Tuesday 18 June 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Ruud Dokter's cure could end up doing more harm than good'


Late developers like Seamus Coleman could be in danger of slipping through the net with the implementation of the national U-13 league. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Late developers like Seamus Coleman could be in danger of slipping through the net with the implementation of the national U-13 league. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The Relative Age Effect is a theory which suggests that children born in the later stages of the year are going to be at a disadvantage in the sporting field.

In football, it applies to countries like Ireland which use the calendar year to group youths.

August 1 was the cut-off point until the late 1990s and the trend was similar: kids who were born just after that date were more successful at youth level. Size mattered.

Former Ireland U-15 and U-16 manager Vincent Butler has extensive records that back the point up.

The Dublin & District Schoolboy League U-14 team that competed in the Kennedy Cup in 1996 was dominated by August, September and October babies. In 1999 - after the calendar year change - the youngest player was May-born.

Profiles of the homegrown players in recent Irish squads back up the point. Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long, Matt Doherty and Derrick Williams are January.

Later arrivals such as Enda Stevens (July), Kevin Long (August) and Seamus Coleman (October) all took their time to come through. Long wasn't capped at all until senior level.

The two most talked about teenagers in Irish football, Spurs' Troy Parrott and Shamrock Rovers' Manchester City-bound Gavin Bazunu, were born in February 2002.


This isn't just an Irish thing; it's European-wide. Former FAI employee Stephen Finn recently wrote a blog detailing how 48pc of the players who lined out in the European U-17 Championships in the 2008-13 period were born before April.

Other countries have started to look at bio-banding, which is grouping by size rather than age. New Zealand do this in rugby.

What is the relevance of this to the current state of Irish football? It's become one of the angles in the case against the introduction of the new national U-13 league which will kick off in March and join the U-15, U-17 and U-19 equivalents.

The fear is the 'gap years' will be a particular problem when it comes to the youngest age group, with the jump from U-13 to U-15 level making a situation where the physically strongest survive even more pronouncedly.

FAI high performance director Ruud Dokter did acknowledge recently that the best-case scenario would be to have a league at every age group but there are financial limitations. He said players who line out for League of Ireland sides at U-13 level could drop back to schoolboy teams for U-14 activity with a view to returning to the national stage for the U-15 side. That's a flawed pathway.

Inevitably, the outstanding players will be fast-tracked to the U-15s and that will demoralise those in limbo.

Butler is convinced that the U-13 idea will destroy football development in Ireland. And he has a significant stake in the game through his 13 years with Ireland and an even longer association with Belvedere, one of the nurseries who feel aggrieved that the national leagues have given too much responsibility to the League of Ireland.

Schoolboy teams who tried to enter the U-15 league were refused entry. They were raided for their better players by LOI sides, and Butler expects the same with happen at U-13 level.

Compensation is a key issue here. If a player eventually moves overseas, the clubs that have nurtured the talent are entitled to reward depending on how many years the individual in question spent there. Crucially, this only kicks in from the age of 12.

An U-13 league means that the elite - or the early bloomers - will be on the books of a league club by that stage.

Butler says that will leave the likes of Belvedere, who offer football to kids as young as four, with no option but to scale back their activities. Shamrock Rovers are an example of a LOI side that is now starting very young, but other clubs offer nothing at this level.

Bohemians have struck up a partnership with St Kevin's - and the FAI point to that as an ideal world example - but there isn't an ideal fit for everyone.

Butler adds that it is wrong to introduce the league for the first age group at which kids play 11-a-side. And he anticipates it will be much harder for late bloomers in a system that could deal out pre-teen rejection.

He points to Graham Burke, a September child who had developing to do in his early years but stayed in good company at Belvedere and broke onto the Irish scene at 17.

"It is not right that boys at the age of 11 or 12 be pigeonholed as a success or failure," says Butler, "The late developers (in the past) were small, light players passed over for representative teams. However, they were still able to play with strong, talented team-mates.

"If this U-13 league goes ahead, those not selected will play in inferior development situations where they will not be challenged or motivated."

This debate is layered. Officials at League of Ireland clubs would argue that schoolboy sides have foregone compensation they were due in order to boost their number of exports - which has helped to create a culture where British clubs are willing to offer buttons.


The top schoolboy sides are no strangers to poaching either; a friend who coaches with a relatively low-profile Dublin team tells a story about the joy of causing an upset against one of the big guns being tempered by the opposing manager walking over afterwards to snap up three of the underdogs' match winners. What did that do for the progression of the others?

There's also a Dublin-centric nature to complaints about an idea that is encouraging regional operations to get their act together, although the beatings that some of these teams are enduring are a concern on the morale front too.

'Growing pains' is the FAI's defence. With the adjustment process at U-15 level still kicking in, the U-13 experiment has come around the corner quickly.

It's clear there is no going back on the overall plan but, for the sake of continuity in development, the argument for letting interested schoolboy teams compete in the U-13 league is compelling. As it stands, there's too much to lose.

Irish Independent

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