The death of street football and what it means for Ireland
Ireland played Moldova on Friday night in their penultimate FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
Martin O'Neill's side needed a maximum of six points from their final two games to stand any chance of qualifying for Russia next summer after poor results against both Georgia and Serbia last month.
Ireland drew just one point from a possible six over the two games and the results once again raised questions over the quality of Irish football and the eternal concern of 'are we good enough?'
The question has been asked at different points over the last two decades and can take on a number of different dimensions from the overall arc of are we doing enough at grassroots level? To the more immediate view of why is James McClean shooting from 35 yards and why are we still relying heavily on a 35-year-old Wes Hoolahan?
There's a lot of layers to the first question but only one to the second; we don't have any other players like Wes Hoolahan, and that may be why McClean from time to time takes responsibility into his own hands.
Why? Well Wes is an outlier. A player with a level of skill, guile and technical ability that has proven to be extremely difficult to replicate in the current Irish squad.
A popular theory as to why there aren't many players with Hoolahan's technical ability coming through to the national team is that there has been a decline in the number of kids playing on the street.
There's an idea out there that players of Hoolahan's ilk are developed by playing on estate greens. That they are nurtured in the world of heads and volleys and developed in games where there are no nets or no sidelines. Matches that have no referees or linesmen, just a ball and a set of jumpers.
The theory is heavily supported by former Chelsea winger Damien Duff, arguably the most skillful Irish football player ever, who believes that all the great players in Ireland are developed from the streets.
"Street football is dead, for me in this country, anyway,'' he told Eamon Dunphy on The Stand podcast earlier this year.
"I've seen an awful lot of underage football from being involved with Rovers and Ireland at underage, and I really do think that at youth level...there are a lot of coaches involved but it's up to the kids to get back out on the street.
"For me, they're doing nowhere near enough hours practice, really.
"They think they are, they think they're well on the road, but the majority of them will be in for a rude awakening.
"Me, Robbie (Keane), Richard (Dunne), Shay (Given), Liam Brady, John Giles - all from the street, and it's not a myth.
"I'm not comparing myself to Messi or Ronaldo but that's what they did, as well.
That's what the greatest footballers did. I'm reading Cruyff's book and that's all he did, play in the streets. It's not rocket science."
Richard Dunne too.
"I've heard Robbie (Keane) and Damien (Duff) speak before about being a street footballer. It's what people want.
"That's where you get the freedom to express yourself but also the hardness from playing against older kids of 15.
"You get battered and you're falling, getting balls buried at you, but you just keep going. You lose and lose whereas in these academies it's all winning."
Then there's former St. Patrick's Athletic forward Trevor Molloy, who had the added advantage of an actual five-a-side pitch during his development.
"I remember my ma just saying 'there's a ball, get out and play'.
"We had a really good five-a-side pitch down in Sheriff Street at the time. All the kids of my generation, all we wanted to do was play football."
The three men all played football professionally but there's a marked difference in quality between Damien Duff and Richard Dunne, and Trevor Molloy.
And that's not being disrespectful to Molloy. I played street football too, and while Trevor Molloy has a League of Ireland winners medal to show for it, all I have is a banged up knee and some fond memories of a couple of stand out games of red arse.
There's different levels, naturally, but essentially all the players Duff mentioned were products of street football, along with their respective clubs and schools.
But kids aren't playing street football as much as they used to, and it's a point that former Arsenal forward Graham Barrett highlighted in a piece he wrote for The Irish Times last year.
Barrett noted: "Players of generations past were out kicking a ball on the street as soon as they got home from school until well after dark.
"Computers, television, video games and social media outlets have provided children with exciting 'hobbies' deemed more attractive than kicking ball from dusk 'til dawn out on the street.
"There is absolutely still a love for football within society and many children still dream of becoming a footballer, but there are so many more distractions that kids just are not playing enough street football anymore.
"They have become more reliant on their limited practice time at clubs to allow them to improve, rather than the self-educated street footballing greats of our past."
Barrett is right, kids aren't playing as much street football as they used to, but then again, they're seemingly not playing on the street at all.
Initial figures from the 'Moving Well - Being Well' study indicate that up to one-third of children in Ireland cannot catch a ball with two hands, barely one-quarter of girls can throw overhand and less than half of boys can strike a ball with a bat.
Dr Johann Issartel, from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at the School of Health and Human Performance said: "It's a potential catastrophe for public health because the inability to perform fundamental movement skills leads to an aversion to sports and exercise later in life.
"Reasons why our children are so inactive are so complex, from advances and overuse of electronic devices, overly cautious parents and lack of school or sports resources.
"Gone is the tradition of learning these skills in schools. Twelve year olds have not even mastered these skills which would in the past be normal for a six year old.
"Fears by schools and sporting groups that insurance claims will be made, if a child is injured while out playing or taking part in a sport, are also a notable factor in plummeting basic skills."
The FAI has had to adapt as a result. To compensate for the lack of time spent playing football on the street or down at the park, they've had to move to improve their player pathways.
The introduction of the Elite Talent Programme in 2006 and the FAI Player Development Plan in 2015 are two major upgrades on that road.
The Elite Talent Programme came first, but we'll start with the National Player Development Plan.
The brainchild of FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter, the National Player Development Plan was introduced with the intention of producing better football players in Ireland by comparing Irish youth structures with the youngest players in other countries including England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
The plan includes 10 recommendations and ideas such as all underage teams should play in a 4-3-3 formation, coaches should encourage young players to play out from the back, through midfield, linking up with attack, and that there should be a player-focused model based on enjoyment and skill development to reduce the emphasis on winning at all costs.
The plan makes a lot of sense in theory but issues can arise in its application.
For instance, some teams choose not to play 4-3-3, even on an underage international level. Other coaches apply methods that they have learned in senior football and try and apply them to an early underage level at training. Square peg into a round hole essentially.
One Dublin District Schoolboys League manager told me that he feels that there's a disconnect between the FAI's coaches and underage coaches, and that while Dokter may have formulated the plan, who is actually tasked with enforcing it?
Some stages of the plan were only implemented last year, and it may take some time before they take effect, but the emphasis at an early age is to try and recreate the atmosphere of street football.
U6s to U9s play in condensed 4v4 and 5v5 games with squads no bigger than 10-12 depending on the age group. Each child is expected to play a minimum of 75% of the overall gametime.
There are roll on/roll off substitutions where players can be advised where they may have went wrong before they are thrown back into games. There are no referees, forcing players to sort out fouls between themselves and acknowledge where a foul has been made, promoting respect and accountability.
The emphasis is on skill and decision making, and in theory, this should lead to more skillful players in the future. If young players are touching the ball more at age six and are forced to make more decisions, and that emphasis is then carried through the older age groups, they should theoretically be more skilful by the time they reach 17.
But of course, some players will naturally have advantages over others.
We know across all sports that better coaching leads to better players. From Ice Hockey to Gaelic Football, kids that are exposed to better coaching at a younger age have a better chance of reaching the top of their sport.
We also know that the more contact hours that a young player receives from said coaches only increases the likelihood of their progression.
And this is where the Elite Talent Programme comes into play, the programme in the country with the best coaches in youth football.
The Emerging Talent Programme was launched by the FAI in November 2006 and is the vehicle used by the Association to develop national team training themes to the elite players countrywide.
Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, two of the most technically capable players in the current national squad, were identified through the Emerging Talent Programme.
But speaking to two FAI Development Officers, one rural and one based in Dublin, two issues arise.
Firstly, the rural player may only train once a week during the season with the ETP. He/she may go to a school where the main sport is Gaelic Football or Hurling/Camogie. They may play two to three different sports.
If their school has banned ball games at lunch or prohibited kids from playing unattended on school grounds after school, they may not have a chance to play in the type of games that Duff and Dunne praise as fundamental. Their local club may have a volunteer coach and not a qualified coach as seen with many of the big underage clubs.
A lot of those issues can also apply to the urban player but that player may attend a primary school that plays football. They may have access to a public five-a-side pitch like Trevor Molloy. They may play club football for a big underage club like St. Kevin's Boys, where they're are a number of teams in their age group and a number of licensed coaches. All of these can be advantages to the urban player.
As one Dublin Development Officer told me: "There's a pathway there now. From when they join their club, there's a chance there is coaches there with coaching qualifications that are aware of what they are doing with underage players.
"They can guide them in the right direction and that's the real positive from the player development plan, all the way up from the small sided games to schoolboy football to the U15/17/19 national leagues. There's a clear pathway there for young players now."
Laura Finnegan, Course Leader Bbs Recreation and Sport Management at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) studied that pathway to determine if age and date of birth were a factor in which players were more likely to gain entrance into the Elite Talent Programme.
The 2016 study showed that admission to the ETP is not independent of quarter of birth and that place of birth analysis showed an unequal geographical distribution of players gaining selection onto the ETP.
Finnegan looked at the county of birth for all of the ETP players over a six year period and analysed how likely a player was to get onto the programme (compared to the relative populations).
In the map below, the darker the county colour, the more likely a player is to make the ETP programme (ranging from A counties down to the more poorly represented E counties in white).
A sample of her study reads: "Of the 10 most represented counties, seven of those had an ETP centre in it. If there is an ETP centre in your county, you are 50% more likely to gain selection compared to a player without a centre in his county.
Donegal and Kerry had the highest amount of boys on the programme relative to its population, with Kildare, Dublin and Cork some of the lowest represented counties.
Donegal only have 3.7% of the population yet account for 8.21% on the ETP. Put it this way, Dublin is the home of 26.4% of the boys this age… they feed into two centres, whereas 3.7% of the population live in Donegal …they feed into one centre.
The graph below shows us the full range of representation, in a world of ideal structures, the percentage in ETP for each county would be similar to their CSO percentage (and they are in some cases), but some counties are underrepresented (i.e. Dublin, Kildare, Cork, Monaghan) with some being over-represented (i.e. Donegal, Kerry, Sligo, Waterford, Galway).
Boys from Donegal are five times more likely to get a place compared to boys from Kildare."
Finnegan also found that it is usually coaches from within the county that run the ETP centre. One centre she visited had five coaches, with four of them from the county the centre is based in, yet it draws from four different counties.
She asks are coaches picking players that they are familiar with rather than accepting players from the surrounding counties?
She claims a natural bias exists within us all (we often see an underage national coach picking large numbers of players from areas that he is familiar with, e.g. Dublin, Cork) and she questions whether this bias impacts on a player's chances of securing advanced training?
Fair question, but the street football that Duff, Dunne and Barrett refer to is not as strong culturally as it once was.
"I saw one of our ETP players out doing keepie-uppies by himself the other day when I was driving around," a rural Development Officer told me.
"He was the only one out on his road. I have players that come and tell me they're a 'CAM' now. These players are using FIFA terminology and they're learning the game sometimes through a Playstation rather than figuring it out on the street.
"But even if we wanted to organise an informal street soccer blitz in an estate, to just get kids out there playing on a green, we'd have to get permission, go through insurance protocols, go through the council, it's just the world we live in."
The Dublin Development Officer told me that he had visited Belgium as part of a UEFA field study a few years ago and estimated that it took the Belgians 10 years to reap the rewards of remodelling their structure.
The FAI are into year three of their National Player Development Plan, and while it will still take a number of years before we can review the effectiveness of that plan, it's still a plan.
But the problem with plans is that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. But what's the alternative? James McClean shooting from 35 yards? Hopefully not.