Wednesday 19 September 2018

Comment: FAI's approach to underage leagues shown up by U-17s

Ireland captain Nathan Collins. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland captain Nathan Collins. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

It seems quite a paradox that in an era when Ireland's underage teams are enjoying a purple patch, the very system that produces the players is being dismantled.

Not since the heyday of Brian Kerr's golden spell in charge of the youth squads 20 years ago have Irish teams qualified for back-to-back European Championship finals.

The U-17s have now achieved that distinction by progressing to another quarter-final tonight against Holland. In a further irony, they've managed the feat using almost an exclusively home-produced squad.

Irish supporters have gotten used to a British-born cohort populating the older squads, especially the U-21 teams of recent years, but the trend has altered among the newer intakes.

Just two of the 21-member panel at the U-17 Euros didn't spend their formative years within the Irish schoolboy football system. And, at last year's finals in Croatia, Rowan Roache was the sole Irish-eligible English teen included.

That composition, coupled with the U-17s progress, suggests the conveyor belt of domestic personnel is hurtling along. International managers rightly point to the bulk of development work being conducted by the players' clubs.

In that context, as U-17 boss Colin O'Brien was swift to recognise after securing qualification from Group C last Friday, those nurseries deserve huge credit.

Which makes it all the more bewildering that the schoolboy sector's importance within the Irish footballing hierarchy is becoming increasingly marginalised.

So much so that some of the more established hotbeds who for years have supplied these gems to these international teams fear extinction.

The Football Association of Ireland have adopted a clear objective of transferring the responsibility of nurturing top talent from proven custodians to League of Ireland clubs, who have no track record for hothousing gems.

They may well point out that this is new territory yet, barring the very odd exception, none of them ever showed an interest in applying a professional approach to this aspect of the game in the past.

Now, the FAI have decided that the League of Ireland clubs are the only show in town.

From next March, elite talent will operate in an U-13 national league. And there is no reason for anybody to expect them to deviate from their stated policy of excluding schoolboy clubs from their latest and youngest structure.

Rather than facilitating a free market, where those with the best resources and history for handling the delicate task of player development are rewarded, barriers to entry were mounted.

Try as they did, the major players of the schoolboy fraternity failed to join the U-15 and U-17 equivalents, instead gbeing told to partner up with senior clubs.

Although it appeared someone in Abbotstown went off-script by permitting St Kevin's Boys to enlist into the maiden U-15 season as a standalone entity last year, threatened mutiny by League of Ireland clubs meant the departure was a one-off.

Of course, the FAI is entitled to introduce professionalism into the underage ranks, but it is biting the hand that feeds them to cut the schoolboy sector completely from the picture.

The association were keen when announcing the squad for the U-17 Euro finals to list the Emerging Talent Centres of the players.

These are the locations where the players are coached by FAI staff, albeit only once per week compared to twice or three times at their clubs.

Many of the these possess facilities and balance sheets to put League of Ireland clubs in the shade.

Even Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley, whose club are prioritising development plans, called on the FAI to let the best schoolboy outfits into the national leagues.

The suspicion surrounding the flawed approach drills down to money. Compensation for young players going abroad under FIFA rules is big business and the game's difficult child, as the FAI's chief executive John Delaney has described the League of Ireland, could do with a new revenue stream.

Tonight, Ireland are up against the most formidable nation at the tournament.

Chelsea's Daishawn Redan returns from suspension to lead the line for a Dutch side that beat Germany and Spain and haven't conceded a goal.

"I believe once we take the chances, we're capable of beating any team," said Ireland captain Nathan Collins (above).

RTÉ's decision to broadcast tonight's last-eight tie will at least allow the Irish public to appreciate the latest products of a system not without its imperfections, but much less requiring surgery than other categories of the game at home.

  • Ireland v Holland, Live, RTÉ 2, 7.0

Irish Independent

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