Thursday 17 October 2019

Stephen Hunt: Ireland's international future looks bright thanks to smart underage tactics

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Stephen Hunt

It might take years before we see a significant improvement in the senior team with young naturally-gifted footballers in every position, but the changes to improve underage football development in Ireland are a move in the right direction.

This week, I'll be at the under 19, under 21 and senior Ireland games and each team will have a different way of playing. Martin O'Neill's job is results based and he has to deal with the resources at his disposal to win games. The underage teams are also looking to win but we need individual progress too. The two have to go together. That is key for Irish football.

Three weeks ago, I was at an under 15 game between Waterford United and Cork City and I was immediately impressed by the standard of the football. The teams looked structured and well coached. I watched it thinking 'well, these boys are getting better coaching than I got at their age'.

They get it from a very young age now. It means we have players learning the game and having a better understanding of it. They will be better prepared to answer questions and address certain situations in games.

So it will be more natural for wingers to go inside the full-backs and know when to play cat and mouse. Midfielders won't run as far but preserve energy and be bright enough to stand still in certain situations to get the ball. And we will have more players like Jon Walters who always tracks back.

We are also going to see more mixed nationalities born in Ireland who will be available for selection and development. In fact, that is already the case with the under 21 side and below, and it is an interesting development.

The most important thing in underage development is that we do not lose our identity. We will still need that fighting spirit which is a given for every Irishman and woman and has been so important for the successful Irish teams in the past, in every sport.

We should not be fooled by Spain's domination over the last four or five tournaments. We have to do what is good for us and I am not so sure we are going to produce an Andres Iniesta because we are coaching our players to be like him. Are we going to produce someone who is three times better than Wes Hoolahan to get to the level of the Spanish? No.

Realistically, history tells you, we are better following the example of countries like Germany or Italy. If you analyse an individual's progress from a very young age, he needs to focus on himself. But it is a love/hate relationship coaching him because the last thing you want in a team sport is an individual. You have to do it the right way to make him a good team player, which the Germans and Italians do so well.

We won't turn into one of these teams overnight because we don't have the same mentality and mentality and football intelligence are the most important things in football.

The introduction of the under 15 League of Ireland is not perfect. I feel for the schoolboy clubs because they are going to miss out on compensation and a lot of these boys have been signed to the clubs and have been part of their academies for years.

They will have time and a place to come through and be ready to play for English clubs and then be ready to get game time. This is the problem Martin O'Neill has now; the lack of playing time in his squad.

There will still be late developers, players who drop out of English academies and play League of Ireland, mature, go back to England and make a go of it. That can take time. But players like Aiden O'Brien have been on the radar for a while. And if you play games, and play well, you will be selected.

Hopefully this new desire to improve the development of young footballers in Ireland will also help those who don't make it. There are major disruptions and sacrifices to be made by the young men and their families in the years ahead.

There needs to be a balance with education and football and the FAI will hopefully take guidance from England's academies. When I was a kid at Brentford, this was hopeless. We all wanted to play football and that was all we did. English clubs have improved significantly now and they really look after their young players' educations.

Ultimately, they are all desperate to be professional footballers and they need a willingness to learn to become better players. But it requires dedication and commitment - and there will never be a guarantee of success.

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