Wednesday 24 January 2018

Asking struggling league clubs to begin task of nurturing young talent makes little sense

Rising star Jack Byrne learned his trade at St Kevin’s. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Rising star Jack Byrne learned his trade at St Kevin’s. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

John Fallon

They were promoting the Easter St Kevin's Boys Academy tournament over the Tannoy at half-time of Friday's international at the Aviva Stadium yet, if the club are to be believed, the prestigious annual event faces extinction.

The demise of an under 13 tournament which has this year attracted Barcelona, and Real Madrid before them, to Dublin would seem incomprehensible given the host club has more than served the game in Ireland by supplying the only two home-produced players under the age of 24 to the Ireland team during the successful European Championship qualification campaign. Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick learned their trade at the Santry club, as did Liam Brady, and rising star Jack Byrne.

So, at a time when solutions rather than problems are required, why are one of beacons of Irish football feeling under threat?

"In their dubious wisdom, the FAI have decided to enforce a rule that the under 19, under 17, and eventually the under 15 and under 13 national leagues will be the exclusive preserve of League of Ireland clubs," says chairman Michael O'Callaghan. "By enforcing this, we and most schoolboy clubs will lose our best players and coaches. In fact, it may transpire that we lose so many of our teams and volunteers that our very existence will be threatened."

The issue is not unique to St Kevin's. In denying all the schoolboy club applicants access to their maiden under 17 league last year, the FAI did little to quell the suspicion that clubs on the lower rung were bearing the brunt of an overhaul designed to rectify the shortage of talent available to the senior international squad.

Only League of Ireland clubs, along with two regional leagues, gained entry and promptly hoovered up the best 15 and 16 year olds around the country with a sales pitch of offering a national platform.

If that project was testing the water, then the under 15 equivalent in the offing is capable of drowning unsuccessful candidates as concerns have deepened about the recruitment drive for players as young as 13.

The FAI plan to accredit schoolboy clubs with Academy status over the next five years but it remains to be seen where it leaves the established names such as St Kevin's, Belvedere, Home Farm and Cherry Orchard.

For their part, the FAI deny any rule or agenda exists to favour League of Ireland outfits, rather a set of criteria surrounding facilities and coaching which needs to be met. High performance director Ruud Dokter, who recently granted a contract extension till 2020, is leading the initiative.

Underage clubs have been actively urged to collaborate with their local League of Ireland stable and, while the likes of Crumlin United have done so with St Patrick's Athletic, there is nothing new to this concept and history hasn't been kind in identifying success stories.

Indisputable is the fact a problem exists. For all the excuses about population explaining the dearth of Irish talent in the upper echelons of the Premier League, a smaller country like Wales can still boast players playing regularly for Arsenal, Liverpool and even Real Madrid. Thursday's under 21 international against Italy was a case in point. Only four Irish-born players started in the 4-1 defeat and Ireland's standing in the European reckoning could be judged by the sight of their full-back from Boreham Wood punting a ball upfield to a lone striker more out than in the Newport County side.

Damien Delaney may have a point in claiming the Welsh possess a footballing philosophy when Ireland don't have one at all.

Where the matter becomes thorny is in the corrective strategy undertaken by the FAI. The League of Ireland sector has failed miserably over the past 40 years to implement any underage structure uniform in nature and at a time many clubs are struggling to merely fund their first-teams, it is they being now entrusted to provide the cure.

Few have done more to keep a club afloat in the league than Limerick benefactor Pat O'Sullivan. Last July, as the FAI launched the new under 17 league amid much fanfare, he sat in the front row awaiting a coherent plan on financing the venture to be aired. It never materialised and he was left delivering a state of the nation address on the woes of the domestic product to a patient Roy Keane at the top table as a bemused media gathering waited to interview the special guest. John Bolger has coached some of the best gems to emerge from Ireland over the past 15 years. Anthony Stokes was the pick of his Shelbourne team, Richie Towell and Conor Clifford emerged under him while at Crumlin United, and his latest find, Glen McAuley, turned down Manchester United to join Liverpool last year.

Though his club St Joseph's Boys have a long partnership with Bray Wanderers, he baulks at the notion of League of Ireland clubs hothousing the next generation.

"The only example of that arrangement working was at Shelbourne in the late 1990s when Alex Ferguson decided to pump money into their schoolboy set-up," he explained.

"We had many years of success but it took plenty of professionalism to make it work. I just cannot see the League of Ireland having the expertise or resources to take that on and make improvements.

"There's a lot of talk about the amount of contact hours our youngsters receive but our best players train twice a week with the club and twice for the Dublin District Schoolboys' League representative squad.

"I dread to think how bad the situation would be were it not for the work of schoolboy clubs, not just in Dublin. Many of them have their own director of coaching, yet listening to some people you would think nothing is in place. The problems are elsewhere."

News from last week that Shamrock Rovers have ring-fenced a sum of €1m to develop a base for their underage ranks is encouraging, albeit belated for a club of its stature and heritage. Many of their League rivals utilise the training facilities of schoolboy clubs but perhaps Rovers can in time provide a prototype of how the grand plan to rescue the future of Irish football is to meet reality.

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