Sunday 20 January 2019

FAI overhaul leaves irate schoolboy clubs counting cost

Wes Hoolahan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Seán Ryan

The FAI's overhaul of Irish underage soccer is not sitting well with the traditional powerhouses of the game in Dublin's school leagues, who say they are being discriminated against in order to ensure that the best players sign for the League of Ireland teams.

Discrimination might seem a strong term to use, but the top DDSL (Dublin District Schoolboys League) clubs point to the FAI's decision to allow their teams to sign players outside the 80km zone, when they threw Belvedere Boys out of the SFAI Cup for selecting a player from Athlone, who had approached them of his own accord.

Similarly, the transfer window appears to favour the National League teams. Tomorrow is the deadline for transfers of under 15s among DDSL clubs, but the National League teams can pick up the best of the DDSL players in July, leaving the DDSL clubs unable to replace them.

Added to a lack of consultation on the part of the FAI, and an attendant loss of revenue, it is no wonder that such moves have caused more than a little disquiet in schoolboy circles.

Martin Loughran of Crumlin United has no problem with "the best players playing in the best league" but he thinks the FAI went about it the wrong way. "The people who have been running the schoolboy game for 50 years should have been consulted," he said. "The people on the ground have been overlooked.

"The National League transfer window for the 15s is to facilitate players in the Kennedy Cup because kids wouldn't go till they had played in it. We have four playing in the Kennedy Cup, and one went already to St Pat's; I have no issue with that, but how do we replace the other three with the window closed?"

It's not only the players who are leaving, the coaches are going too. "It's very hard to get volunteers to run teams," said Loughran, "and when we lost our 14s last year to League of Ireland clubs, we lost their coaches as well. They had been with them since they started playing as a team at the age of seven."

The FAI, under high performance director Ruud Dokter, are trying to introduce a Dutch model and believe that as a long-term plan it offers the brightest future for Irish football, but many feel it simply doesn't fit the landscape here. As Cherry Orchard veteran John Wilkes explained: "It's a good scheme for Holland or Germany where clubs have good facilities, but the top schoolboy clubs here have better facilities than the League of Ireland clubs they are signing for."

Wilkes also recalled a visit he made to Dutch giants Ajax. "One of the coaches told me that the failure rate is very high, even at 12 or 13! It's a ruthless system. So we'll have players at 13 being told they're not good enough and being let go. The law of the jungle applies. The failure rate at under 19 shows that a lot of players are being lost to the game, they don't go on to junior or intermediate football."

Wilkes was on the Shamrock Rovers staff during Johnny Giles's time there, and said: "This is a throwback to that era. Then the best players were sold on quickly, in order to fund the operation. It's a case of sorting out the cream of schoolboy talent without meriting it."

Under FIFA regulations, clubs have to be compensated for the years players spent at a club from the age of 12 when signed by clubs from another country. Loughran says that it was funds from this source - when players like Robbie Keane, Richie Towell, Adam Rooney, Alan Mahon and Andy Boyle signed for British teams - that helped them build the excellent facilities they enjoy.

"But now with the under 13 National League taking our players at 12, we're not going to have kids going away any more. Personally, I think an under 13 league is too young, there is more need to fill the gap between the 19s and the senior teams, that and the gap between 15s and 17s - if you don't fill those gaps you're going to lose them to football altogether.

"Another problem for the 13s is that half go forward and half stay back, but where do you put them? The clubs they left won't have teams because they've been dismantled. Taking the best players will have a huge effect on schoolboy clubs.

"We're going to top-load our 8-12s so that when players leave we'll be able to keep going. At present we have 20 schoolboy and three senior teams, and five or six of our 19s continue to come through every year for our senior teams."

One club which could suffer more than most is Belvedere Boys, the north inner-city club which produced great servants of the FAI like schoolboy manager Vinny Butler, the late legendary youth coach Noel O'Reilly and international midfielder Wes Hoolahan (left). Unable to purchase a ground of their own, their biggest expenditure is on renting good facilities five nights a week for their 17 teams. Up to now, most of their funds have come from compensation for players signed by British clubs.

"With that source drying up, we will have to revise our thinking about hiring good facilities," Butler explained. "It's a worry, and other clubs have similar difficulties, having gone into debt to develop good facilities on the basis of an income stream that is now no longer there."

Belvedere, because they have no ground of their own, are not eligible for grants and can't borrow money as they prudently refuse to go into debt. With their best players going to St Patrick's Athletic, it is Pat's who will benefit from compensation if they are transferred to a British club. Like Crumlin United, who are also linked with Pat's, Belvedere have a compensation deal with the Inchicore club, but it will only return a fraction of what was received in the past.

"We have been dumped out of elite football by the FAI, without as much as a thank you," said Butler, "but we intend fighting on and we feel that 15s should be the youngest National League team, not 13s."

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