Wednesday 19 June 2019

Top schoolboy clubs on road to oblivion cry foul

O'Brien: “We’re pushing ahead with things without thinking.” Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
O'Brien: “We’re pushing ahead with things without thinking.” Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

John Fallon

How apt it was that, after one League of Ireland figurehead described the FAI's drive to control the elite underage sector as "too much, too soon", the response from the schoolboy fraternity gobbled up has been 'too little, too late'.

The penny, or euro, seemed to drop with Home Farm - one of several clubs to produce dozens of senior internationals - when on St Valentine's Day, irked by the governing body granting €250,000 to League of Ireland clubs to offset the costs of running underage teams, the love dried up.

"What about the traditional underage clubs who have been working hard for years, FAI?" they tweeted in a rare public outburst from one of the clubs getting swept out to sea by the switch to centralised control.

Two days later, a delegation of Dublin clubs met with FAI officials to vent their ire - not just on this topic, but a litany of grievances they harbour on the winds of change, including the double-standard on applying the controversial 80km radius rule nationally.

Once considered a powerful unit of an otherwise subservient football family, vocal on issues such as a meagre compensation package from league clubs for supplying graduates, their clout has been gradually waning since the national U-17 league commenced in 2015.

The U-15 equivalent kicked off last August and the U-13 version is scheduled to start in just over 12 months.

What they'll be left with is merely the shrapnel - a change feared at least five years ago but not resisted with any great force by the majority.

In fact, their downfall has been partially self-inflicted. Many of the clubs doing the whining, including Home Farm, were part of the Dublin District Schoolboys' League (DDSL) board that voted in 2014 to hand over €500,000 from its hard-earned reserves to the FAI.

In return, the DDSL gained access to the playing facilities at Abbotstown, but this was an upfront rental fee for 15 years, after which they will be back at square one without a brick or blade of grass in assets.

Only two of the mainstays among the Dublin cohort seem to have avoided getting burned by the maelstrom engulfing their territory.

St Joseph's Boys already had a partnership in place with Bray Wanderers long before the FAI insisted the only avenue for existing nurseries into their elite leagues was through link-ups.

That Joeys were prepared to ask the FAI to deny Bray a licence to play in the 2015 Premier Division over outstanding monies vindicated the belief they wore the trousers in that particular relationship.

The official name of their U-15 and U-17 teams, despite the fixtures stating Bray Wanderers, is St Joseph's/Bray.

Another established force unwilling to play the role of bridesmaid were St Kevin's Boys. So intent were they to preserve their identity that the stated FAI policy was waived to allow them entry into the maiden, truncated U-15 season under their own name.

Eventually they agreed a deal with Bohemians after gaining a series of concessions, including their trademark tangerine being worn as a second strip. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.

All 20 senior League of Ireland clubs are to receive €12,500 for their youth development programmes from the FAI - as well as a share of the €825,062 funded by UEFA.

Those solidarity payments from the European governing body are nothing new. The €692,000 shared by clubs in 2017 would be shrunk by the €3.5m available were Cork City to reach the group stages of the Champions League.

The windfall may well explain the FAI's hurry in entrusting the League of Ireland with responsibility for nurturing the next generation.

Multiple league winner Pat Fenlon issued the "too much, too soon" warning two years ago and his sentiments were echoed last week by Ger O'Brien, head of the St Patrick's Athletic underage structure.

"We're pushing ahead with things without thinking," he told the LOI weekly podcast.

"There wasn't even enough qualified referees for the first U-15 season. Should we be kicking the U-13 league to touch for another year or two? I think the people involved in the clubs should be asked about these things."

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