Darragh Culhane argues that we need to get our young footballing stars of the future back out on the street to create another generation of iconic Irish sporting heroes.
Who was the last great footballer to play for Ireland? The current squad has a number of talents. Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan are the first names to spring to mind.
The legends of Irish football, though, were the likes of Roy and Robbie Keane, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Damien Duff to name but a few. These were players who played for top clubs and did so with that little bit of something about them.
In Roy Keane’s case a tenacity that can’t be taught or in Duff’s case a high level of dribbling skill and all round footwork, that also cannot be taught, but their traits were picked up somewhere along the way – and that was on the streets as kids.
In an interview with Ken Early in the Second Captains Sports Annual Vol. 1, Duff credits his slick footwork to street football.
“All I did was literally play football on the street every minute of the day. I keep hearing about coaches, but for me it’s about learning on the street, and loving it.”
It is old school but it worked for Duff, and the haunting thought is that he could very well be Ireland’s last truly great winger.
“I’ve done an awful lot of rehab recently on pitches down at Leicester [Celtic] and Marlay Park and you just don’t see kids out playing football.
“It’s obviously different nowadays, mas and das don’t let them out on the street.”
Is his point about parents keeping kids shackled in the confines of the household the real root of the problem? Are parents not letting their kids play on the street anymore?
The simple answer is yes, and a varying number of factors contribute to why we are seeing fewer kids on our streets.
In 2015, Justine Roberts, CEO of the UK’s most popular parenting website Mumsnet, told Channel 4 News
“Truth is, the biggest fear on Mumsnet is about road accidents, and that’s an understandable concern.”
Understandable indeed, there are more cars on our roads than ever before and the thought of your child being hurt is unbearable. But how justifiable is the fear?
In 2016, there were a total of 35 pedestrian fatalities in Ireland, according to the Road Safety Authority, yet the age group at the highest risk wasn’t children aged 15 or under, it was those aged 66 or over who accounted for 37 per cent of fatalities.
But perhaps the concern is not totally unjustifiable. In a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, they found that an estimated nine per cent of children 10 to 14 years old were injured pedestrians – the highest among all age categories.
Yet, that problem does not seem to translate over to this side of the Atlantic Ocean. According to Channel 4, an opinion poll revealed that there was a lot more than traffic stopping parents letting their kids run wild on the street.
An exaggerated sense of ‘stranger danger’ was one reason, fear that neighbours would judge them letting their kids play unsupervised was another and kids causing a ruckus and upsetting neighbours was a concern among over a third of parents polled.
“There is a pernicious and completely wrong assumption these days that any time a child is not directly supervised by an adult, the child is automatically in danger,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids when speaking to The Guardian.
And it’s not just football that is suffering, the problem has been raised in Canada concerning the popular, or rather the no longer popular, street hockey.
Signs plastered on lamp posts in Toronto read: ‘Ball and hockey playing prohibited’, and it’s not just for show with a father being fined for playing hockey in the street with his son back in 2010 and a group of kids in Hamilton being charges for illegally playing sports in the road, as noted by Colin Horgan of The Guardian:
“Street hockey – unsupervised, improvised, free of adults – offers children something that almost nothing else does: ownership of space in the city.
“Road sports are the de facto public space for under 18s. It is space that is, however briefly, controlled by children, and in which the rules are created and enforced by children.”
And the same principle applies to football in Ireland and the UK, but as Duff alluded to, coaching isn’t everything and you can’t teach most of the skill set in what it takes to become a top drawer sportsperson.
And organised sport just isn’t as enjoyable as a kickaround out front with your friends. A training session with the local soccer club is the sports version of school, and football tennis or 5-a-side is the after school and weekend antics that kids look forward to. No coach or teacher barking at you and an opportunity to express yourself on the ball.
The generation at hand are not without blame though, as Duff says:
“At [Shamrock] Rovers, I’m coaching the U-15 lads, and it’s like ‘What ya do last night?’ Instead of playing football they’re playing each other in FIFA.
“I’m trying to tell them, you’re not gonna get good at dribbling or scoring goals or kicking with your left and your right if you’re playing FIFA. It’s ridiculous.”
Social media and video games seem to have provided a more attractive option than going back to the streets. Instead of running home from school to kick a ball about, kids are now racing to their game consoles.
There is hope though, and that hope lies within the country’s love of football. Euro 2016 proved that Ireland’s appetite for it still remains. Over 1.2 million viewers tuned in for Ireland’s crunch last 16 tie against France during the summer of 2016, a figure which trumped that of the rugby team in the World Cup a year prior.
A step backwards may just be a step forward for Irish football, and Irish sport in general. Getting kids out of the house and back on the street could mean we see iconic Irish sporting moments for years to come.
Darragh Culhane, Pundit Arena
Read More About: canada, damien duff, English Football, Euro 2016, irish football, irish international football, justine robers, Ken Early, liam brady, mumsnet, paul mcgrath, robbie brady, robbie keane, roy keane, rsa, Shamrock Rovers, street football, street hockey, wes hoolahan