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Richard Sadlier: FAI's youth development approach putting us on back foot overseas

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Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

SPORTSFILE

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

Ireland is fast becoming a country you wouldn't want to be brought up in. I'm sure it's been that way for some time for many people, but it's certainly starting to look like that for one particular group. Unless changes are made soon in how youth development is structured, the best advice you could give to an aspiring footballer is to leave.

Moving abroad has always been necessary to forge a career in the professional game. There's nothing new in saying that. Every member of the Republic of Ireland squad playing Poland this evening plays outside of Ireland. But of all the kids looking on with dreams of emulating those players, few will get anywhere near the standard required if things remain as they are.

This game is significant for many reasons. It may be the first time at the Aviva that an Ireland team beats a decent opponent in a big game with a convincing performance. Alternatively, and maybe just as likely, it could be the game that silences any realistic talk of automatic qualification for Euro 2016.

It may even spark debate about the futures of Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill if things go particularly badly. But what it won't do is give an indication of where Irish football currently stands. We can know that by properly looking at it now, rather than a knee-jerk response to whatever happens tonight.

The health of Irish football has always been measured by the progress of Irish players abroad. How many players are with the big clubs? How many are in the top division?

At what rate are teenagers leaving the country and how long are they lasting before they return? Results on the international stage matter greatly, of course, but they rely on the performances of players playing professionally elsewhere. The FAI's job is to get them there and let others do the rest, but their failings in this area are becoming impossible to ignore.

There is still no institution that can combine full-time training with full-time education. The FAI has spoken recently about their plans to set up an academy in Abbotstown, but have they the same criteria as the English FA as to what constitutes an academy? As things stand, the teenagers who go abroad will have no experience of a full-time training schedule to help prepare them.

An area of huge concern is strength and conditioning. A scout for one of the leading Premier League clubs told me last week that it can take up to two years for a 16-year-old Irish player to catch up physically with his English peers.

The club he works for advises players to leave Ireland at the first opportunity for one simple reason: they are falling further behind as long as they stay where they are. The FAI's approach to youth development was likened to sending a teenager into a boxing ring with one hand tied behind his back.

Whatever the result of this evening's game, football in Ireland is in desperate need of a major overhaul. It has been this way for some time and a victory won't disguise it.

Martin O'Neill set out to unearth new Irish talent to promote to the senior squad when he first took the Ireland job. There's a perfectly valid reason he couldn't find any.

O'Neill wasn't employed to develop a cohesive youth structure. It's not in his remit to increase the standard and frequency of coaching given to the country's elite schoolboys. He is not responsible for declining numbers of Irish players breaking through at top English clubs or the alarming rise in the numbers of those who return within three years. He can't be blamed for how the underage international squads have performed over the past decade either.

Despite all of this, though, some will still point to a change of management as the sole solution if Ireland's qualifying campaign is unsuccessful, when the truth is that a far more fundamental shift is required.

It would be wrong to wait for a defeat tonight to express concern for Irish football, but it would be worse to take a victory as a sign of good health. If it goes badly, all that Martin O'Neill can be blamed for is failing to get more out of what he has been given.

It's those in charge of the supply line who need to be held to account. Major changes are needed now regardless of the result.

rsadlier@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport


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