Forget Trap – it's FAI who need a Plan B
Irish game should be about more than just cashing in, writes Richard Sadlier
Robbie Keane said that Ireland would never dominate possession of the ball like Spain, but nobody is suggesting that they should. He said there was never a Plan B throughout his time with the international squad, but few people are saying there always was.
The criticism of Giovanni Trapattoni's philosophy was based on his failure to adapt to developments in the game or to consider alternative approaches. The same could be said of how the FAI runs football in Ireland. An honest assessment of Irish football would make for grim reading for the Association, but it goes far beyond the recent results of the international team.
In terms of senior football, Trapattoni's remark last week that there was no league in Ireland was perfectly true in the context in which he meant it. The Airtricity League is not considered a credible option in the circles of international football. It falls short in every measurable way which is why Trapattoni shouldn't be criticised for dismissing it. Instead, the FAI should be outlining what they plan to do about it.
As for the best youngsters in Ireland, there is not one academy in the whole country where they can further develop their potential. Players who leave Ireland to pursue a professional career have no experience of full-time training and the discipline that is needed to survive it.
They'll have no experience of the physical and mental strains that come with it, or the pitfalls and dangers associated with it. There is no recognised centre of excellence, no institution that prepares players for the specifics of a life in the professional game. In the majority of cases, Irish youngsters who succeed in the UK do so in spite of their footballing background.
And what about player pathways within the country? In the absence of any direction from the top, self-interest is the dominant force. Schoolboy clubs don't advise players to choose the League of Ireland over a move abroad because they would lose out financially.
League of Ireland clubs claim the long-term interests of Irish youngsters are better served by extending their stay in Ireland, but this is so they can muscle in on their sale to the UK when they eventually leave. And I assume we aren't far off the FAI claiming compensation rights for players who come through their Emerging Talent programme.
If the whole system is geared towards exporting the best, then the maximum should be done to help prepare them ahead of their departure. Irish football should be about more than everybody jostling for position to cash in, but that's the current reality.
I'm not suggesting Ireland should aim to have a system that rivals what is in the UK in order to keep players at home. This isn't about pumping money into new League of Ireland stadiums or increasing the earning potential of home-based players. It's about taking responsibility for the footballing education of Irish youngsters in a serious and meaningful way. In other words, it's about doing something that has never been done before.
Much was said last week about the culture of Irish football and the way players are coached, but this goes far beyond the philosophy of the international manager or the structures that are yet to be in place. The loudest cheers during my schoolboy games were for hoofed clearances and crunching tackles. Instant praise came your way if you did either. The Aviva crowd's response to James McClean's challenge in the first half of the Sweden game would suggest it's still as popular, but other areas need to be urgently addressed.
When I was playing football it would never have occurred to us to play the ball to team-mates who were marked by opponents or to develop our ability to receive the ball under pressure. Where other nations coach their players to perform in tight spaces and be comfortable in possession, it's considered a stitch-up in Ireland if you give the ball to a player who is marked. It's how I was taught until the age of 16, and that's generally the same for youngsters today.
Unless a new approach is adopted, Irish footballers will continue to fall behind the pack in terms of technical ability and tactical nous. Stopping an Irish team playing will be achieved by denying them space. It won't have to be more complicated than that.
With the exception of newly appointed high performance director Ruud Dokter, everybody in the FAI is culpable in some way for the shambolic set-up of the game in this country. If Dokter is the right man for the job, he will immediately seek to reduce the minimum age of the Emerging Talent programme to well below 14, or scrap it altogether.
Anybody with the most elementary understanding of how children develop knows that waiting until a player is 14 years old to teach him skills and develop his technique is about six to eight years too late. However, those familiar with the politics of Irish football know the strength of opposition from the SFAI and other interests to allowing the best schoolboys come together any younger. Dokter will soon grasp the true nature of football here and realise how far removed it is from best practice.
Aspiring footballers accept that to have a career in the professional game it is necessary to leave Ireland. It was that way when I was young but the landscape has dramatically changed. British football is no longer made up only of the best of the home nations and a sprinkling of players from further afield. The competition has intensified and the game is changing.
Unless Irish football responds, Irish players will be left behind. Citing past successes is of no use now. What is needed is an honest appraisal of how things are and a vision of how they can be. Given their handling of Trapattoni and his approach in the past 12 months, the FAI are obviously not equipped to do either.