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FAI to retain U-14 National League format with February start date for 2023


FAI CEO Jonathan Hill. Photo by: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

FAI CEO Jonathan Hill. Photo by: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

FAI CEO Jonathan Hill. Photo by: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The FAI have confirmed the retention of the U-14 National League format for the 2023 season and, crucially, it will kick off in February.

Long-standing tensions around the structures of underage football in Ireland are now largely centred around the youngest age group in the national league system.

Originally introduced as an U-13 league, the Covid shutdown forced a change to U-14 to accommodate players who lost a year but that change now looks to be a permanent one.

U-14 is also the age group for the Kennedy Cup, the flagship competition of the Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland (SFAI) and that tournament was central to the latest twist in the discord arising from LOI clubs taking players from schoolboy sides.

The FAI board made the decision late last year to declare that the U-14 season would not start until the summer - after the Kennedy Cup's June date.

However, a large number of players around the country had already committed to joining LOI sides with the belief the season would begin in February.

The FAI move was made with a view to those players staying with their schoolboy teams and leagues.

But while there was no competitive games scheduled, furious LOI clubs - who felt a rug had been pulled from under them - found there was no rule preventing them from recruiting these players for the purpose of training and friendlies and the majority of those allowed to do so went through with those switches rather than sticking around for the Kennedy Cup.

This caused consternation in parts of the country, including in Cork where local schoolboy league chiefs publicly hit out at Cork City and Cobh Ramblers for pressing on with signing U-14 players in the region.

Another issue flagged from the schoolboy side of things was that transfer window rules complicated the task of replacing departed players.

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The plan for 2023 appears to address some problems, although the diminished status of the Kennedy Cup will remain a sore point in SFAI circles - there have calls to make that showpiece a U13 event or amend the date but that has met with resistance.

Under the changes, the SFAI transfer window will be open until December 31 with League of Ireland sides able to sign the next batch of U-14 players from December 1. Therefore, SFAI clubs will have time to source replacements if a particular team is decimated.

A statement from the FAI said: "The decision regarding the boys’ U14 age group has been taken after the FAI executive brought forward a proposal that was reviewed and discussed by the FAI Board.

"The proposal followed consultation with the Underage Football Working Group, this group consisted of key stakeholders in underage football including FAI staff, Board members and independent experts, the Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland and the League of Ireland clubs and Academies.

"This move has been taken to provide clarity to both Grassroots and Underage National League clubs, coaches, players and parents in relation to registrations, transfer windows and season start dates, in both the short and medium term.

"The Underage Working Group will remain in place and will continue to review all areas that impact underage football in Ireland."

FAI CEO Jonathan Hill was also quoted in the release. The new Director of Footabll Marc Canham - a replacement for the departed Ruud Dokter - begins work in August and this general area will land on his table.

“Whilst recognising the depth of emotion around this issue, we believe this announcement offers clarity for all our players, their parents, coaches, and clubs ahead of the 1st August registration date for all those Grassroots clubs involved in winter season football," said Hill.

"It also clearly outlines the options available to the 400 or so players who will play U-14 National League football next year whilst also recognising the needs of the remaining 13,500 players who will remain in the Grassroots game at this age group alone. We have also confirmed that there will be no U-13 National League next season and we want to see League of Ireland Academies working hand in hand with their local Schoolboy/girls’ Leagues and Clubs moving forward.”

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