Thursday 26 April 2018

Developers get chance to build

FAI look to the future by nurturing players traditionally overlooked, says Dion Fanning

Paul Scholes was among those who were told at an early stage they were too small to make it professionally
Paul Scholes was among those who were told at an early stage they were too small to make it professionally

Dion Fanning

Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue, an Irish representative side assembled on Thursday afternoon. They were at the home of Hayes and Yeading FC, just off the A40, and their presence was an indication that there are plenty of people in Irish football trying to do the right thing to develop the next generation of footballers.

The squad were a group known as 'Future Developers'. They were born in 1999 or 2000 but lack the physicality of other players of the same age, an age when physical power can have a disproportionate impact.

Football's Hall of Fame is full of players who were released by clubs because they were too small as teenagers and the squad that was put together last week for two games, one in Brighton and the other against a side from the highly regarded Brentford academy, at Hayes and Yeading's ground, was an attempt to ensure those kind of footballers aren't lost before they have the chance to develop.

Luka Modric, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes are among those who were told at an early stage they were too small, The players who travelled to England were considered to be of a high technical standard, which was evident from watching them in the warm-up as they went through drills with Paul Osam, who was assisting FAI coach James Scott on the trip. Their lack of height and strength was also obvious.

The FAI had first developed a Future Developers squad during a period five years ago when they had a mutual agreement with Belgium to play their underage sides. During a conversation with the FAI's technical department, a Belgian coach mentioned they had a group of players who were under a certain body mass index, technically very good but small and light.

Niall Harrison, who heads the FAI's Emerging Talent programme, and John Morling, now Academy director at Brighton, sat down with Packie Bonner and Wim Koevermans, then the high performance director of the FAI, to discuss doing something similar.

The programme has been running, in one form or another, since then. Dessie Hutchinson, now at Brighton, and Shane McLoughlin from Kerry, who is now at Ipswich Town, are two who have come through the programme. For a few years it centred around what Harrison calls "home-based training sessions". The games last week were a big step.

James Scott stressed after the game at Brentford that the results of the matches didn't matter but for the players it was clear they did. The Future Developers had lost the first game against a strong Brighton side which had a few players in their team who were older than the Irish squad. When they went behind at Brentford, they seemed to feel they would be dominated again but as the game unfolded their technical skills began to have an impact on a suffocatingly hot day.

By the end, they were in complete control as they recorded a 3-1 win. Everyone stressed that victory was not the purpose of the exercise but there was something thrilling in seeing a group like this triumph.

Scott said he was as happy with how the players had conducted himself over the course of the trip.

Having initially followed the Belgian lead by selecting players based on their BMI, the FAI coaches felt they were missing out on small players who might have had a higher BMI. The squad for the trip to England was selected by eye more than using strict BMI.

The squad was unusual in another way as well. There was only one defender - a left-back - among the 18 selected. Most of the rest were midfielders, another reminder that their technical ability had been the key factor in their selection, so they were also adapting to new positions. This may explain why they did more talking than their opponents but there was a collective determination to make sure no team-mate was caught out of position. During the season, the players all train at one of the FAI's 12 centres of excellence once a week and the 18 players who made the trip were selected from an initial group of 46 following assessments last Christmas and Easter.

There are many things wrong with player development in Ireland - in an ideal world these players would spend more than one day a week at a centre of excellence - but there are also people like Harrison, Scott and Osam who are trying to get things done and are committed to doing them in the best way possible.

"The hope would be that at some stage a player does come through and play in the senior team," says Harrison. "I don't know if they are going to play senior international football but I think we have a duty to allow these players to develop in the same manner with the same ideals as the players who are currently in the under 15 or under 16 international teams."

There are no guarantees for any player at this level so the FAI want to ensure they do as much as they can to develop all players at a certain standard.

"I don't know how these players will look in two years' time," Harrison says, "but if they continue their technical development, with their game understanding and if the genetics of the family kick in, then we could have a star we don't know about."

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