Schoolboy Errors: Ireland’s Fractured Player Pathway

A recent article by Brian Kerr in the Irish Independent in which he argues that “Irish football is hurtling towards a scenario where elitism is all that matters and this attitude is wrong,” because of the transfer of responsibility of nurturing young, elite talent, from the schoolboy clubs who had done so for more than half a century to League of Ireland clubs. Kieran Burke of Between the Stripes LOI podcast counters the argument.

Given the international retirements of a number of Irish legends in recent years, such as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given and most recently of course Wes Hoolohan, the inevitable debate on where the next Republic of Ireland wonderkid may come from, if he ever arrives, has picked up pace in recent weeks. Of course, the debate regarding whether young Irish talent would be better served by staying domestically until more mature as both a player and person versus jumping at the first shot of full-time football in the UK or beyond is nothing new, however, with the introduction of the League of Ireland’s ever expanding underage leagues in recent times this debate has taken on a whole new impetus.

Like in all walks of Irish society, politics is never far away and almost as old as the game itself in this country has been the running battle between the junior football ranks and that of the established League of Ireland clubs. With the FAI’s new underage system filtering down as young as under-13 level, this war has become an even bitter one over the past twelve months, even with a number of the countries top junior clubs aligning themselves with League of Ireland clubs. However, the cynics out there have often pointed to these alliances as an effort from the junior sides to avoid being totally frozen out and thus losing their grip on the best players in their respective age brackets, either way closer working partnerships between junior and League of Ireland clubs can only be a positive for developmental football in this country.

That makes Brian Kerr’s comments in the Indo all the stranger, especially when you consider the former Ireland managers close links with the League of Ireland. Effectively accusing the FAI of imposing elitism on youth football by handing the baton of responsibility in terms of talent production from junior clubs to the League of Ireland underage set-up. Kerr states that: “The schoolboy clubs have always had an interest in players and teams; the LOI clubs have always been interested in success and money. Schoolboy clubs offer an environment of respect, warmth and comfort. They are not a semi-professional business trying to become professional.” Those comments seem highly hypocritical given the fact many junior clubs have been accused of jumping at the first chance to sell a young player to British clubs, even if it may not be the right move for the player. While Kerr did admit some junior clubs have not always reinvested transfer money in the correct manner, the days of young Irish talent moving away at 16/17 and making an instant impact are in rapid decline.

Instead, it is the League of Ireland that has churned out the vast majority of success stories in recent years with rejected talent from the UK using the domestic league to find their feet again before rescaling the heights of the UK. Sean Dillon, Keith Fahey and Seani Maguire are just three examples of young Irish players the British game chewed up and spat out, only for a strong few years in the League of Ireland to catapult them back onto the grand stage. Now, while that maybe a separate argument to what is the best system and method for producing quality Irish talent, the fact there is now a pathway for kids to start at the bottom and develop all the way to the senior ranks at twenty League of Ireland clubs means the very best Irish talent has the option to remain with their family and friends while, most crucially of all, continuing in their education while developing as a player. Of course the majority of Irish kids are still most likely to jump at the chance of moving across the water, but for those who feel they are not yet ready for such a life changing decision, no longer will they feel as if this may be their only chance to crack the big time given the new route available to them.

Kerr spoke about Ireland’s unique sporting identity: “We have a unique cultural identity which only works here. Why do we need somebody else’s?”, but can you imagine a situation in the likes of England, Spain, Germany, France or any other serious football nation where the countries elite level clubs would not be the leaders in player production? There seems to be a conception within junior ranks that the shift towards giving League of Ireland clubs more power will kill off many junior clubs. This is simply nonsense, there will always be kids wanting to play football, we’ve all seen Children fall out of love with the game because they are the weekly ‘stand on the sideline act’ so if the best talent is being handpicked to represent League of Ireland clubs surely this opens up opportunities for lesser developed young players to get more coaching and match minutes?

Kerr argues: “This shift in focus could lead to a drastic decline in participation levels.”

“Athletes might start to drop off at the age of 16 or 17 when perhaps they realised that their dreams of making it big may not come to pass. Now it seems it might happen much earlier than that in soccer. It’s wrong.” Again however, this seems disingenuous given the volume of horror stories we hear regarding Irish youth returning home from the UK with shattered dreams, falling out of love with the game and sometimes even struggling with life itself.

The major issue with Irish youth football at present is the vast step up between the final stage of developmnt ie. Under-19’s football and the senior sides. While League of Ireland football is fastly becoming a young man’s league with very few players over the age of thirty playing regularly, the physical adjustment seems unrealistic in such a short time frame. What is needed is a bridging league, let it be a reserve league where fringe first-team players would play alongside the clubs most promising underage talent or players who are too old for 19’s football but just needing more time before making the senior step up or an under-23’s league, a solution needs to be found to avoid losing vast quantities of talent.

Kieran Burke is co-host of Between the Stripes League of Ireland podcast.

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