Thursday 22 March 2018

Excellence must begin at home for Ireland to prosper

League of Ireland can play key role in helping youngsters compete at top level in Britain

Wes Hoolahan had his debut at 26. Photo: Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan had his debut at 26. Photo: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

Just before Euro 2016, the Irish camp organised a photoshoot with the eight players in the 23-man squad to have come through the League of Ireland, naturally looking to publicise this success of the competition. It was certainly worth celebrating for domestic football, given that this was their biggest ever representation in an international tournament, but it could well become something of a standard in the Irish team. In fact, the representation could have been bigger.

Of the 36 players used so far by Martin O'Neill in 2016 as a whole, nine of them spent most of their key formative football years - between the ages of 14 and 19 - at League of Ireland clubs. That forms the highest proportion of domestic league players in the squad in decades - and certainly the highest since Ireland started qualifying for major tournaments.

As the figures going back in 10-year intervals illustrate (see panel) the profile of the squad in terms of background has transformed. The country may not have a bona fide star right now, but it doesn't really see too many players make the leap from English non-league clubs like Crockenhill and Marine either, as was the case with Tony Cascarino and Jason McAteer respectively. The League of Ireland now has much more influence than the UK lower divisions, as should arguably be the case anyway.

If that is a source of pride for the domestic competition, though, it should be another source of discussion about how we produce our players.

Because, despite Dundalk's supreme feats in the Europa League and how well that reflects on the league too, it would still be a stretch to say that the infrastructure is in the state it should be. The clubs have started to implement necessary changes, like under 17 teams amid ongoing attempts to fix Ireland's notoriously dysfunctional youth structure, but those changes still can't be responsible for the current return, and we're still very far from the point where the league is an ideal finishing school for well-coached players who didn't make it in England.

That of course is what this is still about. Many Irish players have had a hugely circuitous route to international football, more roundabout than ever before. That is only emphasised by the ages when many made their debut. Of the current squad, only seven got their first cap before the age of 21, while 12 made their debuts after turning 25. Again going back by 10-year intervals for the sake of comparison, the former is the lowest in that time, and the latter is the highest. The national side has gradually become dependent on players who bloom late.

You only have to look at some of the most important players right now. Amid Wes Hoolahan (pictured below, debut at 26), Jon Walters (27) and even Harry Arter (25), Robbie Brady stands out as a rare talented young player who came up by what remains the most desirable route - and the one most representative of a country's football health - by coming through the academy of a major club. Even if he eventually left Manchester United for Hull City at the age of 21, he had already made his international debut, and suggested a rarely high technical level among the squad too.

Ireland do still have players at some of those academies. Jack Byrne is at Manchester City, centre-half Conor Masterson is at Liverpool, Nathan Tormey is at Arsenal, and Lee O'Connor has just signed for United. Many scouts and agents, however, argue that there is not much coming through otherwise.

Part of the issue is that current regulations mean Irish teenagers go over later, and by that point have already missed out on years of advanced and honed coaching.

It is not just about technique, though. Many of the wide players in the academies at top Premier League clubs, for example, are not far off 100m sprinters. That has become the standard and, combined with the extra coaching, it gives them a huge advantage that Irish players struggle to compete with. That biology may be down to flukes of nature, but it is also the reality. An Irish player must be very special to come through.

All of this should put further focus - and responsibility - on the League of Ireland and domestic structures, especially if it seems likely that even more internationals are going to come through this route in future. The link between the health of the national side and problems of the domestic competition has often been less appreciated than it should have been by the general football public, but it could well be made transparent.

There are many superb coaches in this country, and the Player Development Plan is a hugely progressive step, but there are still so many gaps in the system for players to fall through, or not get the level of training they should. The absence of financing for League of Ireland academies is a crucial factor, but that is why there needs to be regional centres of excellence, to bring the best together to raise their level - and compete with the best coaching abroad.

Otherwise, it is more than just the profile of the squad that will change.

Sunday Indo Sport

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