He’s played in the Premier League and in the League of Ireland at the height of the boom times. Spotted in a European tie, he went on to spend almost a decade on the continent where he experienced a new football philosophy. Now former Republic international Dominic Foley believes Ireland needs a culture change if we are to progress.
Foley is among a rare breed of Irish players to have carved out a living beyond the UK. He has played in Greece, Portugal and most famously in Belgium, after he was spotted starring for Bohemians in the Inter-Toto Cup.
The Corkman first made the breakthrough in England at Wolves, going on to win promotion to the Premier League with Watford and earning a call-up to the Irish senior side before returning home to Bohemians.
In a European clash with Ghent, the Belgian side’s manager Georges Leekens liked what he saw and immediately signed the striker. Foley spent seven years playing in Belgium at Ghent and Cercle Brugge, and his footballing education has taught him that Ireland’s future lies beyond the British game.
Speaking on the YBIG Football Show with Dave O’Grady, Dominic is better placed than most to judge the Irish style.
“In Belgium, 100% of the emphasis was on getting the ball down and playing on the ground. It was like the Dutch philosophy. There was no such thing as kicking it long, like you still see even in the Premier League. Look at Stoke City.”
It was a world away from what he was learning in Europe.
Capped six times for Ireland under Mick McCarthy, Foley made his début in Steve Staunton and Tony Cascarino’s testimonial against Liverpool at Lansdowne Road.
“It’s every young fella’s dream to represent your country. It was the pinnacle of my career to do that. On the back of that, I was involved in the Nike Cup in America. They are all good memories.”
The 35-year-old has seen at first-hand how Europeans play the game and he feels it is the only way forward for Irish football. Despite this, he regards criticism of Giovanni Trapattoni’s style as unwarranted.
“I’m a bit of a believer in that too, at senior international level at least. Trapattoni has got the experience. He has decided if we try to pass through teams, it’s not going to work. We’re going to the Euros and it’s hard to knock him now.”
Foley returned from England to join Bohs at a time when the League of Ireland was transforming to full-time professionalism. There was money in the game here. The quality was improving, the facilities were better and the league moved to summer football. It was the improvement in European competition that led Dominic away from Ireland and the ‘British’ style to something new.
“At Bohemians, we played in the Inter-Toto Cup against Ghent. We won 1-0 at home in the first leg and ended up losing over there but I must have done something right. Georges Leekens, the current Belgium national team manager, was the Ghent coach and he gave me my lucky break.”
Foley jumped at the chance to move and went on to make over 100 appearances for the club. “Leekens saw me and wanted me. I played every Saturday no matter what. Even if I didn’t train Monday to Thursday, if I trained on Friday I played. That gave me great confidence.”
After years going out on loan in England’s lower leagues to sides like QPR, Notts County and Swindon, Dominic was thrilled to be in demand. “Leekens was saying ‘I believe in you and you’ll come good.’ It was the happiest I’d ever been in my footballing career over in Belgium.”
So could more League of Ireland players aim beyond the British game?
“I brought this up with both clubs I played with in Belgium. I said if you came and took a look at the League of Ireland, you’d see players who’d do well for you. Their thoughts were that Irish players always go to England and England has too much money. They have this perception that everyone goes there and makes a fortune. The funny thing is I earned more in Belgium than I ever did in England.”
Now back in the League of Ireland and involved at Limerick, Foley predicts big things for the Treaty City, despite the popularity of GAA and Munster rugby. Chairman Pat O’Sullivan, who Foley describes as a Limerick man through and through, is trying to bring a feel-good factor to the city.
“We’ve got a good mixture in the Limerick dressing room and we’ve got big hopes and big plans. We’re hoping to bring success to the soccer team and hoping, if you like, that people jump on that bandwagon.”
With the collapse of full-time professionalism here, there’s a worry that standards may slip in the league owing to poor playing surfaces, with Dalymount Park recently coming in for criticism.
“At Limerick, we are encouraged to play football when the time is right. We have players like Joe Gamble and young guys who can play football but if the ball is bouncing up around their ears, there’s little point. I was at an FAI meeting and there were people from the Premier Division who said the pitches are shocking at the moment. I would hope there will be an emphasis on surfaces. No disrespect to the rugby lads, but sometimes it can be like a rugby match on a football field and people don’t want to see that. We’d like to go and play football but you’re taking chances playing it across the pitch.”
“The League of Ireland was played at 100 miles an hour all the time. There was little emphasis on football. It was about getting stuck in and winning tackles. In my eight years in England there was never an emphasis put on first touch and where do all our good players go only the UK. We have to change the culture and as we know, to do something like that isn’t easy. But if we’re going to progress, that’s what we’ll have to do.”