Saturday 17 March 2018

Dokter's prescription for major surgery has not pleased everybody

Feedback from the leagues raises concerns over viability of radical reforms aimed at benefiting Irish senior squad, writes John Fallon

Ruud Dokter's philosophy of the best playing with the best has its merits
Ruud Dokter's philosophy of the best playing with the best has its merits

John Fallon

Shane Long's appearance last week in a video to begin the Football Association of Ireland's presentation on their National Player Development Plan ranked high in the irony stakes to some of the underage league delegates in attendance.

Those still to be convinced of the proposed uprooting of all schoolboy games to summer football further wondered if Long's climb to international status would have been possible were he to embark on the journey under this new guise, due to operate from 2017.

Although GAA was his undeniable first love, the off-season enabled Long to prosper at football for local Tipperary side St Kevin's and later St Michael's. By switching season, elite footballers may be now faced with the dilemma of choosing between codes. Competition with other sports is just one of the drawbacks associated with such a shift and perhaps explains why chief executive John Delaney, speaking on Friday, noted it with one other of the 10 recommendations aimed at modernising the development system as requiring further discussion.

Driving the revolution for the FAI is Ruud Dokter, the high performance director. Even approaching the second anniversary of his appointment, the Dutchman is a relative newcomer to the Irish scene but by now sufficiently schooled to not dare run the gauntlet of the underage leagues without first having his ducks in a row.

While the FAI's own annual general meetings have taken on a processional feel in recent years, rancour remains rife at schoolboys' league summits, culminating in last season's scene where attempts by the top table to remove a rowdy delegate from the gathering were only aborted after he called for gardaí to intervene.

Kicking off the four-part roadshow in Co Cork, not even Dokter's opening gambit about the plans being approved by the Technical Advisory Committee replete with coaches nominated by the Schoolboys FAI (SFAI) and FAI Schools (FAIS) becalmed the audience of leagues at the Charleville Park Hotel.

Exactly what relevance it had to the national reform agenda on the night is questionable but soon old wounds between Limerick FC and the county's league resurfaced in the form of a verbal exchange across the floor. Think of Vincent Browne's People's Debate without the television cameras.

By the time the Red Cow Hotel hosted a cluster of leagues from Leinster and Munster on the last stop, emotion had given way to pragmatism.

It doesn't need Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane decrying the lack of real prospects for their senior team to recognise how far Ireland's record for producing home-grown gems has plummeted.

Similar views had been expressed from Robbie Keane, prompting the Ireland skipper to reveal on Friday: "I've spoken to Ruud about these plans; they look good to me and put the players first."

Shaping how the talent deficit gets tackled is the divisive side of the ledger. Introducing 'non-competitive' football across the country for all players aged 12 years and under, whereby smaller teams and pitches feature, gained broad agreement, as did the uniform use of a size five ball to discourage long passes out of defence.

Integrating girls into boys' teams above the current age threshold of under 13 would appear to pose more social than sporting challenges, whilst the long-debated use of 'roll-on-roll-off' substitutions carries the potential to be problematic as the age grades change from nine- to 11-a-side.

Aside from the intricacies of game formats, it is the aforementioned 'single calendar season' and the creation of regional leagues that account for the most contentious elements within the proposed overhaul.

That will entail, for example, the top two teams across five different leagues at each age-group funnelling into a 'super-division' with a view to increasing the standards for elite players to compete at.

Dokter's philosophy of 'the best playing with the best' has its merits, though the meagre yield of senior internationals from multi-million euro investment in the FAI's Emerging Talent Programme during the past 12 years can't be ignored either.

In a Dublin-dominated sector, from a silverware perspective and with their 40 per cent of players, the capital has already a long-established pyramid structure within its three leagues. Invariably, talent gravitates towards the standard-bearers, evidenced by half of the home-based players in last week's Ireland under 16 squad being drawn from just two clubs, Belvedere and Cherry Orchard. Beyond the Pale is where concerns abound on the topic of regional leagues.

"This part doesn't seem well thought-out," says Pat Kelly, veteran secretary of the Waterford Schoolboys League. "Talented players are spread out across different teams in the country, meaning some of their best players are depending on their teams being selected for the regional leagues to play in it.

"There's also the burden of travel costs to be considered. Teams could be playing hundreds of miles away under this proposal."

Three of the 32 leagues - Roscommon, Mayo and Clare - switched to summer football well before Dokter's brainchild got an airing and, though all dismissed the clash with GAA on the basis of increased numbers, some of their peer leagues queried whether quality had accompanied quantity.

"If the purpose is to ultimately develop players for the Ireland senior squad, the 15 per cent playing at elite level in each league can switch to summer football," reasoned Pat McNally of the Kildare Underage League. "But to discommode the other 85 per cent seems like madness."

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