Saturday 24 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Neglect of the domestic league continues to be a stain on the FAI

‘There’s a pragmatic case in favour of sticking with native-born players.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy
‘There’s a pragmatic case in favour of sticking with native-born players.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Eamonn Sweeney

One of the great things about major football championships is that they let countries know exactly where they stand. The mercilessness with which illusions are stripped away is almost frightening. Minor nations such as Austria, the Czech Republic and England, who've allowed themselves to get carried away by dominant qualifying campaigns, are suddenly revealed in all their woeful mediocrity. Players who've made big reputations, such as Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, banging in goals in the world's most over-rated league, are brought back down to earth. And players like Glenn Whelan, Ciaran Clark and James McCarthy, who've been muddling along for a while, wilt under the unforgiving spotlight of games being played for the highest stakes.

Then there are those who rise to the occasion. Iceland proving that the home and away wins over Holland in qualifying were no flukes. Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic proving beyond doubt that they deserved to be at the finals. And Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, Seamus Coleman and Darren Randolph rising gloriously to the occasion to prove themselves international performers of the highest quality, character and integrity.

You can't cod yourself or anyone else at major tournaments and that's why it's so important that Ireland reach them. They don't just tell us where we are, they tell us where we aren't. Above all, they're great for revealing the falseness of some of the myths we tell ourselves about the nature of Irish football and our national team in particular.

Myth one is that it doesn't matter where our players come from. Well, the truth of that is easily tested. Would it have meant the same had it been Jack Grealish putting the ball on Mark Noble's head in the Italy game instead of Wes Hoolahan putting it on Robbie Brady's? You know it wouldn't. The result might have been the same but it would have possessed nothing like the same emotional resonance. And these things matter because big Irish international matches are not solely about facts and figures. The national experience over the past fortnight cannot be judged solely in utilitarian terms.

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Who wasn't touched to hear young Amber Brady talking about what her brother Robbie's heroics had meant to the family? Wasn't that a lot better than hearing some second cousin go on about how when our latest import was a young lad, 'The family came home a couple of summers and I believe he liked the area'?

I've always believed that it would be better for the game here if we stuck to selecting players who've always wanted to play for Ireland and eschewed guys who accept the green jersey as a consolation prize. The argument against this has always been the ignoble one that we need foreign-born players to be competitive. But that argument holds no water after Euro 2016 where all our outstanding performers were born and reared here. The only import who contributed anything significant to the campaign was Richard Keogh and even then John O'Shea would probably have done just as well.

The fact that you're entitled to do something doesn't mean you have to do it. There were undoubtedly second generation players, Tony Grealish for example, whose first loyalty was to an Irish identity. But they're in the minority these days. Ciaran Clark, for example, played for England at underage level and the defection of Jack Grealish and the hemming and hawing of Noble are humiliating examples of how an Irish cap can just be a fallback position. Listening to Andy Townsend in the commentary box at these championships, it's pretty obvious that he is an Englishman. When you go back two generations in particular you're entering the realms of absurdity. The green jersey should be something you aspire to rather than settle for.

I think there's a pragmatic case in favour of sticking with native-born players. The idea that national pride has anything to do with international performances is often pooh-poohed by those who fancy themselves as sophisticated and realistic observers of the sporting scene. They tend to come up with a line about players being, 'highly paid professionals who are there to do a job'. On this reading Jeff Hendrick would display the same kind of passion that marks his Irish displays if he jumped ship, changed his nationality and started playing for England. Now does that sound as if it makes any sense at all?

National pride may be a hard factor to quantify statistically but it's there all the same in our performances and those of Iceland, Wales, Hungary, Slovakia and other over-performing small nations. A player's wage packet doesn't necessarily render him immune to its blandishments either. From start to finish, for example, Gareth Bale has hoisted Wales up on his back like an inter-county star returning home to carry his club in a county final.

Perhaps it's no coincidence either that two of the big flops of the tournament, England and Russia, were the two sides whose fans disgraced themselves. Could it be that their players, consciously or otherwise, had a look at the iniquities being committed in the name of their country and thought, 'Is that what I'm supposed to be representing?'

The stuff about those highly paid pros may sound admirably hard-bitten but it is lacking in emotional truth. And until such time as two teams of robots are slugging it out at major tournaments emotion is always going to play a part.

My favourite tweet on that memorable night in Lille came from Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson and read: 'Belvedere FC put the ball on St Kevins head. Don't give up your dreams Irish lads'. Those dreams matter and that's why I'm always unconscionably irritated when I happen across some lower division English game, note a guy with an Irish-sounding name and then find out that he was born in Watford or Northampton or Hampshire, qualified on the parentage or grandparentage rule, received a raft of Irish underage caps and never rose beyond the lower divisions.

There are dozens of these guys. We gamble that they might come through for us at full international level but they rarely do. And every cap they receive is a cap that might have gone to a youngster from Limerick or Longford or Mayo. That native youngster mightn't make it either but an underage cap can mean a lot to one of our smaller schoolboy leagues and maybe expand the idea of what is possible for some guy who could make it.

What makes it worse is that all things being equal the foreign-born player will possibly get the nod ahead of the home-born one. It makes sense. There's an urgency about capping the English lad to establish a claim on him. Whereas the Irish lad can wait, he's not going anywhere, there's no-one else he can play for. This may account for the poor return we've enjoyed on these underage imports.

Now that we're making major finals again we'll be more attractive to guys who declared for England at underage level but remember their Leitrim granny when they realise no senior cap is forthcoming. It just seems wrong that guys like that could in the future deny caps to borderline cases like Conor Hourihane or John Egan.

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One disadvantage of the policy of trying to twist the arm of promising young Brummies and Londoners into declaring for the land of their distant forefathers is that it lets the authorities here off the hook to a certain extent. Though they may see that as an advantage. Where's the urgency in developing the underage set-up here when English-born players might provide a get-out clause?

Yet, terrific and all as we were at the championships, our achievement was nowhere near as impressive as that of Iceland, who have made the last eight despite having a population which is considerably less than that of Cork. They have done so on foot of an ambitious and insightful policy which involved investment in the provision of top-class facilities and coaching. Within that tiny population they still have more trained coaches than we do here. Theirs is a sustainable route to success. Ours still depends to a large degree on luck.

The neglect of the domestic league continues to be a stain on the FAI's reputation. Two years ago the 12 top flight clubs in the League of Ireland paid out more in fines and affiliation fees than they received in prize money. The League is in the worst state of disarray that long-term fans can remember. Yet this is the League which produced Wes Hoolahan, James McClean, Steven Ward, Shane Long and our finest player Seamus Coleman who always makes a point of thanking Sligo Rovers for the contribution they have made to his career. If it hadn't been for the League, Coleman could well have been watching Euro 2016 in Killybegs. Who knows how many similar talents are going unnoticed thanks to the parlous state of the domestic game?

The best tribute to what Ireland achieved in France would be a decision to go the Iceland route and put in place the kind of programmes which would enable these big emotional occasions to become a regular part of the Irish sporting calendar. Robbie Brady's goal shouldn't become an excuse for the kind of self-congratulation and complacency which followed previous big championship displays. If it merely serves to paper over the cracks perhaps we'd have been better off if he put his header over the bar.

After Britain won the Falklands War in 1982, Margaret Thatcher was approached by some reporters who wanted her analysis of the campaign. She waved them away, shouting, "Rejoice, rejoice." I suspect the FAI would prefer if we all adopted this approach while looking back at Euro 2016. But who wants to be like Margaret Thatcher? Let's see how we can make things better. The fans deserve it, the players deserve it and all the Amber Bradys and their big brothers deserve it.

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