Richard Sadlier: Don't be fooled by League's play-at-home promptings
As long as selling players remains the priority, Irish football will not progress, writes Richard Sadlier
Two years after I retired I met with the manager of Drogheda United to discuss the possibility of a comeback. My hip pain seemed manageable, and it was put to me by an agent that a career in the League of Ireland would be possible.
I was shown around Drogheda United's facilities and told what to expect if I signed for the club. I was impressed by what I saw and by the people I met. Nothing came from the discussions, obviously, but the premise of the idea did not reflect well on the domestic game: the standard is so low that even those who aren't fully fit can do a job.
The measure of success for Irish football clubs is how often they can export players. The bigger schoolboy clubs attract the best talent on the strength of their record in this area. 'Sign for us and we'll get you across the water' remains the most effective pitch to any player. Competing for trophies is obviously appealing, but doing it in front of scouts from the UK is what it's all about. That's how it was when I was a kid and it hasn't changed since.
But one thing that has changed is the emergence of the League of Ireland as an alternative route to getting a move abroad. The ultimate aim is still to leave the country, but the number of players in the current Ireland squad with experience of playing in the league is starting to challenge the perception that it is only for those not good enough for anything better.
When I was a teenager my only aim was to go to England. The League of Ireland never featured in my thinking. Back then, it was always spoken about as a fall-back for players who don't go abroad or for those who return. It had no credibility as a career option. You just hoped you would never have to go near it, and if you did there was little prospect of getting out of it.
Nobody I knew grew up aiming to play in it, and anyone who eventually did could forget plans of going any further. That is no longer the case, but it's important not to get carried away with the reasons why.
With so many former League of Ireland players in the Ireland squad, you might think the domestic game is making enormous strides. It isn't. Full-time structures are almost entirely a thing of the past and match attendances continue to decline. Clubs are investing less in their senior structures and continue to shy away from long-term strategies around youth development. Increased competition from other nations means fewer Irish schoolboys are being offered contracts to go to the UK.
Instead of going to England – still their preference – they remain in Ireland because they aren't wanted at an early age. This is probably a good thing but the fact that a higher quality of player is available to League of Ireland clubs has very little to do with the standard of coaching and development. If English clubs wanted them as schoolboys they'd be gone, but they don't so this is why greater numbers are leaving later from League of Ireland clubs to go abroad.
The recent championing of the League of Ireland on the back of Ireland squad announcements is done by vested interests with cynical aims. While the message is clear – don't go abroad as schoolboys or youths, play in the league and travel over when you're older – the motive is less obvious. By highlighting the progress of the likes of James McClean and Seamus Coleman, League of Ireland clubs are hoping to convince more players to hang on another couple of years before moving abroad purely so they will profit when they do. It's not something they should be criticised for doing, but let's at least be honest that it's what they're doing. This isn't about what is best for players or about the development of the senior game either. It's a scramble to cash in, nothing more.
The schoolboy clubs have traditionally been the ones to profit
most from Irish players moving abroad, but the League of Ireland clubs are now looking to do likewise. It is how they make their money and gain credibility, but the broader question is not being addressed.
In terms of the future of football in Ireland, no meaningful change can ever take place if the emphasis on exporting remains. Ireland is still one of the few European countries with no formal links between the best structures at underage and senior level. But that will always remain as long as both are competing to send players abroad. The entire system is geared towards selling the best to clubs in the UK.
The League of Ireland clubs operate under difficult conditions but it's wrong to portray the progress of players in England as a reflection of the standard of football in this country. Several players involved in this evening's game with Georgia have played in the League of Ireland, but international recognition was only made possible by them leaving. As long as credibility can only be earned by emigrating, football in Ireland will always remain in its current state.