Rob Lyons discusses the importance of a successful national league to improve Ireland’s international side. He argues that one must look at the domestic game first before following the tradition of looking to England for international stars.
A quick skim through the full Irish international squad sees many players that made their name in the League of Ireland before progressing to bigger leagues across Europe and eventually becoming capped at international level.
Considering there’s such a strong contingent of ex-League of Ireland stars now making up the Irish squad as well being an integral part to Martin O’Neill’s starting XI, the question is – has the standard of the league risen overall or does our national side not have the same quality as it had in years gone by?
The League of Ireland is by no means, nor will it ever be, comparable to the English Premier League and this article will not pertain to quantifying problems in Irish football. It is needed and pressure needs to be applied to change and progress but this article is just a simple question of whether the standard of Irish league football is catching up with the standard of international football or has the level and calibre of international football in Ireland been reduced.
This piece is not about what is wrong or right with the Irish game, nor is it about how fans treat the game domestically as regards supporting or following a team. This piece will discuss whether the domestic game has improved, or if the overall standard of Irish international football has hit a new low.
The most prominent player that comes to mind due to his club form is Seamus Coleman., arguably Ireland’s best player. Coleman came through the League of Ireland system with Sligo Rovers before earning a move to Everton.
There is no doubting that Coleman is a massive talent and he is now considered one of the best right backs in England. His ability to take on players and score goals has in some ways transformed how we imagine the modern full back to play, such is his attacking intensity.
However, Ireland’s most technically gifted player is James McCarthy. His capability to keep the ball in any situation makes him a menace to play against. His passing ability makes him unplayable at times.
The 23-year-old was not brought up through the League of Ireland. He was born in Scotland and learned his trade in the Scottish domestic league. A player of McCarthy’s ability is certainly deserving of a place in Ireland’s international side. It is hard to judge how much of a difference there would be if McCarthy had come up through the League of Ireland system. Would he have been spotted? Was his coaching better in Scotland?
It can be very simple for a player to fall through the gaps in Ireland with no proper national league at under age level, with the exception of the under 19 edition. The inclusion of Shamrock Rovers B to the First Division points to what is missing in Ireland; a properly structured reserve league and/or the inclusion of under 21 teams that can give younger players the chance to reach their full potential once they gravitate beyond youth and schoolboy football.
Brian Lenihan of Hull City is the most recent case of a player swapping the League of Ireland for the Premier League. It is yet to be seen how much of an impact Lenihan can make at Hull but if he is to get a cap in the future will it be because it is more ‘fashionable’ to give Lenihan a chance once he has left Irish shores or was he good enough all along?
The first argument is more probable but it of course is not just fashion, it is because he is training and playing with some of the best players in a division where some of the world’s best football teams are playing as well. However the issue becomes even more complex when one looks at the return of Keith Fahey to the League of Ireland with St. Pats.
Fahey’s form for Ireland was good, without being outstanding. Although his time for an Irish call up may be gone, it would have been interesting to see if Fahey would have made his way back into the international set up had he stayed in England.
To be fair to Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill, unlike Giovanni Trapattoni they acknowledge the existence of a League in Ireland where some of their best players have progressed from. This, if ever, is a sign that the international set up at least considers the league as a place to look to when considering options for the next squad.
It is ignorant to think that a player playing week in week out in the English Premier League should not start for Ireland but it is also ignorant to think that a League of Ireland player may not be better than a Championship player or up until last week a League One player, i.e. Kevin Doyle. Despite his loan spell at QPR last year, Doyler was officially a Wolverhampton Wanderers player.
A sudden change in standard of league does not facilitate a sudden grasp of international football and vice versa. A better league playing with better players over a sustained period of time produces a better player; usually.
Despite the likes of Joe Gamble, Glenn Crowe and Jason Byrne being part of a batch of League of Ireland players to make it into the Irish set up, it is unlikely to happen again anytime soon.
Players like Shane Long and David Meyler, who both played a part in Ireland’s opening Euro 2016 qualifying win over Georgia, would have been on the fringes at Cork City at the time Gamble and co. made it into the team. However, the league is always going to have to sell to its biggest neighbours.
If Long and Meyler had decided to stay in the league however the chances are they would have been overlooked. They left because the opportunity to play in the Premier League is one so many dream of but very few fulfil.
Some of the greats of Irish football have developed through academies and clubs in other countries. The prime example is Robbie Keane, the highest scoring international player currently playing the game today. He moved from Crumlin to Wolverhampton Wanderers at 15 years of age and learning his trade around professionals has surely enhanced his game for the better.
He has played through so many eras. The 34-year-old was part of the 2002 World Cup squad who were unlucky not to progress to the quarter finals. He was also part of the Euro 2012 side who had a very poor tournament, to put it mildly. This was clearly down to a lower calibre of player.
However, the strength of the team currently doesn’t necessarily come from one league or another, it needs to be a combination of both as the League of Ireland will never produce enough internationals on its own. A country does not breed success without a successful domestic league though; a league with players from the national side playing in it. So where do we look to for inspiration? The obvious countries are Germany and Spain. A successful national league and a successful national team.
People can laugh at comparing Ireland to these countries but Ireland must strive to reach these standards if it is ever to improve domestic and international football. The league produces great players every year that can play a part in the development of the Irish team. To focus solely on one side would be ignorant on the sporting public’s part, the FAI’s part and the Irish management’s part.
A cohesive system where all parties work together to get the best for the country and the players is crucial. A snobbery and lack of respect for the League of Ireland as well as too much respect for players languishing in the lower leagues of England should not be tolerated.
Players should be chosen on ability to perform under pressure for their country alone. That is progress and that will make an even playing field for players who are good enough to represent their country whether they play for Dundalk, Doncaster Rovers, Sligo or Swansea City.
It may be radical but is it as radical as throwing a player into the national team after just a brief stint at a bigger club?
So, to answer my question at the start, this writer believes the standard of player Ireland is producing is not as good as it was ten years ago. Therefore the Irish national side is worse as a result. However, the only way Ireland will improve as a national team is to improve its domestic league.
It benefits not only the professional game in Ireland but it gives our national side the option of improving home grown players’ ability so that they can have the chance to progress to a higher standard if they wish.
If we sow the seeds of a quality domestic league, the country will reap the benefits internationally for many years to come.
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena.