Tuesday 13 November 2018

Brian Kerr: Irish football is hurtling towards a scenario where elitism is all that matters and this attitude is wrong

Wes Hoolahan is applauded onto the pitch on his last game for Noriwch last weekend. Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images
Wes Hoolahan is applauded onto the pitch on his last game for Noriwch last weekend. Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

Wes Hoolahan has lived a football life less ordinary.

He is a product not only of his upbringing in the warm family environment in Dublin's north inner city but also the appreciation that, just as in life, it is often the roads less travelled that can help someone live a happy and fulfilled existence.

His career has been shaped both by the circumstances that defined him just as much as the prejudices that followed him.

To the credit of himself and those around him, any perceived limitations that may have threatened to undermine his grand dreams of a professional career were overcome by a mixture of dogged determination from Wes himself and some crucial interventions at vital times.

His development is a tribute not merely to the environment and uniquely Irish cultural influences that have shaped him, but also a reminder that anyone who is tempted to interfere with these dynamics does so at their peril.

Can there be another Wes? It is impossible to predict with any certainty. But it seems less than likely in the present-day circumstances with the trend in Irish football hurtling towards a scenario where elitism is all that matters. And the younger the better.

In my opinion, this attitude is all wrong.

Overnight, it seems a new policy has been devised whereby the League of Ireland clubs have suddenly been charged with the responsibility to mine out and nurture young, elite talent, rather than the schoolboy clubs who had done so for more than half a century.

Suddenly, the system which had served Irish football so well for so many years has been impetuously deemed unfit for purpose and, instead, the policy is now to shoehorn the best emerging talent into the League of Ireland clubs, where many will be discarded ruthlessly along the road.

Difficulty

This causes a difficulty for me.

Republic of Ireland's Paul McGrath. Picture credit; Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Paul McGrath. Picture credit; Ray McManus / Sportsfile

For a start, the reason we haven't produced more quality players in recent times is not because they have remained too long in schoolboy football. Societal changes have prompted a dramatic decrease in the contact with recreational football, the real reason we all get involved with the game in the first place.

Parents and coaches know the reasons. Phones, iPads and technology have taken the place of unstructured physical activity and street games. The jumpers for goalposts are a thing of the past. All this has an impact on the quantity and quality of emerging players, providing crutches for those who may be tossed on the scrapheap at too young an age.

Elitism at U-13 is just too young.

What would a 13-year-old Wes do in 2018? In the modern climate, he might already have been discarded. At 13, he was told he was too small. Even at 15.

When he came into my youths team as a 17-year-old, he had never been capped at schoolboy level and he didn't play much more international youths football as we had more mature players available, even in a side that struggled to do well.

Wes didn't give up on football though, and football didn't give up on him.

He linked up with the brilliant Billy Young on a FÁS course, combining education with intense training, building up his physique and gradually he became strong enough to emerge at Shelbourne under Pat Fenlon, another man who was small in stature but over-flowing with football intelligence.

All the while, though, Belvedere had encouraged him every week, playing him on the wing where he was hardly strong enough to cross the ball, but he learned that it was better for him to dribble closer to the box and play from there.

He had occasional trials in England but the message always came back that he was too slight. But he persisted. There is always another way.

Seamus Coleman of Republic of Ireland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Seamus Coleman of Republic of Ireland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

While some of our greatest players followed the well-worn path from schoolboy dreams to international stardom - from Liam Brady and Johnny Giles to Robbie Keane and Damien Duff - others pursued a different road.

I recall coaching CYM's second team against Dalkey United and noticing a young Paul McGrath; Charlie Walker did too when he played in a Leinster selection against Mayo in the Oscar Traynor final. A legend had been born.

Kevin Moran foraged a career as a bustling Gaelic footballer while turning out for Pegasus. Seamus Coleman played GAA too while lining out for his local St Catherine's side. Both emerged as great leaders of men and rounded human beings, too.

Hurled

Will we ever see their likes again? Shane Long, who hurled for Tipp well into his teenage years, developing the vital ABC - agility, balance and co-ordination - required of all great sportsmen, whatever their code.

Participation is key in younger years, not discrimination.

Ireland has a specific culture, with so many field sports closely woven together like nowhere else and, even if one's preference is badminton, cricket or soccer, inclusion, rather than exclusion, is vital for the nation's youth.

The quantity and quality of coaching has also had an impact.

The League of Ireland had no tradition of having the best, qualified coaches working with their teams until the licensing regime came in.

What makes a difference to players? The environment they come from, the opportunities they receive and the quality of the coaching.

Unless the LOI clubs can have qualified coaches with the experience of understanding the holistic approach to the development of players, this pathway will fail.

The clubs' only interest has been survival, paying the wages of players and trying to win a few trophies. They never invested in training facilities. The schoolboy clubs did.

Now the FAI want them to drill down and begin the process of elite selection at U-13 level, even earlier.

This will obviously affect the ability of schoolboy clubs - from St Kevin's, Belvedere, Cherry Orchard and many more in Dublin, to Douglas Hall in Cork, Mervue in Galway, to receive compensation payments and re-invest that money into development of facilities and coach education.

Not all of them have done so adequately but many have; it is not perfect but it is no accident that the DDSL was widely admired in England as a hothouse for young talent, from Giles to Keane and many more in between.

This shift in focus could lead to a drastic decline in participation levels. Every sport is striving for talent identification and its development, whether it is boxing, tennis, rugby or GAA. Everyone wants better facilities, teams and coaches.

Shane Long of Republic of Ireland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Shane Long of Republic of Ireland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

But previously, athletes might start to drop off at the age of 16 or 17 when perhaps they realised that their dreams of making it big may not come to pass. Now it seems it might happen much earlier than that in soccer. It's wrong.

The traditional system, which has stood the test of time in producing players, should not have been dismantled. Especially if the answer has been to suddenly shift the burden upon entities already struggling with enough problems of their own.

Summer

The switch to summer soccer was already a huge cultural shock for the game here, whether due to the competition from other traditional sports, as well as the less obvious impact caused by so many urban families who take their kids away for large stretches of summer.

That will be exacerbated now under the new regime which must have the effect of reducing participation still further.

I must emphasise that elitism at U-13 is wrong. They should start more reasonably at U-15 and concentrate below that on increasing participation numbers and coaching time.

We shall not see the effects of the proposed changes - positive or negative - for years to come.

And what of those who fall through the cracks? Like a McGrath or a Moran or a Long or a Curtis Fleming or a Stephen Ward, a late bloomer who still ended up playing in the same Premier League team as schoolboy starlets Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick?

The theory - that the better players should play early in the national league before filtering through to the senior side - may work in Holland or elsewhere but this is Ireland.

We have a unique cultural identity which only works here. Why do we need somebody else's?

The schoolboy clubs have always had an interest in players and teams; the LOI clubs have always been interested in success and money.

Schoolboy clubs offer an environment of respect, warmth and comfort. They are not a semi-professional business trying to become professional.

Irrelevant

Will the schoolboy clubs now become irrelevant, merely glorified crèches whose best big babies are snatched away from the nurturing pathway into a more cut-throat existence.

There will always be new players with new dreams and Ireland's U-17s begin their European Championships in England against Belgium today with similar hope in their hearts.

It is 20 years since Ireland won both underage European titles, a year after finishing third in an U-20 World Cup and, while some may not have become superstars, those who did not still extracted joy from life, some remaining in football, others pursuing different careers.

Most of all, they remain rounded human beings, the most important thing.

More than a decade before that, the Irish youths were also successful, reaching three European finals and a World Cup between 1982 and 1986.

We beat England in a famous match in Tolka Park but then lost the reverse fixture in Elland Road when Jack Charlton decided to give an impromptu team-talk which rudely ended that particular era.

When the success resumed in the late 1990s with the enthusiastic backing of Bernard O'Byrne, Ireland's reputation was enhanced globally.

The education for us as coaches and for the players was invaluable; it was an important breeding ground where players could adapt to different styles and test themselves under pressure away from their daily existence at club level.

Players can boost their self-esteem at their clubs while the clubs themselves can perhaps get more confidence in the players if they see them perform; it can impact on the perception managers can have at the start of a new season.

Players like John O'Shea, who was destined for Celtic, could bloom sufficiently to persuade Alex Ferguson that he might be good for enough for them. And how right he was.

I always felt that you could combine the development of a winning mentality at a younger age while trying to bring players through.

Sometimes you can have exceptional years and extraordinary teams. I was lucky enough to be involved with a few.

Sadly, the youths team became literally a political football within the FAI and budgets were cut, although they were warned that they could look forward to a period in the wilderness as they couldn't depend solely on England producing players for us.

A few battles were won but we lost the war on that one and there was an unfortunate lull at youths level for many years. Ironically, the FAI now hold the position of chairman of UEFA's youth committee.

Favourable

Colin O'Brien's charges would seem to have a favourable enough draw; not losing the opening game is always crucial in a tournament like this as it is difficult to retrieve the ground thereafter.

The fact that the games are on in England, much like when the U-16s won their title in Scotland in 1998, means family, friends and those influential schoolboy mentors from home can attend too.

It remains to be seen whether or not there is a Wes amongst the bunch.

The fear for Irish football in the future might be that the next Wes, and others like him, may have already decided to turn his back on the game and, instead, watch it from the couch.

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