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Genes, Pitches & Models: An Anecdotal Look at Grassroots Football

2004. Sometime in late August. Carriganard, Waterford.

One of the biggest moments in a young Irish boy’s life is his schoolboy league debut. I’m ten years old, short and retaining some baby flab. I stepped onto Southend United’s pitch in Waterford and took my place at right back as my team, Tramore AFC, ran out 3-0 victors in the Waterford Schoolboys Football League Under-11D season curtain-raiser. 

Very little of that game is available to me in my memory. I can recall the pride and sense of accomplishment as I sat in the car on the way home after my winning start. Some of the lads in my class in school had been playing on the team the previous year but I was made to wait which probably contributed to how special the moment was for me.

When I think back now, I imagine it would have been quite a strange game to watch for a foreign audience. Why are 22 ten-year olds running around on a full-length football pitch with full-sized goalposts?

It’s bizarre when you think about it. Players with any kind of outstanding physical anomaly – such as searing pace, for example – naturally dominate with so much space to exploit. Team-mates and coaches recognise this: the quick players are played in attacking positions and are subjected to chasing long balls from deep; it’s the quickest route to goal. And when league titles and cups are at stake, goals matter – try telling my 13-year old self that losing our 2007 cup final meant nothing.

At this summer’s World Cup, nations such as Belgium, Russia and Colombia are appearing after absences similar in length to our own. In 2002, Mick McCarthy’s original squad included Manchester United’s Roy Keane, Steve Finnan who joined Liverpool the following summer, Shay Given of Champions League Newcastle and the Leeds United trio of Ian Harte, Robbie Keane and Gary Kelly, fresh from a UEFA Cup campaign with that culminated in defeat to PSV Eindhoven.

Fast forward 12 years to Martin O’Neill’s latest Ireland roster: less than half (14) of the 29 players named played for a Premier League club in 2013/14 and that list includes Rob Elliott and Shane Duffy who amassed two appearances between them.

2006. 18th February. Sallynoggin.

Our team was doing pretty well in the SFAI Cup at under-12 level. We travelled to far-flung places such as Borris-in-Ossory and Mungret on our way to the last sixteen (could’ve been last 32 – time clouds your memory of these things) where we faced St Joseph’s Boys in Sallynoggin, Dublin. I had to sit the game out through an illness that had also claimed a few of my teammates. The fact that we were a bit under-strength didn’t help on the day but that Joey’s team were awesome. They went 3-0 up inside seven or eight minutes and it was 9-0 by the time the referee had ended proceedings not long after half-time. One particular goal sticks with me – they cut a corner back to the edge of the box and a lad smacked it straight into the top corner on the volley.

That team were unlike anything else I ever came across in underage football. It’s unclear where those players are now but to emulate the careers of those that played for St Joseph’s before them would be to become the next Andy Keogh or Paul McShane – men who have made a living in the industry but are hardly what young footballers aspire to.

Why have things taken a turn for the worse?

We live in a football environment where people (particularly the English press that dominates our consumption) are obsessed with “models” – those of Germany, France and Spain, for example. Most recently, with Belgian players earning big-money moves to major European leagues, attention turned to what was being done in Belgium over the last few years that has resulted in the emergence of Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku. The answer?

Sometimes, a crop of players just comes from nowhere. Maybe one such generation is just around the corner for Ireland.

Let’s put a few things straight.

The Republic of Ireland is quite a small country with a population of less than five million people and is part of the island of Ireland, the 20th largest in the world. It’s natural that a country which punches above its weight in other sports such as rugby, golf and boxing should have an average international football record. That said, this country isn’t helping itself in terms of player development.

Who can we compare ourselves to? Of the countries that qualified for the World Cup, four have similar/smaller populations: Costa Rica (who drew 1-1 with Ireland last week), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Uruguay. These four nations can boast the talents of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Edinson Cavani, Edin Dzeko, Keylor Navas and Luis Suárez amongst their ranks and all suffer from a problem that also afflicts the Irish game – the lack of a noteable domestic league (though Uruguay’s biggest clubs Penarol and Nacional had frequent success in South America at either end of the 1980s and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb have reached the Champions League group stage in two of the last three seasons).

In all four, football is the national sport.

Eoin Carrigan recently attributed a lack of a “golden generation” to the influx of middle-class children to rugby-oriented private schools during the economic boom and it’s certain that the equality afforded to football, rugby and gaelic games throughout the country contributes to a rough spread of sporting talent.

Alas, can we really be compared to these countries? The fact that Ireland is surrounded by water puts us at something of a disadvantage when compared to Croatia, for example, which borders Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Being connected to mainland Europe gives leads to players like Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic – born in Austria and Switzerland respectively – becoming eligible for national team selection, allowing for a greater blend in both the footballing background and genetic talent available to coach Niko Kovac. Croatia’s superior domestic league to our own also gives Kovac the opportunity to select naturalized Brazilians Eduardo da Silva and Sammir.

Very few foreign players of any great repute come to ply their trade in the Airtricity League so naturalizing Brazilians seems to be an unlikely route to opt for. What are the other options?

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene investigates the nature versus nurture argument in great detail and sets out to expose flaws in the 10,000-hours rule. In the book, Epstein reveals why Jamaica produces so many sprinters, why Kenyans are so adept a marathon running and intriguingly looks into the gene pool in various countries in different continents across the world.

In one segment of the book, the writer investigates the correlations that occur between race and genetic diversity and the work of Kenneth Kidd, who discovered that the greatest genetic variations exist in Africa. He concluded that “one African man’s genome potentially contains more differences from his black African neighbour’s than does Jeremy Lin’s (an LA-born basketballer of Asian descent) genome from Lionel Messi’s”. Essentially, if you compared the genome (the ‘instructions’ that tell your body how to make and reproduce your cells) from, say, Glenn Whelan to that of Yaya Touré and then compared Touré’s to Didier Drogba’s, the chances are that there would be greater variation between the two Ivorian stars than there would between the two men of different race.

One of Ireland’s greatest-ever footballers came from an African background: Paul McGrath. Perhaps his innate talent was due to his roots; when his genes were formed, there was a far greater pool available because of his Nigerian father. Another example is 53-cap Chris Hughton of Ghanaian descent.

It’s not an exact science, but it’s an interesting argument. Although the Irish football team has utilised the ‘granny rule’ over the years to use players born in the United Kingdom, our footballing genetic diversity generally ends there (if it exists at all). Of O’Neill’s most recent squad, seven were born in England, two in Northern Ireland and one in Scotland. Darren Randolph, Galway-born of an American immigrant father, is the only mixed-race player currently in contention.

Glancing through the current squads of the Irish under-21s, under-19s and under-17s, racial diversity is more apparent with young defender Noe Baba, originally from Cameroon, a member of the Fulham side that finished runners-up in the FA Youth Cup final this year.

Over the coming years, we may see more players of African heritage burst onto the Irish footballing scene. I certainly saw it in my own schoolboy days – the number of black players seemed to increase as you went back through the age groups from my own.

That said, the most recent statistics suggest that only 8.3% of those who seek asylum in Ireland are granted refugee status, the fourth lowest in Europe and paltry when compared to the UK’s 39% (though refugeeism is just one manner by which people of different race come to Ireland).

Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax assistant manager, discussed player development in typically eloquent style in his book with David Winner and Jaap Wisser, Stillness and Speed. The ex-Arsenal man delves into the advancements in youth coaching since his time on the non-playing staff at the Amsterdam club which had gone stale since their Champions League win in 1995.

“The only team that needs to win trophies is the first team. The youth teams don’t need to win, they just need to make their players better. So what does the individual need at a certain age? Should you talk tactics to a player before the age of fourteen? At that age it goes in one ear and out the other. It really doesn’t mean anything. So we start with that now after fourteen. Before fourteen, it’s just playful skills and everything.”

Dennis Bergkamp – Stillness and Speed (“The Future of the Future” – p. 263-264)

2014. June. Tramore, Co. Waterford.

I was fortunate that my local club was well-equipped (to the extent that Tramore AFC was named the AVIVA Club of the Year in 2011 in my final schoolboy year) and we trained on an astroturf pitch that I’d estimate is two-thirds the size of the main pitches. During my time as a schoolboy footballer, I worked with some good coaches who conducted progressive training sessions to improve our technical ability and encourage a short-passing game where everyone was comfortable on the ball.

It’s a struggle to recall games (and I played in around 100) where we showcased this.

Coming off the back of an enjoyable possession-based training session on the Tuesday and Wednesday, our manager would tell us to go out and do the same at the weekend but it rarely materialized and opposition teams were no better. I often played in midfield and would spend long periods of games (particularly those on poor surfaces) watching the ball fly over my head as both teams looked to exploit the large spaces available behind defences that were borne out of pitches being too big and stakes being too high.

On the FAI’s website, they describe their “Player Pathway” programme, a development plan of six stages created in 2009. It cites phase three, The Training to Train phase, as the introduction of 11v11 games with the idea, amongst other things, to “use space/run into space effectively” and “implement concepts of width and depth”. To begin at age 12 for boys and 11 for girls.

Are Irish teams renowned for their ability to use space effectively? Playing on full-sized pitches from a young age supposedly exposes players to the tactical side of the game whilst instilling competitiveness in them during their formative years but have we seen any evidence of Ireland being more tactically flexible than some of the world’s other football teams?

“The fastest-growing kid grows 2.5cm in the three or four months between leaving mini-soccer at under 10s and starting 11v11. In that time, we increase the size of the goal by 265% and the size of the pitch by 435%.“

Nick Levett (the English FA’s National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-Soccer) on the transition to full-sized pitches

To return to talk of “models”, it’s interesting how things have come full circle. The great Barcelona team of recent years was largely made up of graduates for their La Masia academy where players focus on a particular style of play from the bottom up, one implemented by Johan Cruyff initially at the top end of the hierarchy. The same Cruyff who is Ajax’s most famous and influential son. While Barca were thriving using their take on the Ajax model, the Dutch side were revelling in former glories with no notable academy graduates since Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart who broke through circa 2003. This prompted an ultimately successful revolution, led by Cruyff with Bergkamp and other former players in tow, to overthrow the regime in place with new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal as chief executive and enforce a new Ajax model with more emphasis on “developing extraordinary individuals”.

The Sports Gene concludes that in the nature versus nurture argument there is no real winner and that a combination of both generally produces the best athletes. This idea is supplemented by Guillem Balague’s book Messi, which goes into great detail about the Argentinian’s early life and describes his ability that was evident even when a ball was too big for him to dribble before listing the eleven qualities that set him aside as the greatest footballer of a generation: a supportive family, motivation, focus and sacrifice amongst others.

If Ireland are to produce better footballers, at least one of two things must change; either changes are made to the schoolboy/girl game to improve players’ nurture or the nature of our footballers is altered by an influx of new genes from people from other cultures.

A third scenario is also possible – the Belgium scenario whereby an exceptionally talented crop of players randomly appear. Even in Spain, where football has undergone a brilliant transformation, people recognise that Tiki-taka as we know it may never have become the phenomenon it did had a player of the quality of Xavi Hernández not appeared on the scene. The same is true in Holland: without Johan Cruyff there would be no totaalvoetbal and Ajax would not be the famed institution it became.

We can sit and wait for our Xavi, our Cruyff, or our Hazard to appear in a French academy at the same time that our Vertonghen is breaking through at Ajax. But who knows how long that will take?

David Kennedy, Pundit Arena 

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.