By Thomas Stafford.
In a year where the FAI and Irish football has made headlines on a constant basis, one significant development has taken place largely under the radar – the inaugural edition of the Under-13 League of Ireland.
For the first time ever, national league sides competed at an age group younger than that of the prestigious Under-14 Kennedy Cup. Still ongoing, the league has certainly been a bone of contention. The Under-15 League of Ireland, and now the Under-13 edition, have placed national sides right alongside Irish schoolboy football. Speaking to managers and coaches across the nation offers a clear insight into their lives at the heart of this transition.
From the off, it’s clear that there have undoubtedly been some positives. A lot of those involved make that immediately clear upon conversation. One such manager is Tiarnan Mulvenna, the former Dundalk striker now at the helm of the club’s Under-15 side. In his third season in charge of the club’s team, he is well-accustomed to the League of Ireland Under-15 setup.
“At least the FAI are trying, at least they’re giving the best young players the opportunity to play against each other,” he said.
“I know that I never had that opportunity as a kid. The quality, the difference in playing styles, is massively improved across the board. There are better coaches out there than ever before, more people are doing their badges than before. That’s coming across.”
Similarly, an unnamed U15 coach from the south of the country, who has been involved in the league since its inception in 2017, is well-placed to give a rounded view on the state-of-play.
“The standard of football is vastly improving and this is down to the coaching standard across the league. The league is attracting top young coaches who themselves are developing as a result. It’s great to see many clubs as a ‘social’ scene after games where they’ll both sit down and eat together. It’s nice for players to have that opportunity off the pitch to get to know each other.”
However, as thoughts turn to flaws within the league, negative anecdotes and feedback become commonplace. Mike Geoghegan is U13 manager at Waterford FC, a side that recently reached a shield semi-final against Finn Harps – a decider played six hours away in Donegal.
“A game like this should be played at a neutral ground,” he said.
“We played Shelbourne in the league, gave all 17 players 40 minutes and lost the game. We didn’t mind that, it’s the purpose of a development league, but then we finished second in our group because of that and faced a trip to Finn Harps instead of a home tie with Longford.
“The club asked to play the game in Athlone but they wouldn’t. I don’t blame Harps, the rule gives them home advantage. But if the FAI had originally stated to play that game in a neutral venue, neither team would be travelling the country. We have kids getting up at 6 am for an end of season Shield Cup competition in a development league. It’s something that needs to be worked out.”
The U15 coach from the south of Ireland rattles off a number of issues he has faced. “The league set-up is certainly not improving. It’s almost going backwards,” he said.
“Some weeks it feels like the people at the top are just making it up as they go. They add in cup competitions and tell clubs before their last game of the season that they won’t finish for another four weeks instead. That’s difficult for coaches who have plans in place. The league setup changes quite a bit each season, there’s no consistency. The issues that were there in year one are still here in Year three.”
He believes that the removal of linesmen at this national level of the game. As such a pivotal part of matches, their absence is being felt heavily.
“This has not only been commented on by almost every coach across the league but also by many referees themselves. U15 League of Ireland is played at a very high standard and referees being on their own can hugely impact the game.”
The Dublin-based U13 coach has also experienced problems with the overall set-up.
“The biggest issue with the structure is the gap between U13 and U15. The FAI recently announced that each U15 squad for next season must have nine players from 2006. This leaves nine players from this Under-13 season that are deemed ‘not strong enough’ to make the step up. Players will lose interest, lose confidence and possibly give up the sport completely.”
The same issue crops up for Geoghegan in Waterford.
“When we met players prior to the season, one of their main questions was about what happens when the season finishes. Where would they end up? Our sales pitch was that we could give them two years minimum in the academy. We thought we would have the freedom ourselves to work that out. We signed 19 players at the start of the season, 17 are still with us and they all want to stay. It would be devastating to lose any of them.”
Mulvenna too brings up a distinct lack of progress from the football hierarchy,
“To tell the truth, everything has stayed the same since the league first started. I don’t think the organisers listen enough to the people who are around it, the people who can improve it. Whatever the FAI decide is what’s done. That’s been the same from day one right up to now.
“In the FAI’s recent document they mentioned bringing squad sizes at this level down to 18. What we need is more players, maybe 23 or 24. The idea is more playing time for players but instead, they should be enforcing their own playing time rules. At the moment there’s no punishment in my view.”
Issues with the traditional schoolboy clubs and leagues were always likely to occur and that has certainly been the case for the Dublin-based coach, who says that “there is a certain element of Irish football who hate to see change.”
“There is still a reluctance to release players to join the League of Ireland,” the coach said. “Some coaches seem hell-bent on trying to hang onto their players rather than being happy for them to take the next step in their progression as young footballers.
“You look at the decision from the DDSL (Dublin & District Schoolboy League) to move back to school calendar football. We are now in a position whereby DDSL teams will start their season in September and will then begrudgingly lose some of their players to the National League in January/February. Some clubs will replace these lads but others will lose players to teams further up the ladder and have no-one to replace them.”
The coach from the southern region echoes these thoughts.
“Getting players in is a huge task. Clubs are up against the local Schoolboy leagues who, in the majority of cases, want nothing to do with League of Ireland and will go out of their way to stop transfers. Even if the player wants to sign for the club some Schoolboys’ leagues feel they need to make it awkward.
“I know of one case where an Under-14 player was joining a club and a league secretary instructed the player’s club not to release the player. I received phone calls from his mother about what was happening and how upset the player was as a result. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Speaking to the secretary of one of Dublin’s largest schoolboy clubs describes the scenario from the other side of the glass, and it doesn’t paint a better picture.
“Firstly, I’m largely supportive of the League of Ireland initiative, but it does have its flaws. It’s the first year of U13 League of Ireland football and I would worry that about 50 per cent of current squads will be dropped come Christmas. Some will come back to schoolboy clubs but rejection will mean that some are lost to the game.
“When the U15 League of Ireland started in 2017, our U15 team was top of their league. The team was completely ripped apart as League of Ireland clubs prepared for the new season and we lost the players. Whilst not a small club, we did not have the resources to completely replace the team so we were unable to complete the league. We have lost four U13 players to the 2020 League of Ireland season already. These lads are currently part of a development squad and will not play a competitive match now until March. Kids want to play competitive football matches.”
He also stated that several coaches in charge of the club’s Under-13s team resigned as “they had enough.”
“We will probably lose most of the remaining Under-13s in January and be unable to complete the season. Any lads that are not offered a place in a League of Ireland side will have no team. The non-concurring seasons are a nightmare. The League of Ireland needs to have the same season as the schoolboy leagues.
“I know a number of clubs that have lost quality coaches once they lose their players/teams to the League of Ireland. Some may go and take another team but many are just walking away. We have received no guidance on how to deal with these changes from the FAI. There doesn’t need to be a divide between the League of Ireland and traditional schoolboy teams. But no one seems to want to discuss workable solutions and that has to come from the FAI.”
Looking at suggestions and ideas for improvement, some promising ideas come forward from coaches at the forefront of the game, ideas that deserve discussion and consideration at the very least. An Under-13 coach from a club in the northern region believes that more involvement from those directly involved is necessary.
“I feel that as coaches in this underage league, our voices aren’t heard. The FAI are happy to make rules and decisions without acknowledging us. Personally I think an U14 league with a maximum of six players from the year below would make far more sense than an Under-13 league. And I work in this league every week. It’s vital to talk to those involved.”
A regional tournament has been suggested, while Dundalk’s Mulvenna is eager to solve the issue of not playing any football throughout the winter.
“The length of the off-season is far too long. We miss out on nearly half of our year. That’s something to be looked at. Small mini-leagues for pre-season would give more the players more game time. Weekend tournaments, futsal to improve technical skills in the winter. Anything to give the kids more football.”
“People think when you talk out about the league that you’re against it. I just think it can be improved. Simple things can be done to make it better for everyone. We can’t go back to the old way,” Waterford’s Under-13 Manager Mike Geoghegan said.
This is only a small sub-section of the dedicated people involved in youth football across the country. Positive results for Ireland’s Under-21 side may portray a soccer nation excelling in youth development. That is far from the truth and until those involved are considered and engaged with, that will never be the case.
For too long Ireland’s football system has been fragmented and disjointed. The building blocks are being put in place but unless due care is given to the stakeholders involved, we will be back to square one.