We must do more for our young stars spat out by top clubs
'What does the U in UEFA stand for?" asks the quizmaster. "Unemployed" replies a voice from the front row.
Laughter engulfs the small conference room in the Rica Helsfyr Hotel, a no-frills abode on the outskirts of Oslo. They appreciate the perfect execution of gallows humour.
Last week, a small number of Irish media accepted the chance to travel with the PFAI team to the FIFPRO tournament for out-of-work footballers. We were given the opportunity to be with the group for their three-day stay. It was an illuminating experience.
The opening anecdote came from a table quiz organised to alleviate the boredom of hotel life on the eve of their two matches. Aside from that interlude, the rest of the trip was a budget version of the standard itinerary for an away jaunt in football these days. It goes something like: Fly. Eat. Sleep. Wake. Eat. Train. Eat. Sleep. Wake. Game. Airport. Home.
When footballers travel, they rarely sample their surroundings. We were in Norway but, TV channels aside, we could just as easily have been in Nenagh. For some of the fresher faces in this group, the experience was a novelty. This tournament was introduced for the benefit of those released by their clubs in November that still don't have an option for 2014. Some of the travellers haven't received a single phone call.
It is a scary time. Within the group dynamic, the banter flowed easily, similar to any functioning dressing-room. Individually, the insecurities were a little more obvious.
The stalwarts who have been around the block are savvy enough to know something will come up, and one or two already have options in reserve. The younger ones, who retain loftier ambitions, naturally find it harder to articulate where they stand.
Don Cowan, latterly of Stevenage FC, spoke in short sentences about the misery of signing on a short-term deal and living in a suburban London hotel for a month. "It's not ideal," he muttered, mastering understatement. He decided to come home and look for something a little more enjoyable. "I just want to get a rack of games," he explains. Sadly, his Norwegian audition is ruined by a troublesome hamstring so his contract search continues.
As grim as the cattle-mart existence may sound, the hopefuls who slogged it out for little reward on the dodgy indoor artificial surface at the Vallhall Arena will have gained something from the experience. They may be down on recent luck, but they are at least part of a network that keeps them on the market.
There are many, many others who have completely disappeared from sight. The story of ex-Manchester United netminder Joe Coll, which we carried on these pages last week, hinted at a grievous flaw in Irish structures. Truly, it is extraordinary that a star of the future at 16 could be back at home in the relative anonymity of Gaeltacht Donegal at 19. When United scout Joe Corcoran learned by absolute chance that the PFAI required a 'keeper urgently, it took him two and a half hours to find the teenager's phone number from his vast network of contacts. If a recent United trainee can slip through the cracks, then anyone can.
In Norway, he looked like a player with promise that requires patience to draw out his potential. He was out of sight and mind until fate dealt him a favour. Now, his contact details will be made available for anyone willing to take a chance.
The schoolboy civil war that has caused headaches for the FAI has prompted discourse about this country's dysfunctional attempts to centralise a method of creating a deeper reserve of top-class players. It is a debate that must broaden to incorporate the issue of rehabilitating the childhood stars that fall off the ladder.
The crux of the matter is that the nurseries which do the best job of developing emerging stars, who must monetise their exports to keep the show on the road, have no comfort blanket for those who come back in their late teens. The more resourceful might have the contacts to filter into the League of Ireland system, but there are numerous Joe Colls who vanish without trace because they quickly find themselves with no other option.
Consider a story from a few years back, the desperation of the parent who turned up at the reception of FAI HQ in Abbotstown in a frazzled state. His son had returned from a top-end Premier League club and was struggling. The parent could find no words of reassurance to make it better. "Can anybody help me?" he asked.
Eventually, he was directed to the offices of the PFAI, who succeeded in finding a League of Ireland manager that was willing to give this lost soul a break. The player in question, who has since moved to Australia, had moved from his schoolboy club to the English giant for a substantial five-figure sum. There was no welcome home party at the airport.
It is a depressingly common tale. The positive story of recent years has been the ascension of Airtricity League graduates to the international stage and, in an ideal world, more would follow that lead, finish their education and emigrate as adults when they are actually ready. That's a far-fetched wish though, with the culture of inducements at schoolboy football level ensuring that the status quo will remain; when parents of early developers are being offered ridiculous sums of money, with agents knocking on their door, a certain brand of human nature will prevail.
Perhaps the later bloomers thrive because they haven't endured the confidence-sapping process of being chewed up and spat out by the machine before their 21st birthday. There's a shortage of avenues for players in the 18-21 age bracket who lack the character or physicality to instantaneously compete at Airtricity League level but could eventually earn income from the sport if there was an initiative focused on their rehabilitation.
There's a dreadful irony here. The group that competed in Norway lived up to a stereotype by fighting hard until the last minute, even when certain limitations were apparent. Everywhere they go, regardless of their ability, our teams are praised for their never-say-die spirit.
And yet, back home, an environment exists which gives up on players too easily. If the authorities care about Irish football, they have to care better for Irish footballers.