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The 2019 League of Ireland season is up and running. After an off-season that seemed to last an age, the wait is finally over. The build-up has had all the usual components you would expect, hope, optimism and the opposite when asked about rivals.
The most high profile close season story saw Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny taking the Ireland U21 job ahead of stepping up to the senior role in 2022 after Mick McCarthy – a massive achievement.
We have seen some big names return to the league notably Chris Forrester to St Pats. There have been other new arrivals in the shape of Sean Murray and Jordan Flores at Dundalk and Jack Byrne at Shamrock Rovers who comes with a lot of hype. And it’s another story involving Rovers that could prove to be very significant in time.
In October, Shamrock Rovers announced on their website that one of their players was involved in what they described as “the biggest transfer by an Irish club in the professional era”. Gavin Bazunu the Hoops goalkeeper is joining Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City for a fee believed to be around €500,000.
Depending where you look, this is ranked third in terms of the largest transfer fees received by Irish clubs coming behind James McClean’s move from Derry City to Sunderland for €750k and Eamon Zayed’s record-breaking switch to Iranian club Persepolis for €1 million.
— Shamrock Rovers FC ?? (@ShamrockRovers) February 8, 2019
Over the last 15 years there has been an increase in profile of players leaving the League of Ireland for pastures new, some for a fee but, because of the commonality of 1 year-contracts, most depart without one. While it’s true that Bazunu’s transfer is not the biggest in absolute terms – at least not the base fee – lucrative add-ons are very likely to be part of the deal which you’d assume is what the Rovers’ statement referred to.
This transfer could prove to be a watershed moment in Irish football. Bazunu, while highly rated, is only 16-years-old and has played just a handful of first team league games. He is the first graduate to progress from Shamrocks Rovers recently established academy into the first team and then be sold for a fee. In early February news broke that Bazunu’s teammate Aaron Bolger, another product of Rovers’ academy, had joined Cardiff City on loan.
It’s not uncommon for big clubs such as Manchester City to spend that type of money on promising academy players but up until now Irish clubs have not been getting their fair share of the pie. The regular pathway for young Irish teenagers was to play for one of the top schoolboy outfits, get noticed, sign for a club in the UK at 16 and move over.
It’s how Irish greats such as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and even as far back as John Giles and Liam Brady developed. Even current internationals Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick played for the same schoolboy team in St Kevins Boys in Dublin.
While it’s true that schoolboy clubs around the country do amazing work coaching young players, for the most part on voluntary terms, there is a distinct lack of structure in the system as a whole. The absence of a League of Ireland academy system until very recently has stunted our improvement on a macro level.
On the pitch the lack of a clear pathway from 16 upwards has no doubt affected previous generation’s progression but the problems run deeper than that.
For too long our most prized assets have left for below their market value. There are UEFA rules in place with regards to compensation. If a club has a player from U12s through to U16s they are entitled to €80,000 in compensation and the same amount is split evenly if the player has played for more than one club in that time. As a law it sounds very reasonable however proper implementation of it proves difficult.
There are numerous stories over the years of British clubs not being too keen on paying compensation, putting pressure on the Irish club to accept a lower offer or sometimes nothing at all. After all who would want to be the club that stood in the way of a young kid dreams?
In recent times there have been documented examples of schoolboy clubs standing firm and not allowing a player to leave without the relevant compensation being paid. In such cases, nobody is a winner.
Each party will say they’re looking after their own interest but the lack of a clear pathway to professional football here leaves Irish players and clubs vulnerable. Schoolboy clubs have no bargaining power.
Ten years ago Gavin Bazunu would have likely left for, at best, the compensation that he was legally worth. Now because of the introduction of academies linked to League of Ireland clubs, exceptional talents are able to play professional first team football, be under contract, or at least have the potential for one.
Last season Rovers had major issues with both first team goalkeepers struggling for form. Manager Stephen Bradley opted to give Bazunu his debut and his run in the team coincided with an upturn in fortunes. Although he only made six appearances he managed to keep four clean sheets along with a brilliant penalty save away to then champions Cork City and two good performances in the Europa League against AIK.
The bigger platform meant Rovers were able to command a larger fee. Despite the silly amount of money in football being spent on transfers, it would be ridiculous to think a club would spend €500,000 on a 16-year-old playing for an amateur team, albeit a prestigious one. However, they will consider spending that money on one that has Europa League experience. To put the fee into context, Shamrock Rovers also sold their star player 25-year-old Graham Burke to Preston North End for €350,000 last year. The money is in youth.
Old traditions tend to die hard and as someone who was fortunate enough to play for a good schoolboy club in Dublin and who had teammates sign professional terms with clubs across the water it would be easy to have a rose tinted view on it but for too long it has hampered football in this country. It is worth noting that Bazunu is an exceptional talent and he may have ended up at a top club either way but now Shamrock Rovers can be properly compensated and the money can be reinvested in the future of the club.
It might not be the most talked about story in League of Ireland or Irish football circles but it could turn out to be one of the most important. Bazunu’s story highlights the blueprint of successful player development in Ireland, brought into sharp focus with Declan Rice’s decision to declare for England. There is a long way to go to get up to speed with the rest of Europe but this is a significant start. While those involved in schoolboys clubs may hope otherwise, this could be the transfer that has the biggest impact on Irish football structures.