child that was big for his age took a huge bounce and went over the head of a goalkeeper who couldn't reach the crossbar. It sounds much better to say you once scored from halfway, rather than explaining how it happened.
Ireland's players have always been lacking in technique by comparison to the majority of countries in Europe, but when many of those currently involved in the international set-up started playing football on a full-size pitch as an eight-year-old, it's hardly surprising that their touch and composure on the ball is not embedded into their psyche.
At one point during the first half of Ireland's defeat against Germany, a stat flashed up that the home side had managed 2pc possession in the previous five minutes. For anybody who didn't do the math, that adds up to six seconds of possession in five minutes of football. Six seconds. Their only hope for improvement seemed to be keeping the ball in their hands for a little longer once they got a throw-in.
Last summer showed Ireland just how far behind the major European nations they are but while the lack of talent is often argued, the discussion as to why we have this deficit has been less prominent amid a morass of tactical debate and bemoaning Giovanni Trapattoni's intransigence.
There has been some talk about the improvement in coaching education and the FAI's Emerging Talent Programme, but it's a worry when the FAI's website describes the programme as being "under the control of our high performance director, Wim Koevermans, who is assisted by the player development manager and U-16/17 national team head coach John Morling". Koevermans and Morling left the FAI several months ago.
The reality is that at underage level, kids are still playing on pitches that are too big, with balls too heavy, trying to score in goals too high.
A few weeks ago, on a pitch that is considered large even by professional standards, two Dublin schoolboy clubs played an U-12s match with a 7-0 result doing no good to the winners or losers.
Both sets of players, however, probably slept well, given their exhaustion caused by attack and defence on such a vast area.
Last Saturday in Kildare, there was an U-11s match played out on a full-sized pitch which resulted in a 10-1 win where, again, the player who could kick the ball furthest was of more use than the one who could dribble it best.
Halving the size of the pitch and playing two shorter seven- or eight-a-side games with no substitutes would have been far more beneficial but, next week, it would be quite understandable if those on the end of a 10-1 hammering joined GAA or rugby clubs instead.
The goalkeepers who conceded seven and 10 goals in those games would know exactly how Keiren Westwood felt on Friday because, even though they have yet to hit their teenage years, they were, staggeringly, playing in the same size of goal.
Several years ago, English journalist Martin Samuel proposed a game of football for adults in which the goals would be 10.029 feet high and 30.098ft wide; the pitch would measure 165x124 yards with a penalty area that would be 23 yards long -- yet the teams would remain 11-a-side. Expanded in relative terms, Samuel explained, this is the equivalent of what we ask 11-year-olds to do by playing on a full-sized pitch.
For all the lip service paid to a desire to improve the development of players, the reality currently sees U-11s playing nine-a-side, many U-12s play on the same size pitches as adults while U-13s play with size 5 footballs -- in years to come we won't have to look far to wonder why little has changed.
There will always be talented youngsters who progress but, mostly, they do so in spite of the system they come through rather than because of it.
It's inevitable, if unfair, that the current crop of players will be compared to those who have gone before but, for years, the success of the senior set-up papered over the cracks in the foundations, which were being laid for future generations.
Those who once would have gravitated towards football will be swallowed up by a voracious GAA set-up and a rugby structure that is widening its net every year. Twenty years ago, very few 10-year-olds would have known Simon Geoghegan; today, most will recognise Brian O'Driscoll.
This is the reality of the battle that football faces for future hearts and minds. Smaller pitches, teams and goals would be a small step to keeping kids interested, improving technique and giving late bloomers time to develop before they are lost in the vastness of a full-sized, 11-a-side game.
But until somebody makes a commitment to that process and has the backing and genuine desire to see it through, power will continue to be valued above poise in players who have yet to reach puberty. And nothing is going to change unless we do.