As another World Cup draws to its conclusion and with nations such as Costa Rica, Mexico and United States impressing, it is a fitting time to assess the state of Irish football.
It is twelve years since we have seen the Boys in Green compete at football’s biggest stage. While Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy are bright spots on the horizon, they seem to be the exception and Irish football is not in a good place at the moment.
The number of minutes that Irish players are playing in the Premier League and Championship is down, the number of minutes in the Scottish Premier League is up. Irish players are no longer competing at the highest level, and are dropping down to poorer quality leagues.
The number of Irish players getting Champions League football has gone from a handful to almost none, with just Anthony Stokes playing for Celtic in last year’s tournament.
Internationally Ireland are no longer competitive against the top nations in Europe and many of the second and third tier nations are ahead of us. Qualification for an expanded European Championships could prove difficult and it seems the days of Ireland entering a qualification campaign with genuine hopes of success are diminishing.
There are two clear issues we must combat in order to fully understand what is going wrong in Irish football.
The system seems to be failing at the moment. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has suggested that 16 years of age may be too late for Irish players to move to England. If one takes a look at the Barcelona model, there is a clear advantage.
Many of their players start with the club at eight or nine years of age. Barcelona encourage younger players to participate in other sports to develop motor skills, with many also training in judo and basketball.
Unless a player plays with one of the few Irish clubs that have UEFA qualified coaches, he will have missed eight years of professional training and coaching by the time he crosses the Irish Sea.
The growing trend in world football is to spot players at younger ages. Lionel Messi was brought over to Spain at 13 and now youngsters are joining academies at earlier stages. An example of this is seen when one look at the case of two Irish lads, John Joe Finn (8) and Zak Gilsenan (9). The young talents have joined set ups in Madrid and Barcelona respectively.
Of course moving at such a young age is a difficult experience and one that is undoubtedly not for all aspiring players. However, if Ireland wants to maximize the country’s chances of footballing success, it needs to start focusing on players at a younger age. The days of under twelves playing on a full size pitch should be a thing of the past.
Improve Standards Of League of Ireland
Many players over the years have played in the League of Ireland and moved to England to enjoy successful careers. This underlines the importance of our national league for the future of Irish football. There is a notion that players must go through an ‘apprenticeship’ in the League of Ireland before ultimately crossing the water.
Between 1998 and and 2010 the League of Ireland was the fastest growing league in UEFA’s coefficient table, however it has dropped again from 29th in 2010 to 43rd in 2014. This is a worrying regression, a lower UEFA coefficient makes progress in Europe much more difficult.
It is vital that League of Ireland players are exposed to European football as they are much more likely to secure a move to England with this experience. Shamrock Rovers defender Enda Stevens, for example, moved to Aston Villa at 21 after Rover’s relatively successful Europa League campaign.
With two avenues for player development; talented players moving abroad at a younger age and implementing proper structures in the domestic league, Ireland could be in a much better place in a few years.
Let’s hope, for the sake of our national team, that these avenues are examined and that Ireland will star to benefit from long-term planning. The country would love another experience like Italia ’90 or USA ’94.
Dan Dalton, Pundit Arena.