Tuesday 25 June 2019

Chelsea and Arsenal Dublin friendly provides Irish fans with a harsh reminder of a bygone era


James McClean. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile...ABC
James McClean. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile...ABC

John Fallon

The first Lansdowne roar of the summer for a football occasion tonight won't stem from an Irishman's involvement, nor does the evidence exist to suggest meetings of top clubs will feature one anytime soon.

Chelsea and Arsenal make a whistle-stop visit to Dublin for a friendly under the International Champions Cup banner, by now an annual pre-season ritual which proves a hit with the wider Irish public rather than the die-hard domestic league follower.

Should the game take on the predictable pedestrian pattern, pockmarked by a raft of substitutions, attendees could easily pass the time by attempting to pinpoint the Irish connection on the pitch.

Only the most ardent of fans would know Chelsea's wonderkid Ethan Ampadu is technically still entitled to switch allegiance from Wales through his father, former Ireland U-21 international Kwame.

That prospect is as unlikely as an Irishman breaking into one of these top-five Premier League clubs, a stark contrast to 20 years ago when the Euro '88 squad was dominated by representatives of Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.

There will be tales galore of Irish affinity surrounding this exhibition, yet those links belong to the past.

Anthony Stokes. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Anthony Stokes. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Damien Duff's back-to-back Premier League-winning campaigns, all of 12 and 13 years ago, are the most recent memories of the Irish flag being flown at either of the London clubs.

So unfashionable have the Irish become to tonight's visitors that they don't even recruit underage talent anymore.

Anthony Stokes, who turned 30 last week, was the last man standing with Arsenal while none have been snapped up by Chelsea since Conor Clifford, now 26.

Of course, the shrinking of Ireland's Premier League pool isn't confined to the upper lights.

From a high of 33 players during the 2011/'12 campaign, the cohort was more than halved by last season, and almost a third of the 16 belonged to one club, Burnley.

That total also included a brief cameo for Michael Obafemi, the Southampton striker who could still defect to Nigeria.

There'll be little change when the new season kicks off the weekend after next, with relegation shunting James McClean and Stephen Ireland from the top table and promotion giving Matt Doherty at Wolves another crack at it.

New signing Greg Cunningham and, to a lesser extent Anthony Pilkington, will figure for Cardiff City.

In contrast to the gems of yesteryear such as Duff and Liam Brady, modern-day Ireland have no stand-out player operating at the forefront of English and European club football to rely on.

Christian Eriksen showed us last November how valuable that quality is within an average team like Denmark.

Now the aftermath of that elimination has emptied from Martin O'Neill psyche, he's able to adopt a brighter outlook, fully sure a saviour will arrive.

"I think that, over the next decade, Ireland is going to produce a really top-class, wonderful footballer," he told Daniel McDonnell last month in these pages while watching the World Cup in Russia.

"It could be a surging midfield player like Roy Keane, someone who can dribble past two or three players, or even a goalscorer like Robbie Keane.

"It might not happen in my time but, honestly, it will happen. With a bit of luck."

The presence of luck, while essential, wasn't behind the factory of footballers Belgium and Croatia delivered to the finest clubs around Europe.

Those nations, who finished second and third at the recent World Cup, possess a philosophy underpinning their structure from youth to senior level.

Damien Delaney, one of those 16 Irish participants in the Premier League last season and who fell out with O'Neill, noted an equivalent country to Ireland, Wales, were identifiable too for their philosophy.

John Devine, a Dublin-born former Arsenal player, agrees with the Corkman. Devine has a personal interest in the topic, having worked as Manchester United's coaching director in Ireland for a decade under Alex Ferguson.

More recently, he advocated an overhaul of the Irish system from his role with the South Dublin Football League, centring on introducing a three-a-side programme for six-year-olds.

When he was invited on to the FAI's player development plan committee, they went with a four-a-side format instead.

"There's no reason why Ireland can't produce players to compete with the best in Europe once the approach is right," reasoned Devine, now based in California working for the GPS coaching company affiliated to Bayern Munich.

"Wales managed to produce three players - Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen - who in the same season played for Real Madrid, Arsenal and Liverpool."

The FAI, for their own reasons, have placed that responsibility of developing players into the hands of League of Ireland clubs, a departure which Brian Kerr, another pioneer of his time, is sceptical about.

At least those tonight lamenting the absence of Irish, mostly outside rather than inside the Dublin 4 venue, can be assured the penny has dropped.

Irish Independent

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