Wednesday 18 July 2018

Daniel McDonnell: What Ireland can learn from Iceland

Coherent planning and home-grown focus makes emerging football nation’s breakthrough a genuine success story

Lionel Messi (C) feels the squeeze from Birkir Bjarnason and Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason as Iceland belied their status in the game to frustrate Argentina in their opening World Cup game. Photo: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Messi (C) feels the squeeze from Birkir Bjarnason and Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason as Iceland belied their status in the game to frustrate Argentina in their opening World Cup game. Photo: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

A memorable major tournament debut at a European Championships is followed by the excitement of a World Cup just two years later. It starts with a 1-1 draw that provides a reminder of just how difficult they are to beat.

Sound familiar?

Iceland are enjoying their Italia '90 moment right now, and a positive result against Nigeria today will give them a serious opportunity to progress into the knockout stages.

It's a tremendous story that is asking questions of every small nation watching from afar, including in Ireland where the call for a lowering of expectations tends to reference population and resources. And yet Iceland, with a population of just 335,000 people, are showing what can be done.

The tales are well-told at this stage, but the romance lingers. The manager Heimir Hallgrimsson is a part-time dentist, and the goalkeeper who saved Lionel Messi's penalty - Hannes Halldorsson - is also a film director.

Before each home match, Hallgrimsson meets a fans group in a pub and gives them the tactics and the line-up, sometimes before the players have found out. Strict rules that prevent recordings and leaks have been respected. Try selling that to Martin O'Neill.

Troy Parrott scores for Ireland in the penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands at the UEFA U17 Championship, where Colin O'Brien's team impressed in their run to the quarter-finals. Photo: Malcolm Couzens/Sportsfile
Troy Parrott scores for Ireland in the penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands at the UEFA U17 Championship, where Colin O'Brien's team impressed in their run to the quarter-finals. Photo: Malcolm Couzens/Sportsfile

Pressures

Some comparisons just do not work when asking if there is anything that Ireland can learn from Iceland. It must also be acknowledged that success will eventually bring new pressures and a higher bar for measuring success; there's nothing quite like the novelty of the first time. The response to their next bad campaign will be illuminating.

In saying that, it would appear that the Icelandic FA are in control of their own destiny and that should be the takeaway from their story .

We have our own memories of Euro '88 and Italia '90 but the wider world would have interpreted it in different ways. The football was difficult to watch (Iceland aren't exactly easy on the eye either)and the use of the granny rule certainly strengthened what was already a very good generation of players.

Throw in the optics of an imported manager, and there was a sense that the Irish had reached the summit with a considerable helping hand from outside forces.

Iceland's rise to prominence might have been accelerated by experienced Swedish coach Lars Lagerback who departed after Euro 2016, but they have developed their own players. Twenty-two of their 23-man squad for Russia were born in Iceland. They have experience of coming through the ranks together.

Ireland's Euro 2016 stars were St Kevin's Boys alumni Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, a rise that grabbed attention because it's so rare for two players here to start together and make it all the way up the ladder. But in Iceland, it's the norm.

For example, key men Gylfi Sigurdsson, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogason were team-mates from childhood.

The striking aspect of the player profiles is that pretty much all of the group were capped at U-17, U-19 and U-21 level before ascending to the senior level. Ireland's profile is unstructured.

It's a combination of late developers who weren't deemed good enough when they were kids, or recruits that played underage for the countries where they grew up. Ireland's group might have an excellent team spirit, but it's clear that a well-drilled Icelandic side have a football understanding that comes with the fact that their respective journeys have all essentially overlapped.

Yes, there's an isolation about Iceland that essentially gave them no other option, yet it should provide food for thought.

Colin O'Brien's U-17 side impressed in May's Euros, yet the acid test is what happens over the next couple of years. It's natural that some players will press on and some will be left behind, but recent form would suggest that an obstacle when they move through the grades will be the amount of overseas recruits that will be dropped in as part of a scattergun policy to ensure every eligible player with ability is invited inside the tent.

This is particularly evident at U-21 level, where home-grown players are in the minority. In the search to ensure Ireland don't miss out on the next Declan Rice, average players are getting opportunities. It's a challenging balancing act; recruiting players of Irish descent will always be a part of our football identity, but it can stunt progress.

The FAI are trying to shake things up at underage level, but their method of doing so has been questioned. Handing power over to League of Ireland clubs has upset the schoolboy nurseries who have specialised in this area but also need to fund themselves by successfully exporting talent.

Ultimately, the situation is a product of historical mistakes and failings and the fact we have too many clubs, all of whom are seeking to protect their own patch, which makes evolution hard.

The bottom line aim should be to have the best coaches working with the best players but that will take some time.

Iceland's football family is far more harmonious. The association dished out 25pc of their Euro 2016 rewards to the country's senior clubs in order to fund their ongoing development.

The FAI would never do that because it would put other noses out of joint and, besides, they need a good portion of the cash generated by the international team to pay stadium debt. In the aftermath of the Euros, the Icelandic hierarchy also admitted they had waived affiliation fees in their domestic league and even helped to foot the bill for match officials. Abbotstown simply could not afford such generosity.

Iceland may never host a Europa League final or a portion of a European Championships or attract glamour friendlies between Arsenal and Chelsea, but that has never been their ambition either.

They quite literally built from the bottom up. A major starting point in their rise to the top was encouraging clubs to develop their own indoor football facilities, and partnership with local authorities helped to get this done. One-hundred-and-fifty-four mini-pitches with under-soil heating facilitate year-round work.

Training coaches was also a major priority; a UEFA 'B' Licence is required to coach from U-10 level. Two years ago, they had the same number of 'B' Licence coaches as Ireland despite the substantial disparity in population.

In these parts, the cost of going through the badges is offputting, especially with the shortage of full-time work to justify it. Iceland have managed to create an industry of sorts and it's that application of standards which is steadily lifting the levels.

Snapped

The best players still go overseas, and some Icelandic stars are now being snapped up in their mid-teens, yet the vast majority leave a little later after taking their formative steps in their local league. That's the way Ireland needs to go too and there is an increasing recognition that outsourcing elite player development to England is a flawed policy.

Entrusting the SSE Airtricity League with youth development will only work if they are prepared to hire the best coaches at all levels.

There is method behind Iceland's success and they are reaping the rewards for laying steady appointments.

While Ireland gamble on marquee appointments that are removed from the realities of the game here - it's not a part of their remit - Iceland have coherently plotted a route to the biggest stage.

Good luck to them.

Irish Independent

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