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Brexit-Ball: The Saints Go Marching On

The Saints Go Marching On.

Since the revamp of the underage National League structure in the mid-2010s, St Patrick’s Athletic have become serial winners at those grades.

They have won two Under-19 league titles, one Under-17 league and cup, two Under-15s league and cups and one Under-13s league and cup double over the last six years or so.

But plans are now in place to bring their academy to a new level, with the club looking to make the most of the transfer regulations preventing young Irish footballers joining English clubs at aged 16 and 17.

Previously, clubs like St Patrick’s Athletic would receive small fees for players going over to the UK at 16 and 17.

As a result of Brexit, however, those players who would have traditionally left at 16 will now be forced to stay home until they turn 18. This may create an opening for League of Ireland clubs – like St Pat’s – to maximise fees from player sales.

Running clubs like businesses.

“Football clubs are businesses, and we have been so far behind on this in this country on that,” St Patrick’s Athletic Director of Football Ger O’Brien said.

“People become sheepish when money is mentioned, but clubs have to think like businesses. Players, unfortunately, are commodities, and we’ve got to look at our best potential players to sell.

“We’ve always wondered why Scandinavian clubs have been able to make money off players. But that’s because they have turned their clubs into business models. We have a product, but we don’t sell it well enough.

St patrick's athletic

“In the business model [pre-Brexit], we would be getting 25 or 30 grand for some players at 16. However, should he get many senior games by the time he is 20, you’ll be looking at [receiving] 250k or 500k for a player. That’s where the business model has to come in.”

Since his appointment in November 2016, O’Brien has overseen a move towards improving the club’s underage set-up at Richmond Park. While trophies are not the barometer of success in youth development, other aspects have highlighted the club’s improvement off the pitch.

Partnerships.

Pat’s are unable to tap into their own schoolboy section, as they don’t have one. As a result, the club has linked up with a number of schoolboy clubs to populate their academy sides.

“It’s difficult when you look at clubs [like Shelbourne or Shamrock Rovers] being able to dip into a schoolboy section, we can’t. So, as a result, it’s about creating relationships and finding out what players you have in those pre-puberty years.

“That hasn’t stopped us in our recruitment, and we’ve done exceptionally well in that over the last few years.

St patrick's athletic

“That’s because we’ve been able to sell a product, and it has worked well so far in terms of promoting players and selling players. There’s plenty of ways that you can measure success. The players will want to win, and it’s important that we create that culture at Pat’s to be the best.

“But we have to give them a grounding because not all the players we have will have the chance to play at Pat’s and we should look to giving them the best possible chance wherever they go.”

St Patrick’s Athletic leading the fight for change.

There has always been calls made to push on and improve the underage National League structures added in the early-2010s. There are Under-19, Under-17, Under-15, and Under-14 leagues in place but there are no leagues in those gap years present.

As a result, it is often the case that players at under-15s are released from clubs once they were no longer eligible to play at Under-15s as Under-17 football was considered a step up they could not make.

It was a similar tale from the former Under-13 league that fed into an Under-15 league, however, due to the Covid-19 shutdown last season, the Under-13 league switched to an Under-14 division, and this may remain that way going forward.

“The gap years has been such a hot topic,” O’Brien explains. “For me, I don’t think the gap from Under-15s to Under-17s is that big of jump [for the player] if you recruit correctly.

“This is development football, so if a kid is a bit smaller and you think there’s a pathway for him, then keep him. League of Ireland clubs should commit to signing players on two-year deals to stop this because you have to work with the player.

St patrick's athletic

“When you have a player – our job as coaches is to nurture that [talent] as best as you possibly can. I don’t think this should be as big a deal as it should be, and I’ve been helping other academy heads with this. It only hits home when they end up losing heavily but that shouldn’t matter.”

The FAI have been criticised before, but they have made recent moves to help clubs, with Will Clarke joining their ranks as League of Ireland Academy Manager. Clarke’s role will see him liaise with clubs on a regular basis and provide them with a point of contact to the FAI.

“I think that it is going to take time for Will to get his feet under the table,” 36-year-old O’Brien said. “Without being disrespectful, the FAI didn’t take the League of Ireland as seriously as they should have before. So, you can only imagine the way they have looked at the academies.

“With Brexit, the onus is on them to do what the clubs in England were doing. The clubs in the UK were doing their job for them, and they were probably thinking before that clubs in the UK would look after them when they turned 16 but now, those players are losing two years in development.”

Building structures.

But the Saints have already made moves to push their best young talent up the ranks further and quicker. Teenagers Ben McCormack and Darragh Burns are now regular fixtures in their first-team squad as the Richmond Park outfit put together a title charge of sorts this season.

And that potential which is starting to emerge from the club’s academy excites first-team manager Alan Mathews.

“It’s a great sign, and that’s a testament to the good work going on behind the scenes at the academy with Ger O’Brien and the coaches that are producing players,” Mathews said.

“That pathway has gone a little bit askew with kids not going [to the UK] as young as they used to. But you have to provide the kids with the proper facilities and coaches and then you have to give them a pathway into your senior setup.

St patrick's athletic

“The club has done that over the last couple of years. If the club is getting players through into the first-team on an ongoing basis and the players stay at home and complete their education, it shows that your football won’t suffer. It could move us on to a bigger and better league later on.

“It’s something that the club fully supports and embraces, and we will try and continue with that. But I think with the right facilities and coaching, there’s no reason why they can’t progress as well as they can here.”

Troubling times.

In terms of the League of Ireland, for clubs like Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic, the idea of holding onto their best players for longer is something that excites them.

But in terms of the international setup that the Irish footballing public focuses heavily on, this may prove troublesome as Director of Football O’Brien explains.

“For the League of Ireland, I think the rules around Brexit are good. But for the FAI and the international side, I think we’re in big trouble, and I don’t think the powers realise that yet.

“We don’t have the adequate facilities and coaches needed to replicate what players get when they go off to the UK at 16.”

He added: “This needs government and FAI funding, but the FAI are on their knees. We need a proper league and set up for kids to come through. Then, in turn, we can get more fees for players, which will go back into the league to improve it again.

“We’re one of the only countries in Europe that have zero full-time coaches on average in the academies. I’m full-time, but when you average it out, we have zero.

“Us, Andorra, Luxembourg and Andorra are the only countries in Europe with zero full-time coaches at academies. For a country, the size of us, that is embarrassing.”

Despite assurances from the FAI that they ‘are committed to ongoing discussion and review’ regarding player development pathways, St Patrick’s Athletic confirmed they are willing to continue their own plans to improve their academy structure.

“We need to keep pushing ourselves,” O’Brien concludes. “We’ve been in contact with the likes of Setanta College and clubs from the UK. We’ve also changed the identity of the academy. There have been discussions with clubs on the continent as well.

“We’d be foolish not to listen to them because these are well-established clubs. It’s important to have a dialogue with them, so even if nothing comes of it, we’re still creating that relationship with them.”

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