Richard Sadlier: Sacrifices needed to overhaul system that's failing us
The treatment of elite players has to improve for sake of Irish football, says Richard Sadlier
Imagine a system where all the elite schoolboys of Ireland were attached to the academies of Airtricity League clubs. Imagine underage international squads could only be made up of players from these clubs. Imagine only 'A' licensed coaches would be allowed to work in these clubs. Imagine the only route to England or elsewhere was by playing for one of these clubs.
Now consider the outrage among many people in Irish football who have just read this.
Speaking on RTE radio recently, FAI high performance director Ruud Dokter said none of this. What he did say was that he aimed to involve and consult the relevant bodies and roll out a national plan for the development of the game in Ireland, the fruits of which would not be seen for another 10 or 15 years.
He honed in on the fact that there is no common pathway for elite players to develop their careers but stopped short of explaining what he had in mind. He's thinking long-term about elite players on a national level, which in itself puts him at odds with a lot of people's thinking. No matter what he comes up with, though, if it involves change to existing structures he'll be met with some fierce opposition. His efforts will rely entirely on the support he receives from the FAI.
I've been critical many times of the FAI's approach to elite player development. The system in place in Ireland is unlike that in the majority of countries in European football. It is one of the few places where the elite underage players are not connected with the academies of the best senior clubs.
There are many traditional, political, financial and sporting reasons why this is the case, but it needs to be addressed in a meaningful way. From the comments made by Dokter, it sounds like he's keen to at least give it a go.
Take the Emerging Talent Programme. Any programme which excludes players below the age of 14 can hardly claim to be working with emerging talent. Dokter said he believed it was working well but said his aim was to influence players as young as 11. Yes, it's setting the bar very low by praising him for this, but it's a positive step nonetheless.
Whatever his plans are for the merging of schoolboy and senior structures, the position of Airtricity League clubs must be considered in full also. I'm sure Keith Fahey's image will feature heavily in the promotion of the 2014 season, but his return is not an indicator of a league in good health or that players of his ability are now seeing it as a credible option. Nor can it be seen as a vindication of how the league is progressing.
The majority of players who competed in last season's competition spent the close season on the dole or in part-time employment because clubs cannot afford to continue to pay them. A full-time structure is still beyond reach for nearly everyone.
League clubs don't have the funding or the stability to roll out a serious youth development programme and the power structures of schoolboy football are too well established to challenge. Implementing change in that area would require phenomenal feats of diplomacy and drive, but Dokter expects to present a national plan in the new year on how best to achieve his aims.
If the FAI are serious about his role and supporting him in his plans -- whatever they may be or however long they may take to implement -- then the landscape can change in any way they see fit.
In the past they have lacked the vision, the finances or the political will. In most cases, they
have lacked all three. But Dokter is about to present a plan for change. Irish football's response to change has traditionally been one of resistance, but there has never been a better time to embrace it. With Ireland at its lowest ever world ranking, there has never been a more important time either.
It will take progressive thinking and co-operation from those involved, but it will also involve self-sacrifice for the greater good. None of those are elements you'd instantly relate to Irish football. For too long, Ireland's elite footballers have been let down by a system aimed at shipping them off to the UK at the earliest opportunity. Radical change is needed but it takes vision and will to achieve. When Dokter produces his plan, the FAI need to summon the political strength to help him deliver it.
"I have to make people collaborate rather than doing their own thing," was how Dokter phrased it a fortnight ago. In Irish football, as I'm sure he is finding out, that's an enormously difficult task.