There is a path well-trodden by the luckiest of young Irish footballers. Success at schoolboy level could see a player scouted by a team in the UK, an offer and a promise made, followed by a trip across the water to chase their dream – for some, the epitome of a life fulfilled. Yet only a minority of that already small number might carve out a career in senior football in Britain. For most, a couple of years spent in under-age squads and a loan spell or two with lower league sides precedes a return home to the League of Ireland, to the amateur leagues, or, for many, dropping out of the game altogether.
A FIFA report released in 2020 showed Ireland as the country with the most players under the age of 18 transferred abroad in the previous decade. (Stats were slightly skewed by the fact FIFA counts transfers to the Northern Irish Football League as ‘abroad.’) Post Brexit, this has changed. Despite the English FA questioning whether it was possible to bypass European labour laws barring the transfer of players from the EU until they turn 18, and citing the Common Travel Agreement between Great Britain and Ireland, players must now reach that age before any move – unless they have a British parent.
On one hand, this gives grounds for some early optimism for the game in Ireland – young players can now stay and develop at home in a family environment allowing them to complete their education, while partnerships such as that between St. Kevin’s Boys and Bohemians in Dublin can forge a progression plan from schoolboys into senior football within the domestic league.
On the other hand (without disparaging Ireland’s developing underage set-up), the inability of UK teams to import, train and improve younger footballers means that they will merely look to take the best Irish talent on offer as soon as they hit the age threshold that allows a contract to be signed. And unless Ireland manages to miraculously avoid the Scottish curse (with players leaving for a fraction of their actual value when compared with similar players of English stock, and recent transfers would suggest not) then the Republic runs the risk of being a feeder league to Scotland, the lower English leagues and in a worst-case scenario, bulking out U-23 or Premier League 2 squads.
Leaving at 18 rather than in their formative younger years means a real possibility of already-established first team players in the League of Ireland being poached. And with teams’ inability to offer longer, securing contracts (many Irish club terms don’t cover 52 weeks), there could be an annual destabilising effect on squads in return for very little financial rewards, something which has already been seen during the Irish off-seasons.#
In 2021-22, Bohemians lost Irish U21 international Ross Tierney and the league’s top scorer Georgie Kelly to Motherwell and Rotherham respectively. Drogheda saw James Brown head to Blackburn Rovers and Killian Phillips to Crystal Palace. Sligo had Johnny Kenny join Celtic and John Mahon move to St. Johnstone – six players whose names would arguably be the first on the team sheets, with the highest fee paid amongst this group a miserly €150,000 for Kenny.
Compare this with 2020-21 where just two homegrown players transferred to the UK. Danny Grant went to Huddersfield, and a breakthrough star-in-the-making Evan Ferguson moved to Brighton. Similarly 2019-2020 witnessed another two players, Conor McCarthy and Jamie McGrath, leave Irish shores for Britain. Ultimately, they left for very little training compensation in accordance with FIFA guidelines, or for smash-and-grab sub-€100k prices.
There are outliers. Irish senior first-team goalkeeper Gavin Bazanu’s fee, worth an initial €500k to Shamrock Rovers in 2019, and Liam Scales in August 2021, for whom Rovers received €600k, can be seen as good business. And yet with both these players’ rapid progression – Bazunu is firmly the Republic’s No.1 – those figures may quickly appear paltry.
It’s early days and time will tell regarding Brexit’s effect on the League of Ireland. With the responsibility for training and development of future stars now in the hands of domestic clubs, there remains a question mark over how long, following their integration into first team squads, the best players can be kept in the Irish game. Perhaps a change in perspective is needed where ‘making it’ no longer requires leaving home. Only then can the League of Ireland truly prosper.
Photography: Stephen Burke, is a photographer and Bohs fan based in Dublin. Twitter: @BohsABaldiemann
Ciaran Murray is a writer for Come Here To Me which focuses on the life and culture of Dublin city.
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