Daniel McDonnell: Hard to create another 'Weso' in today's league
ON Saturday night, at a packed tribute dinner to honour the extraordinary achievements of League of Ireland legend Owen Heary, his old gaffer Dermot Keely told a yarn about a pre-season jaunt to Cyprus as manager of Shelbourne.
In many respects, the story itself was standard football fare, a tale of players sneaking out for a few drinks when Keely had cancelled a scheduled night out at the end of a warm weather training camp. What seems remarkable now, more than a decade on, is the sheer concept of the trip itself.
Before the start of the 2014 Airtricity League campaign, there isn't a hope in hell that any of the participating sides will fly across Europe to train twice a day – 7am and 7pm – to accelerate their build-up for the year ahead. Shels were at the forefront of a concept that continued until the end of the boom. Now, it's a distant dream.
The temptation is to look back on that period of reckless spending and wonder if it really achieved anything.
Fortunately, the counterpoint to that argument was briefly present at the Gresham Hotel for Heary's big night as Wes Hoolahan called in to say hello en route back to the Irish camp where the squad had been set an 11.0 curfew by Martin O'Neill.
Hoolahan, who enjoyed a chat with Heary and another former team-mate, Stuart Byrne, brought a few jerseys along for auction as part of an enjoyable occasion, which took a surreal turn when adopted Bohs fan Johnny Logan popped by to serenade the audience with a mix of his own Eurovision classics and an Elvis medley.
'Weso' had delivered his own brand of entertainment at the Aviva 24 hours earlier and was warmly received as the local boy done good. His former team-mates always believed he was destined to grace the highest stage on a regular basis, albeit taking longer than they envisaged.
The former Belvedere player would tell you, however, that he benefited from his formative experiences at Shels, coming into a dressing-room packed with big characters.
While Ollie Byrne searched for the money to pay the bills, Keely, and subsequently Pat Fenlon, were given the resources to do things properly and success followed. Indeed, the original dressing-room that Hoolahan walked into was so good that he struggled to get a regular run in the team.
Consider these 2003 quotes from Fenlon. "Wes can do things that other players cannot do. He opens the play up and he gets other guys involved around him. It's been a little frustrating for him because he's not been able to command a first-team spot."
O'Neill could easily have said something similar after the 31-year-old Norwich man conducted the win over Latvia. The uncertain nature of life in the Airtricity League is making it nigh on impossible to build a solid group like that Shels side.
Heary, a winner of seven league titles across his stints with Shels and Bohs, was part of a generation who were paid well enough to stay at home and play professionally for the better part of their careers. Byrne is another example.
If that pair came along today, they'd have to regularly hop from club to club to make a living in tandem with other commitments or else pack their bags for unglamorous destinations across the water.
Daryl Horgan, the impressive Cork City winger, was on trial with Torquay last week, a struggling League Two outfit. At their peak, the Shelbourne players would have been able to turn up their nose at that kind of opportunity.
The point here is that the environment which a late developer like Hoolahan came into at Shels allowed him to become a stronger player, even if those around him ultimately weren't good enough to reach the Premier League heights of the playmaker.
League of Ireland fans have a right to be proud of the local products who have earned caps in the recent past, yet it is no coincidence that the majority graduated from exalted company in local terms.
Kevin Doyle shone in an exceptional Cork City side, Seamus Coleman was in Sligo for the early part of their revolution under Paul Cook, while James McClean learnt on the job in a Derry group that was rebuilt by Stephen Kenny and contained mainstays of a better time.
Meanwhile, David Meyler and Shane Long barely got a look-in before they departed Cork because there was too much experienced quality ahead of them.
Today, it's easier for teenagers to get opportunities because the current generation of mid-to-late twentysomethings lacks the reserve of talent that was around five years ago. Their rate of progress could be hindered by a reduced standard of competition – which is something worth remembering in the wave of euphoria that is sweeping Irish football at the moment.
A successful senior team is not going to solve the issues from schoolboy through to Airtricity League level but at least the pairing of O'Neill and Roy Keane, who were both that bit older when they went across to England, have an appreciation of the bigger picture.
There will always be talented kids that slip under the radar or develop into better players beyond their teenage years, and they have a better chance of delivering on their potential when surrounded by a battle-hardened core of senior pros.
Regrettably, the inconsistency of life in the post-recession League of Ireland is making it hard for any club to provide that foundation. The days of trips to Cyprus are long gone but the mindset created by that Shelbourne group is still something worth striving towards.
For if the League of Ireland is to produce another Hoolahan, it needs more characters like Heary.
Rovers' recruit Byrne learns valuable lesson
LUKE BYRNE, who recently left Bohemians to join Shamrock Rovers, naively got himself into a spot of ridiculous bother over the weekend.
Byrne has been taking plenty of stick from Bohs fans on Twitter for jumping ship to their arch rivals so, in that context, it's fairly unfortunate that a picture of the youngster posing with a fistful of €50 notes started doing the rounds on Saturday – he had posted it to a friend on Snapchat (the latest social media phenomenon) with a message stating: "F**k Bohs, I follow the money."
It was a daft thing to do, but he never expected it go public.
When it did, the left-back immediately apologised, rightly pointing out that anyone with an awareness of the modern League of Ireland will know that none of the current crop have money to be throwing around.
Byrne's Twitter account went offline later in the night after he, predictably, received reams of abuse.
His fellow professionals were quick to jump to his defence and, by all accounts, the highly regarded 20-year-old is a decent character who will have learned an important lesson from this exercise.
Specifically that if he wishes to go further in the game he'll need to choose his friends wisely. He won't enjoy his return visit to Phibsborough in 2014.
FAI need to change tune on pre-match routine
IT takes courage to sing in front of a large crowd, so the blame for the ruination of the pre-match anthems at the Aviva Stadium is nothing to do with Nadia Forde and everything to do with the decision to put her there.
This writer doesn't have the ear to know if her singing career will be a success, and never imagined this burning issue could somehow overlap with the business of the international football team.
However, it was abundantly clear last Friday night that a bemused crowd were distinctly underwhelmed by an unnecessary experimentation which is an affront to a proper Irish match-day experience.
So this is a plea to the FAI, a wish for 2014: No more models, no more pipe bands, just play the anthem as usual and let the supporters provide the vocals. Now that the football team is actually giving people something to sing about, there's no need for the gimmicks.