Monday 17 December 2018

Aidan O'Hara: 'The cases of James Ryan and Noe Baba show why rugby's player roadmap can't work for football'

25 February 2015; Republic of Ireland U19 captain Noe Baba leads his team onto the pitch. U19 International Friendly, Republic of Ireland v Azerbaijan, Tallaght Stadium, Tallaght, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
25 February 2015; Republic of Ireland U19 captain Noe Baba leads his team onto the pitch. U19 International Friendly, Republic of Ireland v Azerbaijan, Tallaght Stadium, Tallaght, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In March of 2012, James Ryan held the trophy above his head as he was sprayed by delighted St Michael's team-mates with a blue sports drink that sponsored rugby's Leinster Schools Junior Cup.

Ryan wouldn't turn 16 until July but already the roadmap towards reaching the top of his chosen sport was laid out ahead of him, once he was lucky enough with injuries and good enough to take it.

There'd be advancement into the Senior Cup and, with it, a commitment which required a gym session in the morning, video analysis study at lunchtime and pitch sessions after school. Alongside that, would come selection for the Leinster Schools and then Ireland's U-18s.

If he was still hitting his targets, there would be a place in the Leinster academy and further international recognition with Ireland's U-20s. Achieve that and it's a full-time professional contract at Leinster where players are challenged in 'A' competitions, then establishing themselves in the PRO14 and onto the Champions Cup. As it turned out, Ryan also earned a senior cap for Ireland before he got one for Leinster.

There's nothing easy about what Ryan did or continues to do but his example is one which should be remembered the next time somebody asks why we can't produce players in football like we do in rugby. Ryan's case, and also that of Noe Baba.

Baba is one month younger than Ryan and, back in 2012, was the best player of his age group in the country, for which he was recognised as Ireland's U-16 player of the year.

The Cameroon-born full-back would, like Ryan, progress through Ireland's underage set-ups to U-17s, U-19s and onto U-21s. At club level, however, where rugby in Ireland has the ability to challenge its players with incremental steps, football effectively makes them swim across the Irish Sea.

In January 2013, Baba joined Fulham and, in the five-and-a-half years that he spent in England before returning to join Waterford last summer, the man who was once Ireland's most promising player under 16 played a grand total of nine league games, all of which came while at Macclesfield in the Conference last season.

Go back to 1997 and Baba's equivalent was Richie Partridge who won consecutive youth team player of the year awards at Liverpool and, on his debut, was part of an 8-0 victory in a League Cup tie against Stoke City. But at a time that he might have hoped to progress, Liverpool chose instead to pay £3 million for Bernard Diomede who ended up playing two games for the club while Partridge slipped further down the pecking order before injuries blighted his career.

A decade after Partridge, a former Crumlin player won the country's U-16 award having moved to Chelsea and subsequently captained them to the club's first Youth Cup final success in almost 50 years. Conor Clifford's career has been well documented in these pages yet at the age of 17, both Clifford and Ryan were at the highest possible point they could be in their age group in their chosen sport.

By the time Ryan turned 22 last summer, he had finished his season with a Six Nations, Grand Slam, PRO14 and Champions Cup medals. Two months before Clifford turned 22, he signed a deal with Southend having spent the previous couple of years bouncing from Chelsea to Plymouth to Notts County to Yeovil to Portsmouth to Crawley and to Leicester.

There aren't many industries where an employee has at least eight different managers by the age of 21 and is questioned as to why they might not be performing at their best.

Like so many who have gone before him, Clifford admits that he could have done more to help himself but, even with the greatest of dedication, the roadblocks in coming through the ranks in English football are such that it's a miracle that so many even get that far rather than so few. For every Baba, Partridge or Clifford, there are a few hundred others with similar stories to tell.

The scary part for Irish football is that, at the moment, entering that rat race remains the target for so many kids. Damien Duff's comments on RTE last week underlined just what is required to have a chance of progressing to the point where an U-15 player can at least dream of being a professional footballer.

Duff argued that young players in Ireland don't touch the ball or train enough by comparing to the likes of Chelsea at U-15 level, who according to Duff, train seven times a week. When he introduced a 6.30am session and double sessions for his Shamrock Rovers U15-s team, Duff argued, he "got slaughtered".

Yet it was in a later discussion about Duff's potential move to Celtic which is closer to the reality that faces so many young Irish footballers in England.

"What route am I going to go down after finishing football?," asked Duff. "That's all I know, I don't have a school education. Nothing, so I can't go down that route."

At 39 years of age, with a superb playing career behind him and a potential coaching career stretching out in front of him, Duff has earned every bit of what football has given him.

The problem is that that exact sentiment could be have been uttered by hundreds of kids who've gone to England at 16, getting precious little school education in a foreign country to focus on their game, poured their heart, soul and dreams into "making it" only to be chucked on the scrapheap four or five years later.

Duff isn't asking any of his players to give up their education for the sake of football because, unlike rugby, Irish football will never be in a position to offer young players the chance to reach the highest level of the sport while having the foundation of life at home to fall back on when times get tough.

Next year, Gavin Bazunu will go to Manchester City once he completes his Leaving Cert having already been a professional footballer with Shamrock Rovers.

A glance at the City website shows they have four first-team goalkeepers plus two more at U-19 level plus another two born in the same year as Bazunu in their academy. Even by the most optimistic of outlooks, Bazunu will have four players ahead of him if he is ever to become City's first-choice stopper and all the while knowing that they have the money to sign any goalkeeper in the world to jump the queue in front of him.

Bazunu's case is unusual in that he has chosen to complete his education before he is allowed, having been a professional, to move to England at 17 but his dilemma, like every other teenager in Ireland, is that it's easy to believe that every extra day he spends in Ireland is a day he's falling further down the pecking order in Manchester.

The introduction of U-13, U-15 and U-17 leagues should theoretically help the player pathway even if it means a scenario where a child aged 13 years and one month finds themselves competing in the same age bracket as one that's 14 years and 11 months. Those that make it, progress; those who don't, risk falling between the cracks.

However, England will still come calling for the very best 16-year-olds and, with the best will in the world, it's impossible for any League of Ireland clubs to offer the kind of dreams that the Premier League's elite might dangle.

In the past couple of weeks, there have been several unfavourable comparisons to the way that the IRFU and FAI get players to the elite level of their respective games but, because of the nature of the two sports, rugby players have the support structure for gradual improvement whereas footballers must fend for themselves. It's not fair but it is the reality.

Yet while football will never be able to offer a roadmap to the very top like rugby can, any effort to increase education levels among its players should be a priority as part of the next decade in the FAI.

Those who make it through Senior Cup rugby but don't reach a professional level should, at least, have a Leaving Cert to fall back on but if they'd been moved away from their parents at 16 like their football counterparts, it's questionable how many would have had the same dedication to their studies.

The fact that there is more money in the fee-paying schools of those competing at Senior Cup level allows them to act like satellite academies for provinces with at least a passable nod towards the importance of education. In football, it's possible to build an entire article around the notion that a player has a degree at third level, in rugby it's almost the norm.

Initiatives

There is, however, a couple of initiatives which suggest things might be changing.

Last month in Corduff, Dublin, Andy Reid spoke at the FAI and Fingal County Council Transition Year Football Development Course which is now in its third year and offers a glimpse into the reality of life as an academy player within the structure of a school environment.

"Courses like this are very important for players at this age. For players that go on to have a professional career and for those who don't, education is really important," said Reid. "I never had the opportunity to take part in a course like this before I joined a professional club."

That last sentence is equally true for the likes of Reid and Duff who make it, and the hundreds of others who don't.

For the next two years, Mick McCarthy won't be concerning himself too much with the well-being of the next generation but, for Stephen Kenny, it's the building blocks that he can attempt to put in place at underage level which might make his own step up to senior management a little easier.

As it always is, money remains a huge issue but similar partnerships with councils or government could provide a rescue boat for the dozens of players every season who have been ensnared in English football's net and then chucked into the sea a few years later, still as teenagers, and told they're not good enough.

Football and education have never sat particularly well together but while the exporting of our best talents and outsourcing of their development to England is part of the game's reality in this country, it's incumbent on those running the game to give those players a better chance of getting up when, inevitably, most of them fall.

Otherwise, with the roadblocks getting larger and the size of the leaps needed getting wider, the game here will never learn its lesson.

Irish Independent

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