We're up the creek without a paddle or a plan
Urgent change is required to prevent Irish football falling further behind the rest, says Richard Sadlier
If you were asked to devise and implement a strategy to identify and develop the best young football talent in Ireland, and you suggested anything like what is currently in operation, you would be laughed out of the room.
If your proposal for domestic football resembled the existing model of the Airtricity League, you would be met with the same response. You would never be asked for any football-related input ever again. It would be assumed, with some justification, that you had no understanding of the task assigned to you.
The senior international team has just equalled the worst performance by any country in the history of the European Championships. The domestic Premier Division is a club down following Monaghan United's withdrawal from the league last week, and the FAI's international high performance director has left for a post in India. There is no money there to make the necessary changes, but finances are not all that is lacking. A cohesive plan would be a start.
There is currently no national strategy of any kind for players under the age of 14 in Ireland, despite it being a critical stage in their development as footballers. Some leagues have representative squads for players aged 11 to 14, but it is entirely up to them if they do. Identification of elite players does not occur until they are 14, and even then they are only brought together once a week. Kids in the UK, for example, are training up to four nights a week with academies from the age of seven and eight. Ireland is also one of the few countries in Europe where there is no formal link between the top schoolboy academies and the top senior clubs.
So what about underage international level? Wim Koevermans was appointed international high performance director in September 2008, "to produce a consistent supply of better quality players for the senior international teams over the long term". He decided from the off that all underage international teams should play the same system in every game. It makes sense when you think about it. If all teams play the same way, then regardless of changes in coaching personnel or promotion to an age-group above their own, players are equipped to perform at their best. His vision was to play a 4-3-3 formation and nothing else.
At the same time, Giovanni Trapattoni was taking the reins of the senior team and adopted the strictest interpretation of a 4-4-2 system to be seen in a long time. As recently as last week, Marco Tardelli explained how he and Trapattoni evaluate players. Put simply, they are interested only in whether that player would suit their style of play. Unless they could see the player performing in their formation, he would be ignored. Koevermans' legacy will be that he prepared the youth internationals of Ireland to play in a way that prevents them from being selected for the senior team.
And what now for the senior team? The need for Trapattoni to adapt to the realities of modern international football is abundantly clear, but his willingness to embrace the necessary change is harder to detect and impossible to envisage.
Former Ireland international Mick Martin spoke on radio after last week's defeat to Italy about his role as scout for Trapattoni in the UK. I asked him what the situation was with Wes Hoolahan of Norwich City, one of the players mentioned as a possible contender for a call-up. He said he has never been sent to look at any individual player by Trapattoni, but was highly complimentary of Hoolahan. He went on to point out, however, that Hoolahan's position is to play in the hole behind a striker. Many would see that as a solution, but Martin saw that as the problem. Hoolahan
looks set to remain in the international wilderness a little longer, albeit while playing regularly in the Premier League.
And the domestic game? The majority of league clubs have neither the finances nor the vision to implement a long-term strategy for youth development. Requirements to do so under the FAI licensing process are seen as nothing more than box-ticking exercises. A lot of clubs limp from season to season focusing solely on staying afloat. The big Dublin derbies involving Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne on Thursday and St Patrick's Athletic and Bohemians on Friday attracted a combined audience of 3,500 people. There are too many clubs in Dublin and not enough interest for any to be fully professional. Actually, the same could be said of the whole country.
So from childhood right the way through, the elite players of Ireland have it tough. The conversation about Ireland's performance in Poland should not be about the quality of the resources at Trapattoni's disposal but whether they were put to the correct use. If that review was extended to football all over Ireland, the same conclusion would be reached. Change is needed and it's needed now. But there's no sign that those in charge are capable of delivering it.
Sunday Indo Sport