Sunday 18 February 2018

Where are the ball-players?

Ireland's lack of creative midfielders is an indictment of the way young players are being developed here, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

O N Newstalk radio last Sunday, a panel gathered for an intriguing and in-depth discussion of Ireland's performance against Macedonia the previous evening.

They had been talking for at least 15 minutes when Bohemians manager Pat Fenlon touched on a crucial but often overlooked issue. Nothing to do with team selection or the heated debates that usually follow Giovanni Trapattoni's ultra-conservative tactics. The point Fenlon wished to raise was more fundamental and far more important.

To Fenlon it was grimly obvious that Ireland didn't have the type of players who could radically alter the way Ireland played. Not nearly enough anyway. While Ireland fans screamed for the game to be killed off at 2-0, it was Goran Pandev who came up with the defence-splitting pass that gave renewed hope to the visiting side. The leadership and creative spark Pandev brought was a marked difference between the teams. Not a decisive one as it turned out, but noticeable all the same.

While decent talents are emerging in the shape of Shane Long, Seamus Coleman and others, there is a palpable shortage of creative, ball-playing midfielders and, already, there is an oppressive burden on the shoulders of the Glasgow-born James McCarthy to fill the gaping void. Over the years we pinned our hopes on the likes of Stephen McPhail and Andy Reid. For various reasons, bad luck among them, they came up short.

It's worth asking whether they have become an endangered species now. In his day Fenlon was a neat, compact midfielder who won a League title at St Pat's under Brian Kerr. In Spain, players like Fenlon are brought into academies and inducted in the philosophy of tiki-taka from the age of six. In this country they are submerged in the win-at-all-costs mentality and, by and large, left to fend for themselves.

"You go and watch any games from under 7 to under 15 on Saturday or Sunday and it's about results," Fenlon said. "It's not about developing young lads and their technique, how you're going to bring them on as players. It's about how many trophies you can win and that's ludicrous. That doesn't happen anywhere else. We're competitive by nature as it is. We don't need any of that."

Even if you were inclined to disagree, it still seems an age since Irish schoolboy football turned up a diamond of the quality of a Damien Duff or Robbie Keane. These days local sporting heroes are more likely to emerge from the rugby academies of Leinster or Munster. Once we did have a proud tradition of producing great midfield players: Giles, Brady, Heighway, Whelan, Roy Keane. How long, though, will we have to wait for another?

Before the game against Uruguay on Tuesday, it was interesting to hear Ronnie Whelan offer his opinion on McCarthy. Whelan acknowledged the Wigan midfielder's potential, but felt the need to offer a qualification. McCarthy, he noted, was already 20 and truly great players tended to have made their international breakthroughs by then. It sounded harsh, but there was a certain truth to it.

Brady, for example, was 18 when he made an auspicious debut against the Soviet Union in 1974. John Giles was 19 when he made his first Ireland outing against Sweden 15 years before. And though he was something of a late starter, Keane was just 19 when he made his international breakthrough against Chile. Whelan too was an international at 19 after making just one senior appearance at Liverpool.

Consider too that when Brady made his debut he played alongside Giles, Heighway and Mick Martin. A midfield comprising players from Arsenal, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester United. "Different times," says Martin. "Football's a worldwide game now. The likes of us, we had far better opportunities in our day. The same for Keane as well. The influx of foreign players has made it much more difficult. I'm not saying it's impossible for local or Irish lads to break in, but you have to be so much better than anyone else."

It's a common refrain. John Coughlan is a Nottingham Forest scout based in Cork. A decade ago, Forest had Andy Reid and a clutch of Irish kids on their books. Now the influx has slowed to a trickle. "Once upon a time their market was England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland," says Coughlan. "Now it's the EU and further afield. Man United have a school in Brazil. Why do you think that is?"

He thinks we need to have realistic expectations. "I'm 28 years at this and in Cork I've seen one Roy Keane, one Denis Irwin, one Dave Meyler. Maybe seven players at the highest level. Like, kids have changed these days. How many don't have an Xbox or a Wii? The funny thing is, England have 50 or 60m people yet apart from Paul Scholes how many genuine world-class midfielders have they produced in the past 20 years?"

It is a problem shared by those whose fortunes are tethered to the British professional leagues. It's bracing to think that less than 30 years ago a Northern Ireland team led by the sublime talents of Martin O'Neill, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside was able to shine on the World Cup stage. Don't even mention George Best. They'd bite your hand off for another Neil Lennon.

In England, at least, the issue is a regular source of heated discussion, most often after another stinging let-down on the international stage. Some day soon the long-standing plans to build the much-needed national centre of excellence in Burton will come to fruition and, in Jack Wilshere, they have a blossoming talent around which a young and exciting team can be built.

Here, though, we rarely ask the hard questions. And while adopting non-Irish born players isn't necessarily a bad thing, it shouldn't lessen the responsibility of producing home-grown players. In the same way racing people invariably dream of finding the next Arkle or Dawn Run, shouldn't every Irish football fan dream of the next Liam Brady or Roy Keane? In time McCarthy may find a place in our hearts. But it isn't quite the same thing.

One man who is asking questions is former Ireland and Arsenal defender John Devine. It is just a week since Devine launched a new concept with Aaron Callaghan and Mike Geoghegan called Puresoccer, a venture broadly designed to help coaches acquire the skills to tackle the global nature of the modern game.

Devine has been back in Ireland 23 years now and has studied the problems that afflict the game here. As a kid, he learned to play on the street as kids did back then. Those days are gone, though. The population of inner city Dublin is rising again while the green spaces are disappearing. Even at the most progressive clubs kids rarely get enough ball-time. The challenge is to address it.

He agrees with Fenlon. The answer is less competition for kids and more fun. Four-by-four games where the kids get ball-time and the chance to express themselves. The player, he says, must become the centre of attention. The enemy is the "yell and tell" mentality.

"I've visited countries all over the world and studied what they do," he says. "I've been to Ajax and they're still doing four nights a week there. Kids get at least double the time on the ball that they do here. You see how tough it is for talented Irish kids to get game time. We're fielding a lot of underage internationals with a serious lack of game time. We've got to change that."

Devine spent 10 years working with the now defunct Manchester United academy in Dublin when the likes of Anthony Stokes and Jonny Evans were on the books. One of his fondest memories is of Conor McCormack signing for Serie B side Triestina. Things mightn't have worked out in Italy, but it was still a sign that Irish players could attract the attention of European clubs. They weren't just producing "blocks of lads" to fill up the lower English divisions.

A small story, perhaps, but the vision is broad. Kids learning the game in a fun environment, always sharpening their skills, virtually married to a football. Cash-strapped clubs relying on local talent, developing structures and academies that, ultimately, might plug into a national grid. And people like Devine and Brian Kerr, with ideas and proven track records, being courted by the FAI where initiative is sorely lacking.

For now the campaign unfolds and the questions continue. Does Shane Long deserve his chance up front? Is it time to look again at Andy Reid? Will the full-backs ever cross the half-way line? All valid questions for sure, but there are better ones we should be asking.

Sunday Indo Sport

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