Dion Fanning: Ireland’s lost generations
In the days following Ireland’s exit from the European Championships, Pádraig Nicholson got used to being asked where it all went wrong.
Plenty of people knew Nicholson. They might have been aware of him from his years with Athlone Town but many more knew of his years as a regional development officer, as a coach and as a coach of coaches in Irish football. People took their rage to him. Nicholson knew something too. He knew that soon the anger would dissipate and the public would move on to something else.
‘we need change’
Nicholson didn’t mind the comments, in fact he thought they could be helpful. If any good was to come from Ireland’s dismal European Championship performance then it would have to be a determination to change everything about the schooling of Irish footballers. There were valid distractions — Giovanni Trapattoni‘s refusal to change; John Delaney‘s populist approach — but something more radical was needed and the European Championships should have been the starting point for self-examination. Irish football, it will surprise nobody, doesn’t do radical.
On Friday week, Ireland play Germany, a country that embarked on a massive overhaul of their system at the turn of the century following a quarter-final exit to Croatia in the World Cup finals. In 2000, Germany finished bottom of their European Championship group but already they were planning to change.
Across the country, 121 national centres were built for players from 10 to 17. Clubs in the Bundesliga would have to build youth academies.
The golden generation
Other countries were doing something similar. Nicholson spent a lot of time in Belgium 10 years ago and he noticed a change. They were asking more of their young players as they simultaneously asked more of themselves. The necessity for practice was repeated to young players. Today they have one of the most exciting squads in Europe with Eden Hazard, Axel Widsel, Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany among their players.
In the academy at Standard Liege, the director Michel Bruyninckx uses “brain-centred” learning to coach his young players. Bruyninckx explained his philosophy of conscious learning in an interview with The Blizzard.
“We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain,” he said, before describing himself as an outsider in the football world and comparing himself to Darwin who was also considered “crazy”.
Irish football needn’t worry about being considered crazy. Trapattoni announced last week that the coaches of Europe were still talking about the Irish supporters at their conference in Warsaw, but anything Ireland did on the field can’t have detained them long.
Last week, Trapattoni named his squad for the games against Germany and the FaroeIslands. Robbie Brady is on stand-by and James McClean will probably start on the bench.
Brady was a player at St Kevin’s, a schoolboy club that has invested in an academy. “They are an oasis in the desert,” Nicholson says.
If Ireland can’t compete with Germany, Ireland could always have ambitions to match Belgium, yet things stay the same.
“We’ve fallen a generation behind the rest of Europe,” Nicholson says, “there needs to be a radical reassessment. The people who are concerned should come together and find a way to stop us falling further behind. Right now, if a young player comes through, it’s despite the system.”
Like many, he suggests that the schoolboy clubs have too much power, which makes it hard to implement a vision on player development.
Emerging Talent not enough
The FAI will point to their Emerging Talent Programme but that is barely enough. The idea is good but the focus is too narrow.
Instead of players attending from the ages of nine or 10, as happened in Germany, they begin when they are 14 or 15, far too late to make an impact on their technique. “The golden years for a footballer are between nine and 12,” Nicholson says, “after that it can be too late.”
Irish players fall further behind. Nicholson talks about going to the Kennedy Cup this year and during the week of matches not seeing one player who could “dribble with the ball, who could shimmy and beat a man”.
Mark O’Sullivan still remembers the planes flying overhead that felt so close he thought he could reach one with one of the footballs.
O’Sullivan is from Cork but emigrated to Sweden in 1994. He was always passionate about football and last year decided that he would take his UEFA ‘B’ coaching course in Ireland. “Even though I speak Swedish, I was more comfortable doing it in English.”
So O’Sullivan returned to Ireland, booked a hotel and paid €1,000 to do the course at the AUL. At the end, all he felt was disillusionment.
“I guess when you’re trying to run drills and you’re using a 50-year-old cab driver who is also taking the course as a full-back, then you can get frustrated. He wasn’t great on the overlap.”
O’Sullivan never completed the course — losing his patience when they were asked to get from Dublin in Friday evening rush-hour to a game in Wexford that night.
Instead he returned to Sweden, getting his ‘B’ licence there, an experience he describes as completely different to all he had endured in his homeland.
O’Sullivan now works as an academy coach at a club in Sweden and coaches another, Nacka FF, in the Swedish second division.
He had noted other differences with Sweden. This year, the Swedish FA asked their coaches to tell the FA where they felt they had made mistakes. They demanded to be criticised. It is not a model that seems likely to be adopted by the FAI.
Nicholson was one of the coaches on that course which had frustrated O’Sullivan. He says the FAI were struggling as they tried to introduce a new coaching model based around match analysis as UEFA wished.
Things have changed since then but if the coaches have become more familiar with the courses, other things have altered too.
the former FAI high performance director, was central to the introduction of those courses. In June, Koevermans left the association to become manager of India. The FAI are cutting costs. Last week, they advertised for Koevermans successor. No time-frame has been given on when the job will be filled.
In a recession, and with their debt mountain, the FAI will always be stretched, which is why they might have done more to keep Damien O’Brien interested.
O’Brien has fallen out with the FAI, frustrated this year by their refusal to sanction a four-team tournament in Limerick (he eventually got Manchester City to play at Thomond Park) and, more importantly, the mismanagement, as he sees it, of the Emerging Talent Programme which he sponsored.
“The FAI will say anything to get your money,” he says, “but it won’t go where it’s supposed to go.”
O’Brien says he was prepared to contribute €100,000 a year to the programme but became frustrated.
“As long as the FAI is in its current state, there’s no way I’m helping out.”
Yet he also sees a greater cultural problem. Irish people are interested in the big events.
“The public,” he claims, “are more interested in slapping Delaney’s back and having a pint with him.”
O’Sullivan agrees that there is a cultural problem which draws Irish people towards the big event without being too interested in anything that might be needed to create them in the first place. There is also the drinking culture which results in the loss of many players.
O’Sullivan points to other cultural advantages which he feels could be used in football.
“The mentality of the GAA, that sense of community, creates a great unity in Irish footballers. Swedish players are disciplined, they will do everything you ask of them, but Irish players have this unique gift,” he says.
More about development
He would like to see coaching young players in Ireland become more about development and less about winning matches. “They will all become adults, they won’t all become footballers. The result is not winning, it’s development as people as well as players.”
Too much is lost, he says, by doing things as they’ve always been done. Irish football needs to find ways of being smarter than the rest, not just limping along, trying to keep up.
There were two other notable landmarks last week. It was the fourth anniversary of the death of Noel O’Reilly, Brian Kerr‘s long-time assistant but also a visionary in terms of youth development. O’Reilly has been desperately missed in Irish football.
“He was the best coach I ever worked with,” Nicholson says. O’Reilly’s personality mattered as much as his ability when it came to exciting coaches and players. “Noel was a huge, huge loss,” Nicholson says.
FAI to spend 1million on Abbotstown
Last week, the FAI also announced they have received a $500,000 grant from FIFA which will be matched by €500,000 from the Government to go towards the development of the National Campus in Abbotstown. Underage national sides will train there and, eventually, maybe the senior team as well.
More importantly, in time, the intention is that a centre of excellence could be developed. In time, young players, maybe even as young as nine or 10, might be coached and educated there and Ireland could feel they had embarked on radical change. In the meantime, while the young players wait, Ireland will just fall further behind.
I think you could go deeper into the root of the problem. The Leagues controlling the game in this country, who’s only concern is registration fees. Most don’t give a SHITE about development, some are starting to see the light and welcoming change. The combined age of the SFAI is over 1700 years, what would they know about the needs of a 7 or 8 year old. As for the FAI, well their main focus is bumps on seats and over the coming months that is going to be a huge challenge for Delaney and co.
On a positive note the FAI have teamed with The Welsh Football Trust who runs extensive programmes to help develop football at a grassroots level. These include mini football and football for different groups, including different ages, genders, disability groups and ethnic minorities. Having an affiliation with these guys is a step towards change, let’s hope they mirror what the Welsh are doing and start to focus at the root of football in Ireland. The Irish Football Trust would be a huge benefit for grassroots development in Ireland, I just hope the people who run kids football in Ireland can open their minds to change.