'Radius rule' leaves us going around in circles
TWO years ago, an 11-year-old boy whose family are all from Dublin was driven from the south of the country to the capital every week to play football and progressed to the point where he could score crucial goals for one of the best teams in his age group.
Last year, with cost becoming ever more of a factor, the family made the decision not to travel every week, and the 12-year-old played with his local club before he was asked to train in Dublin with coaches and players who knew him from the previous successful campaign.
It was at this point that an official from his local league made a complaint about the boy travelling to Dublin to train, and the Dublin club decided that it wasn't worth the risk of being punished under the 'radius rule', which was introduced in 2011 stating that players must go to school within 49km of the club they play for.
Last season, that rule saw Tallaght club Kilnamanagh expelled from their U-15s league and, despite the parents and 12-year-old child willing to make the journey, it was understandable that the club weren't willing to put their entire season on the line for the sake of allowing a player to train with them.
They eventually went on to prove themselves as one of the best teams in the country whose players will, in all likelihood, be future Irish underage internationals at least, but they weren't allowed to develop one player who fell outside an arbitrary geographical parameter.
In the past few weeks, the now 13-year-old child, who could have been playing alongside some of the best players for the past two seasons, found himself training with the local team's youth and senior 'B' teams and, what's more, he was able to hold his own.
This isn't because he is the second coming of Lionel Messi – who moved from Argentina to Barcelona in his early teenage years – but rather that it's the highest standard in his area in which the 13-year-old can hold his own.
"If a 13-year-old tried to train with the U-18s of the best clubs, they wouldn't be capable and that's the way it should be," says his father.
"There's so much lip service paid to developing talent, especially after the past few Ireland senior performances, but there's no point in talented kids being big fish in a small pond. They won't develop, or else they'll get bored and do something else."
The former high performance director of the FAI, Wim Koevermans, consistently maintained that "the best should play with the best" but, after the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland (SFAI) recently increased their parameters by a full one kilometre, it means that the best can only train with the best once they fall within 50km of them.
If a child showed talent as a violin player, it would be up to the parents to decide whether they should continue with lessons locally or, perhaps, travel somewhere to get tuition from a more qualified instructor. Either way, nobody would pass judgment. In schoolboys' football, the parents don't have the final say.
As if it wasn't enough of a mess, the FAI last week passed its first ever rule on restricting the movement of players under the age of 16; however, they set their parameters at 80km from the child's usual place of residence rather than 50km from the child's school, which is the SFAI's guideline.
The SFAI have reduced the sanction from expulsion to forfeiture of the game and a €1,000 fine on the player's club and league, but while much of the focus is on Dublin clubs, both rules would also mean that a promising player who lives or goes to school in, say, Connemara or Bantry, wouldn't be allowed to join a team in either Galway or Cork city because the distance would be over 80km.
Confused? Try explaining it to the children.
"It seems there are certain people who would rather see a child lose interest in the game once they do it within their local league than go to another league and maintain their development," says the frustrated father. "Some of the leagues have only six teams in them and often have one or two very strong teams, which means that, most weeks, those teams are winning easily and nobody is learning anything – especially if they're only able to play 10 league games in a season."
It's understandable that leagues want to keep their players for prestigious competitions such as the Kennedy Cup, where the cream of the country's U-14 players come together every summer, but the drop-off level afterwards is often stark. One league began their U-14 season with a long list of 40 players in a Kennedy Cup squad; the following year, the same batch of players were invited to take part in trials for the Ireland U-15s team and six turned up.
"Many of the kids have a big interest in other sports, particularly GAA, which is fantastic but if they only want to play soccer, it's very difficult for them to find a level where they can progress," says the father.
There are many soccer enclaves in what are traditional GAA counties and the superb work done by many in clubs like Tralee Dynamos in Kerry, Manulla in Mayo or Evergreen in Kilkenny must never be underestimated, but the competition from other sports is so fierce that promising soccer players are often lost. For those who stick with soccer it means that the standard they face, naturally, will diminish.
The simplistic argument is that clubs or parents are pushing children to be the next Robbie Keane and transfer for millions in their career so that those around him can live on easy street for the rest of their lives. The reality, in the vast majority of cases, is different.
"The numbers who 'make it' in England are tiny," says the father of the 13-year-old child who is now training with adults. "But it's not about that. It's about giving the child the chance to be the best that they can be at whatever they want to do.
"That's the reason why we ask them to do their homework, so they can be the best they can be in school. Why should football be any different?"