Richard Dunne: Three ways to save soccer in Ireland
In a three-part investigation, The Herald has been asking how Irish football can recover from the crisis it finds itself in. Richard Dunne has his say.
1 Focus on football in schools
Club football is really important but it should be a big deal to play for your school. Even if it's only an extra hour every week, that will help. Maybe the FAI could play a role there, get more coaches into more schools, give kids a chance to learn how to play better.
You need facilities to do that, you need a sport hall or a pitch to play on but it's so important to expose kids to as much football as possible. When you play for a club, you maybe train twice a week and play a game on a Saturday, if the weather is bad you might have no game for a few weeks - but if you have access to football in school, you can play every day.
You hear about street football and it seems that has gone, in Dublin anyway which is sad but kids can get that kind of football, even an hour in school, an after-school club where they can stay on and play.
You need adults to set that up and everyone has a role to play there, but the more kids play, the better they will get.
2 More of our young players should compete in Europe
This will be hard as it costs money but Irish clubs should be playing more against the big European sides to put Irish talent out there on the big stage. Let the good schoolboy teams in Ireland go away to play the likes of Chelsea and Barca and PSG.
Schoolboy clubs do occasionally play tournaments abroad against top opposition, but it needs to happen more regularly with more clubs involved. It's easy to focus on playing at home, getting comfort from winning an all-Ireland - and that is an achievement - but to take your talent away and compete with the best is harder.
Go to the Iber Cup to play Real Madrid and Barca, Irish kids will be up against that level of talent if they do go to the Premier League at 16, so why not work at it earlier, go over and play Barca's U13s and see how good you are. I know from living in France that the level of professionalism in the academies at that age group will show Irish kids how far they have to go.
Living in France now, I see a lot of youth tournaments, teams from around the world come to play, you might have the U10 or U12 side of Real Madrid, Barca, Monaco, PSG, Chelsea. But you don't see Irish teams in there. If you can start pushing Irish clubs to push for that, to play in more tournaments like that at a young age, the players can test themselves against the best and think, you know what, we're not that bad and it would help those younger players get more recognition.
And, Irish players have to broaden their horizons and look beyond England. I enjoy living in France now and I'd like to have had a spell playing on the continent.
We have always looked at the Premier League and England but we should look at other options. If you are a professional footballer you can play anywhere and maybe you'd be better in Spain or Holland than in League One.
There is enough quality in Irish football for our kids to compete with Spanish or French kids, if they have that belief. The France and Spanish play a certain way, we have our own way, and if we could mix in that Irish attitude with their system it could be a real asset.
3 Irish kids must aim for the top
We can't give up on the Premier League, we can't stop sending Irish players to the top clubs.
Sometimes footballers come in generations. We had a great crop that came through with me around 1997-2000 and there's no reason why we can't hope to have that again. People say we should stop sending Irish kids to Liverpool or Arsenal as it's too hard to make it, focus on the Championship instead.
We can't set our sights on just producing Championship players, we have enough talent and heritage in the country to aim for the top, to try for the Premier League still. If you don't aim for the top you'll never get there.
We can't just let the heads drop and say ‘we will try and produce players for Championship level' because if that doesn't work what next, say ‘we'll try to get players in at League One?'. Keep aiming for the top, give kids the belief that they can get to the top.
It's a kid's dream to play in the Premier League, no one in Ireland dreams of playing for Charlton Athletic. They want to play for big clubs in a big league and they should keep aiming for that, aim high not low. Keep sending the players there and keep trying and even if the player doesn't make it at Man City, he might make it somewhere else in the Premier League.
And you can't think you have failed if you don't get through at Man City or Arsenal, you just go again at another level but you retain the mentality that you are good enough.