'We're sending boatloads of kids to England' - Stephen Bradley warns that players who don't make it are 'broken' when they return
HOME fires are burning. But can they ever burn bright enough to keep young Irish talent in Ireland?
That’s the challenge which the game here has faced for decades, a battle that has almost always been lost. In general, Irish kids dream of playing for Liverpool or Manchester United, not St Patrick’s Athletic or Dundalk - and it’s when that dream turns sour that the problem gets worse.
The issue of Irish talent going abroad at a young age is the most vexed of the topics which The Herald has dealt with in our three-part investigation.
Some feel that the game in Ireland has never been, and will never be, able to offer the career opportunities available in England, that the League of Ireland has historically been unable to get, and keep, its house in order.
Young players and their parents know that the chances of an Irish kid making it into the first team of a Premier League or Championship side have never been lower, yet they still want to try, hope that their son can be the 1% that succeeds.
Others in Ireland feel that the Premier League, in terms of using young Irish talent, is a ship that’s already sailed, that we may never again see an Irish footballer play in the Premier League in his teens, as Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne did.
And they are trying to offer an alternative, keeping players at home, maybe not forever but for a bit longer.
“We are sending boatloads of kids to England who are not ready, not prepared,” says Stephen Bradley, the manager of Shamrock Rovers who had a taste of life cross channel as he joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old.
“We have too many players going away who, it’s wrong to say they are not good enough, but they are not ready, nowhere near ready. And we shouldn’t be sending young players to England to fill out their underage teams, the percentage of young players coming back at a young age is getting higher and higher.
“The reason is we are sending more and more who are not ready to go away, they are not at that level and it would do them better to stay in Ireland, no matter what club, to play football and learn their trade, learn what it takes to become a professional.”
Bradley didn’t make the first team at Arsenal (though he came close and was on the bench for Arsene Wenger), played first team football in Scotland and had his success back in Ireland, winning titles with Drogheda United and Shamrock Rovers.
He regularly encounters Irish players who come home from England and it’s not always positive.
“They are broken when they come home. That’s not as players, that’s as people, as young men, they are broken,” he says.
“They think it’s great in the first year, you’re in England on a YTS and your mates are all back home in school. But after that first year it’s a numbers game, it gets serious and you are home in 18 months. I hear so many people talking about ‘fixing’ Irish players when they come home. It’s too late then.
“We are producing good young players, I have watched a lot of the Ireland underage games, a lot of the underage national leagues and we are producing good young players. That’s not the problem. The problem is that a lot of parents still think that going to England at 16 is the right thing, and I don’t think that 90% of them are ready to go away. You will always get that small batch who need to go but there is a large pool who are not ready to go and it’s not just football, as a person. And that’s the problem.”
Rovers have invested heavily in their underage structures, and not just on the field as they have a link-up with Ashfield College in south Dublin, where players can continue their education while playing for the Hoops’ underage sides.
A key part of their deal to sell 16-year-old keeper Gavin Bazunu to Manchester City, in a record deal worth over €500,000, is that Bazunu will stay on in Dublin and at Rovers until next summer so he can complete his Leaving Cert.
Ian Morris is someone else who has seen both sides: he moved to England (Leeds United) as a 15-year-old, had a ten-year playing career in the lower leagues of England, and his job now is head of youth development at Bohemians, where he’s also a first team player.
“I did my Junior Cert and went away but I had no real qualifications,” he says. “The landscape is better now and if it was my son who was 15 and in demand, I’d tell him to stay here and finish his education, get his Leaving Cert and look at the options here. I see no gap in standard between coaching here and certain clubs over there.
“Players are getting the right coaching here and playing in a good league standard, so I wouldn’t be rushing across the water, but every deal and player is different,” added Morris.
He oversees the underage system which has been a success for Bohs and their partners St Kevin’s Boys. But it’s not all perfect, Morris arguing that giving players a one-year contract at U15 level is too short to allow a player develop (he favours a two-year deal), and there is also still resistance to the national underage leagues.
“There is a lot of unrest and negativity towards change, I don’t think there is enough buy-in to change and to give it a chance. There is still a hang-up from the schoolboy clubs over why they are not the dominant ones and that will take time,” says Morris.
Bradley has spent a chunk of his life attached to Arsenal in some form, and he’s aware of the fact that an Irish-born player has not played in the Premier League for them in 18 years, and that the Gunners do not have a single player born in the Republic on their books at any level (Derry-born Republic of Ireland youth cap Jordan McEneff is the only one who comes close).
And there is no immediate fix in sight.
“For the next few years, it’s hard to see a Richard Dunne coming through and playing in the Premier League at 17 or 18,” Bradley says.
“But it comes back to my point about players not being ready when they go away. We have young players in the league, a lot of them will move on and then we will see more of our players play at a higher level as they are more ready, as people as well as players.
“It’s great as you are wanted as a young player, clubs are ringing you but as soon as they sign you it changes are you are judged differently from that moment on.
“The days of getting the flights and nice hotels and free tracksuits, that’s gone, you are a player now and you need to produce, and quickly, or else you are out of the system.
“That’s the shock that people don’t understand, you tell parents that and they don’t believe you, they think you are trying to trick the
player into staying here but we don’t do that,” says Bradley, insisting that Rovers or other LOI clubs can’t try to convince young players to stay here, but should instead outline what they can offer as an alternative to the boat to England at 16.
“We believe that the ones who stay here and get a proper grounding of what it’s like to be a professional will have a career further down the line, whether the level is LOI or abroad, if they stay here and have a career that’s brilliant, if it’s in England or Scotland or Belgium that’s fine too, they will find their level.
“And that will help Irish football.”