Monday 16 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'FAI's national underage leagues could be just what the Dokter ordered for our young talent'

Ruud Dokter. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruud Dokter. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

A few years ago the GAA decided, against considerable grassroots opposition, to abolish competitive games at the under 12 grade. They're less timid souls in the FAI where they've announced that a national under 13 league will get under way next March.

The difference between the GAA and the FAI is that while the former have the freedom of living in a self-contained world, the latter have to take foreign competition into account. That's why Ireland have decided to follow the lead of rival European countries who run a similar integrated underage system.

Notable among these is Holland whose production of technically gifted young players is proverbial. The FAI's director of coaching Ruud Dokter has vast coaching experience within the Dutch system and the revamp of the Irish schoolboy structure, which has already led to the creation of national under 19, under 17 and under 15 leagues, is very much his brainchild.

When the system was initially mooted a couple of years back there was outrage from some of the powerful Dublin clubs which have long dominated schoolboy football in this country. These objections were, to a large extent, the inevitable reaction to radical change in any area and were also motivated to a certain degree by understandable self-interest. There were predictions of a disastrous fate for the new competitions.

One of the main objections to the national leagues was that these powerful clubs were not allowed to enter and that the leagues would instead contain teams representing League of Ireland clubs with a few regional teams thrown in. The schoolboy sides made the reasonable point that the League of Ireland had not been noted for its commitment to youth football in the past but would now be presented with the outstanding talent developed by others.

That was a fair point, but had the FAI simply created an All-Ireland league dominated by the traditional schoolboy powerhouses, it would have defeated the purpose of the enterprise, which is to create a structure where youngsters proceed through the national leagues into the League of Ireland.

Even the most fervent supporter of the way things used to be can't claim that everything has been going well for Irish soccer in recent times. Fewer and fewer of our players make the breakthrough in England and the paucity of young stars means we've developed a dependence on picking up leftovers from the English system with Irish names and poaching the best Catholics from Northern Ireland.

The problem with depending on the scraps from someone else's table is that you have little personal control over the food chain. This new system offers a planned approach tailored specifically towards the needs of Irish football. That has to be a good thing.

There are still plenty of naysayers out there who hope the new structure might yet be derailed. They like to point out that teams from Wexford, Longford and Kerry have found it very hard to compete in the new leagues. Yet there has also been evidence that the old Dublin domination of schoolboy football was obscuring talent elsewhere in the country.

Last year's under 17 league and cup double was won by a Finn Harps team whose players could have passed unnoticed under the old system.

After all, Seamus Coleman, our best player of the last decade, could have been lost to Irish soccer had Paul Cook not spotted his potential at Sligo Rovers. Ireland got a lucky break there, but how many potential Colemans have been lost because they've been playing in leagues where they didn't have sufficient competition to bring them on?

Ireland's recent good form at under 17 level shouldn't mask the fact that in the 20 years since Brian Kerr's memorable European double, we haven't come next nor near a similar success. And the biggest problem for Irish football is that our very best young players are sent to an English system which squanders talent on an industrial scale. When things don't work out for these prodigies cross channel, they are often lost to the game here.

The great success story in recent years in terms of producing great young footballers has been Belgium, where most of those players gained first team experience as teenagers in domestic competition before moving to Europe's major leagues. Coleman, too, benefited from maturing with Sligo Rovers before going to England.

The FAI are on the right track with the new national leagues which will surely improve the standard of our own domestic game as well as helping players bound for England to maximise their potential.

It could be just what the Dokter ordered.

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