Thursday 23 November 2017

Irish coaches all dressed up with nowhere to go

The Irish U-21 job needs to become a stepping stone for ambitious coaches, says John O'Brien

IT is almost two years since the FAI unveiled Wim Koevermans as its inaugural International Performance Director at a well-attended press conference in Abbotstown.

After the capture of Giovanni Trapattoni a few months earlier, it bore the hallmark of another significant coup for the association. Koevermans spoke with energy and enthusiasm for his role and brought credentials that were impressive and convincing. Best of all, he was Dutch.

He had the aura of a serious football man. At 18, he had begun coaching his club's reserve team. By 30, he had graduated to assistant coach of the seniors. A product of a system the Dutch, with only minor hyperbole, called the 'Master Plan', he carried the classical air of the technical bureaucrat but with a wealth of experience to back it up. A sort of Dutch Brian Kerr if you like.

He spoke with calm assurance and authority. About his new home and his fond memories of Irish teams he faced during his playing days. About his excitement at the plans for a national academy to be built on the grassy plains outside his window. "Their castle," as he called it. About the need for everything to be underpinned by a "very strong professional league." Ah, the national league. The dealbreaker.

He spoke about the league as if it were a patient with a bad head cold, easily cured with an aspirin and a weekend in bed. Did he truly understand what he was dealing with? And half-way into his four-year contract we have heard little enough since. He has been busy travelling the country, visiting clubs and schools, meeting people, engaging with the grassroots, the kind of thing that politicians and FAI officials tend to be good at.

Then last week he popped up on our radar screens again, announcing Noel King as Don Givens' replacement as Ireland under 21 manager with a sense of gravitas that was completely at odds with the nature of the appointment. Koevermans was as exuberant about it as he needed to be, extolling King's virtues over a raft of nameless alternatives yet the harder he tried to sell it, the more underwhelming he made it seem.

That's no slight on King who has always come across as a knowledgeable football man with a fine track record in the game. As manager of the women's senior and underage sides, he has overseen a decade of unprecedented success and deserves praise for his work there. Still, none of that should have qualified him for such a critical role in the development of the game here. Not at this stage of his career anyway.

It's all very well for King to talk about developing young players and bringing them through -- and who's to say he won't do a perfectly competent job -- but what about the development of young Irish managers and coaches too? Isn't that of fundamental importance to the enrichment of the game here? Given his background and experience, you'd expect Koevermans to be alert to that pressing need. That is what is so troubling about King's appointment.

Historically the role of under 21 manager has been accorded little importance here and you wonder how much has changed. It used to be that the job was the domain of the senior manager, a distracting adjunct to his principle function. Then Jack Charlton arrived and disdainfully tossed a role he evidently cared little for towards his ineffectual assistant Maurice Setters. Mick McCarthy too handed it to his assistant, Ian Evans.

And then, in 1999, a change, a welcome and surprising dash of FAI vision in appointing Givens, the first manager whose sole brief was the under 21s. There was only one hitch: Givens wasn't the right man for the job. That was clearly evident early in his stewardship, yet somehow he was able to clock 11 years in the post, despite an appalling series of results and numerous petty rows with players. If we were serious about underage football, how on earth was this allowed to happen?

No respectable football nation would treat their second most important team in such a slapdash manner and expect to be taken seriously when it comes to underage development.

It isn't that Irish underage coaches aren't capable men in their own right. Seán McCaffrey has many fine qualities but it is obvious that he won't rise above his current station. Givens never harboured ambitions of being something more than under 21 boss. King will be the same. This is a strange way of conducting business.

In most countries, developing coaches is as fundamental to the process as nurturing players. Clairefontaine, of course, is the shining example. Raymond Domenech spent 11 years as France under 21 boss before taking over the senior reins and his controversial six-year spell shouldn't diminish the effectiveness of the blueprint. It is how successful countries operate. A pathway exists for hard-working, ambitious coaches to follow.

It isn't just the big nations either. Before he guided Denmark to European Championship glory in 1992, Richard Moller Nielsen had spent nine years managing the under 21s. Before he grabbed the under 21 reins four years ago, Keld Bordinggaard spent four years as assistant to senior boss, Morten Olsen. Bordinggaard may himself make a future Denmark manager or he may not. But it won't be for want of encouragement or education.

There are others too. Slaven Bilic cut his teeth during a three-year spell with the Croatia under 21s before successfully ascending to the senior job. Newly appointed Czech Republic manager, Michal Bilek, spent three years with his country's under 19s. Trawl around Europe and you will find that is how national set-ups function: coaches encouraged by federations to get on the ladder, given time to learn and develop.

Here, we do things differently. We produce one top-class coach in Kerr and fast-track him before he is ready. We find another coach in the Walsall reserves and pretend he has some kind of a four-year master plan. We watch a generation of capable coaches floundering in the quicksand of the national league, offering little hope or encouragement that there might be something higher to aim for.

Do we even have a coherent policy on these matters? Should we not be identifying players approaching the winter of their careers -- Kenny Cunninghams, Mark Kinsellas, Denis Irwins, whoever -- who could be brought into the system and encouraged not just as potential future managers but as figures who would promote the game here and provide it with a much-needed boost.

It's all very well having Trapattoni as senior manager but splurging such an outrageous sum of cash on a trophy manager is immoral and the times won't support it again anyway. The FAI is spiralling towards poverty and when the Italian is gone it will be interesting to see them casting their net around England and beyond for a cut-price, relatively down-at-heel manager.

None of the blame for this can be laid at Koevermans door. He thought a "very strong" national league was a possibility. He didn't understand the game here. If he did, he'd surely never have come.

Sunday Independent

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