Tuesday 17 July 2018

Steven Reid: FAI have to realise we will win nothing without kids

Lack of Irish players breaking through is a concern and it's rooted in the ruthless culture of Premier League football

Robbie Keane injected a youthful exuberance when he arrived on the Ireland scene but the next generation are proving harder to find. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Robbie Keane injected a youthful exuberance when he arrived on the Ireland scene but the next generation are proving harder to find. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Jack Byrne
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

Kevin Kilbane was flicking through his notes in the corporate box which doubled up as a television studio.

It was twenty to seven on a clear, spring evening at the Aviva Stadium. The sun had slipped and was glaring through the window of our studio, forcing us to squint our eyes. "You look worried?" Kevin said. And I was.

The look of concern, however, stemmed from the team sheet in front of me - the starting line-up and substitutes list for Ireland's friendly against Switzerland. Turning to Killer (Kilbane), I said: "Where are all the kids? Where is the next generation?"

Kevin didn't have the answer. And I wonder if anyone does. That night before kick-off I browsed the internet to have a look at our Under 21 squad and - Jack Byrne aside - I just couldn't picture any of them forcing their way into the seniors within a year.

That's not to say it won't happen at some stage.

Irish football, after all, is full of late bloomers: Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton, Mark Kinsella, Mattie Holland and, of this current crop, Glenn Whelan, Richard Keogh, Daryl Murphy.


But you want, and need, a bit of both. You need the energy and freshness that comes from a teenage prodigy, the kind of excitement Robbie Keane and Damien Duff brought to the party at the tail end of the last century.

That was just before I crept onto the scene. Back then, the practice was for the Under 21s to play the seniors in a behind closed doors training game in the week of internationals. "Let's have a go at these," Barry Quinn used to say.

He was already a Premier League regular with Coventry and afraid of nothing.

I remember him crashing into Roy Keane in one of those games, winning the ball, getting up and getting on with things as if it was his duty to let a man, who at the time could claim to be one of the best players in the world, know that nothing was sacred.

And the attitude spread through all of us. Andy O'Brien was a Premier League player then; so too Alan Quinn and Stephen McPhail. Myself, John O'Shea and Clinton Morrison were en route to the top division.

And it showed in those training games. We gave as good as we got and felt we were, more or less, their equals. I remember the first time I played, the first thing I did was get the ball and sprint past Steve Staunton. I did alright in that game and afterwards, Killer went across to Mick McCarthy and casually said: "That lad's ready."

But who is ready now? That team sheet for the Swiss game was revelatory. Our youngest starting player was 24. Our starting debutant, Alan Judge, is 27, and after Saturday's horrific leg break, he will sadly miss the Euros. Two of the starters and two of the subs, are in their 30s.

If this is a little worrying in the here and now, then it's absolutely frightening with regard to the future.

And it's a problem I can't see getting any better any time soon. If anything, it's sure to get worse. I say that based on what I have seen.

What the Irish public is not privy to are the scenes inside Premier League training grounds. I have been. And at times it felt like a burden rather than a privilege.

It isn't that I'm ungrateful. I am grateful. Were others as appreciative, though? That's the thing I'm not so sure about, not when I remember, towards the end of my career, seeing all these young players zipping into training in their BMWs and Mercs.

They parked their cars with all the assuredness of a man-about-town. But they hadn't arrived.

Now and again, you'd have a word. "Forget fame. Forget the money. Work hard. That's how you make it."

Yet how do you explain to a 19-year-old that even though you have parked up in your fancy sports car that your journey has yet to begin? Money turns fellas' heads. I've seen it time after time. And I can't blame them. Would I have been as hungry in those Ireland senior v Under 21 training games if I'd been on €20,000-a-week rather than €900? I can't say I would have.

I remember the thrill I got the first time Billy Bonds - then the Millwall manager - called me into his office. "This is what we're giving you," he said. "Three. Hundred. Pounds. A. Week." Each word a sentence.

I was 17 and on a YTS scheme, taking home £42.50-a-week. And I thought I'd won the lottery. I trained with Millwall, took two buses to get back home to mum and dad's place in Kingston, and then went out and kicked a ball around with my mates. "They give you money when you've a touch like that," they used to joke.

They kept me grounded.

Mum and dad did too. "Clean your room, Steven, don't think you're a superstar."

"He ain't mum," my brother chipped in. "He ain't even the best player in this house."

And I never thought I was. There was no Twitter then, no Instagram. As kids we didn't have iPads or iPhones. Our social scene involved the following choices: stay indoors and clean the house for mum, or run outside and play ball with my mates. That's where I got my 10,000 hours from. That's where I honed my skill, developed my technique.

Yes, there was formal coaching too. But the thing that made me a Premier League player and Irish international was my love of the game.

I was willing to get out there every day and kick a ball around, either with my mates if they were about, or my brother's friends, who were older and who liked nothing more than to kick lumps out of me.

Weaker foot

Then - if it was raining and no one could be bothered to go out and play - I'd go to this place where there was a big wall and bang the ball against it for hour after hour, working on my weaker foot, trying to perfect my touch.

Do kids still do this today? I'm sure some do and I am equally as sure many can't be bothered.

The talented players are increasingly being dragged into this academy culture which is prevalent right through the Premier League, where 14-year-olds are being tested for their body-fat, where their game is being analysed by video, and where the pressure just seems too excessive.

At what point do we not intervene to say: 'Stop this nonsense and let the kid be a kid.'

I've had my say before. When Izzy Brown was breaking through at West Brom, Chelsea came after him, just a month after he made his debut for us. "Don't go," I said. "You've a better chance of developing here."

But while I could offer advice, Chelsea were able to offer big money. That's what the big clubs do. They throw the net out as wide as they can and hope to get it right with one or two players.

I've heard of other Premier League clubs putting the parents of kids into nice houses or giving them jobs at their club, just so they can sign their son.w

Reading, where I coach, thankfully have a more holistic approach. And it produces a better person as well as a better player. Brown, by the way, is on loan at Vitesse Arnhem and has yet to play for Chelsea.

And all of this has an impact on Ireland because England is where we export the majority of our players to. England is where the money is. And where there is money, there is pressure. Managers - in all four divisions in England - know they are four or five games away from the sack at any given time. Why then would they risk their job on a 17-year-old or 18-year-old?

It stands to reason then that if a young player cannot get a chance at club level, then how, or why, can you expect them to be ready for international football?

If all this is one source of worry, then the presence of social media, is another.

A year ago, remember, Jack Grealish was an Ireland U-21 international. He'd broken through at Aston Villa. And he was never off Twitter.

A friend, another ex-player, commented on this. "Shouldn't we be seeing more of this lad on a football pitch rather than on our Twitter feed?"

Of course he was right. Yet we're in a different world now. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram matter to young players. They shouldn't. But they do.

In this new world, we have to learn how to communicate with them, how to press their buttons. We also have to learn something much more important.

The conveyor belt has slowed alarmingly and could yet come to a complete halt unless something is done.

I don't have all the answers to what is needed, but I certainly think that recently retired players like Killer, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne need to be brought into the FAI's set-up.

My worry is that these guys could slip away and be head-hunted by someone else.

Surely, they and some other former internationals can be brought into the set-up and be used in a meaningful manner.

Certainly, youth development is an area which needs to be top of anyone's list. To turn Alan Hansen's logic on its head: You'll win nothing without kids.

Irish draw a blank

For the first time in three years, the Republic of Ireland won't be represented in either the men's or women's underage Euro finals this summer after the U-19 women saw their campaign end in failure.

Dave Connell's side beat Poland 2-0 at Tallaght Stadium to finish second in their elite stage qualifying group but it wasn't enough to secure the sole place to the finals on offer to the best runner-up across the six groups.

Hayley Nolan's penalty gave Ireland the lead four minutes into the second half and Dearbhaile Beirne added the second with three minutes left.

Germany, who beat Ireland last Tuesday, won the group.

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