Sunday 16 December 2018

Brian Kerr: Irish football needs much more than just 2020 vision

FAI commitment to national manager must be accompanied by a reconnection with all strands of game to ensure lasting future

Martin O’Neill reacts during the defeat to Denmark. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill reacts during the defeat to Denmark. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

Tuesday was another busy evening for Irish football.

Anyone driving around the snow-strewn land would have passed by hundreds of teams, from the professionals of the League of Ireland to the amateurs of the Junior leagues, and a host of schoolboy clubs, doing their best to train amidst the harsh winter chill.

Many people will have received a notice about the forthcoming primary school leagues that will be commencing soon.

And, for those of you on social media, you might have thrilled to the fact that the near million twitter followers of Sky's 'Soccer AM' would have witnessed a remarkable goal from the St Kevin's Boys U-13 side that involved an astonishing sequence of composed passing on the ground.

Irish football, on the face of it at least, in sweet harmony.

All that seemed to matter on Tuesday, however, was the perfunctory announcement from the international manager that he had agreed to sign a contract, affirmed a day later by the chief executive who insisted that the manager was the best man to qualify Ireland for the 2020 European Championships.

The Ireland manager at the announcement of Dublin as one of the host cities for Euro 2020. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
The Ireland manager at the announcement of Dublin as one of the host cities for Euro 2020. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Much ado about nothing was the line - which is an accurate enough assessment because, although everyone else in Irish football has continued to go about their work, nothing has happened at a senior level since the team lost 5-1 to Denmark in November.

We were told that the manager needed time to reflect on the defeat, time during which he was free to talk about committing to other jobs if not to commit to the one he already had. "That has always been the way," said the chief executive.

I'm not so sure it has always been the way. Certainly it is difficult to recall similar scenarios developing in Giovanni Trapattoni's time or even well before that.

Anyway, a week which alighted upon just two personalities played itself out, everyone said what we expected they would say and behaved in a manner we predicted they would and the presumption is that will continue to be the case.

The matches will slowly begin again and everyone will hope we can qualify for the next tournament. The management team, based in England, will catch some matches but most people won't care where they are once they win the games that matter.

True, some people may have become quite disenchanted about the style of play and the overall direction of the sport in this country but they seem to be a dwindling minority.

The apathy this week was quite worrying; the lack of obvious connection within the sport rather jarring.

The over-riding feeling was one of shoulder-shrugging indifference - if there was anger at Martin O'Neill's indecision, it was fairly muted. If there was anger at the confirmation that he was staying, it was very hard to discern any outrage.

The general public only see the tip of the iceberg - when they choose to engage with soccer in this country, it is either with English football or the Irish national team and they just want to have a few drinks and see their side win.

It's a little like the Olympic cycle; everyone wants to see us competing on the big stage but few care how our athletes are supported and developed on their way there.

When in the role of senior manager, there was an implicit duty on me to support all aspects of the game here, not necessarily from the top down but also from the bottom up.

It was important to try to connect all aspects of the game in order to give ourselves the best chance to develop sustainable participation at all levels.

That connection was relatively easy for me given my background; but it began to unravel during the Giovanni Trapattoni era, when the manager and his staff disengaged from all aspects of Irish football apart from the senior set-up.

To my mind, all the staff and players should know that football here is in competition for the hearts and minds of the country, jostling with alternatives such as rugby, their local GAA club or other sports.

But then I suppose it is easier to dismiss that connection if you are merely focusing on results and the jamboree of a major tournament, hoping that in itself will take care of everything.

Years of experience tells us that this has not been the reality.

In order to be sustainably competitive, not just blindly hope for the odd tournament jackpot every four or eight or 12 years, there must be a link between every chain of the game.

Take the League of Ireland as a much-touted example.

There was a lot of fanfare around the eight graduates from the League who featured at Euro 2016 but it never seemed subsequently as if there was a concerted master-plan to exploit this golden harvest.

There has been little emphasis on demanding that the clubs should be provided with the requisite finance, facilities and coaching structures to maintain the league as a consistent conveyor belt for talent, particularly now that it is more difficult than ever for Irish players to make it big in England.

Aside from a handful of players in the current squad, most of the players would have emerged from either the schoolboy leagues or the League of Ireland clubs but it is difficult to see how much that has been by general design, as opposed to fortunate accident.

Drill down more and those of us regulars at the League of Ireland would have seen some players emerging from the U-17 and U-19 leagues but the gap to the first team is too big for most of them.

What happens these players now? Where is their best level? And if they can't find that level, like an U-21 or Reserve League, will they stay involved in the game? Do we lose them?

Further down, at schoolboy level, the sudden introduction of underage national leagues, dominated by League of Ireland clubs appears at first glance to be a progressive move but it has left our top schoolboy clubs reeling and in disarray.

There is a lot of disillusionment in schoolboy clubs because of their loss of status and the lack of respect for their deep well of knowledge.

There is frustration too that they are no longer going to be in a position of influence in football because the League of Ireland clubs will now have all the best players.

And the prospect of compensation.

Schoolboy football throughout the land is a vital mix of social work, baby-sitting, the platform for young dreams but also a vehicle trying to institute the best practice of lifestyle and fitness in children of all ages, sexes and abilities.

Society and football cannot afford to lose that.

The new structures have potentially fatal flaws.

The alleged partnerships, particularly with the top Dublin clubs, are only papering over the cracks.

The schoolboy fraternity have an obvious difficulty in allowing their players to be taken from a system that has served them and us well and, from the age of 13 upwards, being placed in a League that has never had much interest in them heretofore.

Also, they are going into clubs, barely surviving, with few facilities, and unproven coaching set-ups.

For, if a player at a schoolboy club reaches the age of 15 and doesn't graduate to a League of Ireland set-up, might he then assume that he has reached a cul de sac? Will he have the enthusiasm to go back to playing schoolboy football?

In GAA or rugby, the dream may die for potentially elite players once they reach a certain age but not necessarily their love for the sport. A lot of schoolboy teams from U-15s upwards are breaking up and drifting into other sports or else out of sport altogether.

Looking from the top down, it is also difficult to recognise a consistent pattern.

Our senior team play the game with a style all of their own, and increasingly unique in the international game, yet the underage teams, bar the notable exception of the U-21s, are mimicking a Netherlands-lite approach, with an emphasis on possession and passing.

If there is an explanation for that contrast, and there is a valid reason why our senior team are all boot, bollock and bite, then perhaps that could be accepted.

If the manager told his under-age counterparts that he wanted to see players developed who were intelligent on the ball, technically gifted and tactically adaptable, but when they graduated to the senior side they would have to commit to his philosophy of playing the game, many would probably accept that, even if grudgingly.

But nobody appears to want to make that connection.

We do our business completely differently from other countries who have a streamlined approach from the top down throughout the whole system. There is always an obvious link.

There must be a consistent thread in the education of our coaches, the development of our players and the style of our international sides at all levels, with an allowance for flexibility when the occasion demands.

Wales reached the semi-final of Euro 2016 under Chris Coleman and an assistant manager, Osian Roberts, who also fulfilled the crucial role of technical director with particular responsibility for underage development.

What do football people in this country want from the game here? More to the point, who are the football people in this country?

I must admit it's a term that often confuses me, a label easily thrown out by media people in an attempt to heighten their own sense of importance and to justify faux outrage.

What is clear is that it seems much easier to identify rugby people and GAA people and for them to readily identify the pyramid structures within their particular sports, even if they often struggle with the same issues as soccer.

But at least they operate within an identifiable identity.

In Irish soccer, everyone tries to look after themselves.

If the problem child that is the League of Ireland is to play such an important role in providing players to all the national teams, surely it is deserving of a little more respect and support from those in charge?

Whatever one's view, it seems ever more difficult to ascertain a bigger picture. It all appears very haphazard, with little joined-up thinking, whether you look at it from the bottom up or the top down.

Nobody, of course, has all the right answers but it would be preferable if there was somebody asking all the right questions.

Then again, the show is on the road again so perhaps if a few results go our way, we qualify for Euro 2020 and Dublin comes to a standstill, that will answer the only question that seems to matter to most people.

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport