Sport League of Ireland

Thursday 18 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: Young loanees from England could light up League of Ireland

Dundalk must travel to Russia and Israel in the Europa League
Dundalk must travel to Russia and Israel in the Europa League
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

As I took my seat in Lansdowne Road on Wednesday for ­Dundalk's Champions League match with Legia Warsaw, I felt like a bit of a glory-hunter. The issue of attendance and bandwagons has been one of many debates that has grown out of this, and it got me thinking about the wider question of what this could mean for the League of Ireland - and the national team.

It was really quite nice to hear the Champions League music being played in the stadium. But it shouldn't be 'nice'. It should be an opportunity, one that needs to be seized. There's been a lot of talk about what the money Dundalk are going to get will mean for the league, but something did need to change, and one consequence should be that it changes mindsets - right up the FAI.

What this is really about is what our ideal of football should be in this country, what our ideal for a domestic league should be, and whether the governance of the sport can get us to that point. These are big questions for the FAI and the clubs, questions that are so relevant to us doing well in tournaments like the European Championships again. This is where we should be producing players from.

Dundalk are an example to follow, especially when you consider the state the team was in when Stephen Kenny took over.

I did feel it would have been better if the game had been in Tallaght, as it would have made it a more hostile atmosphere, an edgier occasion that could have made it more of a leveller. Dundalk did so much for themselves again, though. I have to admit that I was surprised at how good they were tactically, in terms of off-the-ball structure, filling in for people, and good, fluent movement with good football. Kenny obviously deserves a lot of credit for that, but maybe it's also the benefit of coaching development over the years, and the culture of doing badges. They just lacked a cutting edge and a bit of pace when needing to stretch things, but it was encouraging.

At times like this, especially when a match goes out to an international audience since it was on BT, the question often arises over what level the League of Ireland is at. Some of the things I saw Dundalk do in terms of tactics were ­Championship-quality, but it lacked the Championship's explosiveness and power. It was short in a few elements like that, although some of that is a natural consequence of not being full-time or as wealthy, with all the extra trappings that brings.

That of course raises the question of what the League of Ireland should be, what the model should be. If you were to look around the continent, at ­similar-sized nations, it could be something like the Belgian or Dutch league. It could be a ­finishing school for good young Irish talent, before they are sold on, with that in turn bringing more money into the game and the vibrancy that youth brings.

To do all of that, though, we have to get our youth structures and culture right. That is something that falls on the FAI and the clubs, as well as figuring out how to bring in the money to fund it all.

The potential of all this is shown in the fact so many of the Irish squad have come from the League of Ireland, like Shane Long and Wes Hoolahan. It also gives them different qualities, and something else for the league to contemplate.

It imposes a toughness that you don't get in academies or if you play underage levels too long. Men's football is necessary between the ages of 18 and 21. As such, I'm a big fan of players staying in Ireland as late as possible. Academies can generate bad habits. They can cause players to pick up an attitude from playing for a big club, thinking they've made it before they've made it, and they can often be overpaid. That can sap that hunger, as well as that willingness to learn.

The Irish players that go over late, by contrast, generally have their eyes and ears open. They take everything in. And they have a desire. When Shane Long first came to Reading from Cork City at the age of 18, he was as raw as they come and he really needed coaching. He was the closest thing to a hurler playing as a footballer, but he was willing to learn. His touch wasn't great, his game knowledge wasn't great, but he had the rawness, the strength.

It was a robust style players weren't used to. At Reading, he used to hurt people in training. He'd be standing on their toes, bashing people, and he was just pure awkward. People would be giving out, but he wasn't there to make friends.

But this is the other side of it too. I think one small potential improvement that League of Ireland clubs should look to is offering loans to young English players, to sell it as a breeding ground for them too and something more productive than just playing underage football. Having watched under 21 games in England, there's definitely more benefit to playing first-team games in the League of ­Ireland. There could be a number of other ­advantages too.

One, whether people like to admit it or not, players from Premier League clubs do attract people, and can create a buzz. That can cause more supporters to stick around, but it will also bring scouts over, who will be watching Irish football - and Irish players - more. That will bring different mentalities to our players. Irish football is seeing the positive of more second-generation migrants in the game, but I don't think we're doing enough to get players into the country, or even approach English clubs on loan.

This is obviously a different level to what League of Ireland clubs would be looking at, but I remember the amount I learned off Attilio Lombardo's different way of doing things at Crystal Palace. As a young lad, I didn't even play with him in the first team, but I did pick up so much.

Even the little things that loan players bring can help change mindsets, can challenge things.

We still have to look at our culture too, and I did argue during the Euros that one of the positive examples that Martin O'Neill's style set was marrying the natural intensity and willingness of Irish players with passing and movement.

The FAI are trying to put in a Dutch way, and that takes time, but I think we should still be trying to incorporate some of the positive qualities of Irish football culture.

As regards how we get to this point, they're bigger questions, that have to be asked of both the FAI and the clubs. I think small things like looking for loans from England is a step, but needs to be one of many. A big game like Wednesday, though, should encourage some deeper thinking about it all. It could have deep effects for our national team.

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