In­ter­na­tional fu­ture looks bright thanks to smart un­der­age tac­tics

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - STEPHEN HUNT

IT might take years be­fore we see a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in the se­nior team with young nat­u­rally-gifted foot­ballers in ev­ery po­si­tion, but the changes to im­prove un­der­age football de­vel­op­ment in Ire­land are a move in the right di­rec­tion.

This week, I’ll be at the un­der 19, un­der 21 and se­nior Ire­land games and each team will have a dif­fer­ent way of play­ing. Martin O’Neill’s job is re­sults based and he has to deal with the re­sources at his dis­posal to win games. The un­der­age teams are also look­ing to win but we need in­di­vid­ual progress too. The two have to go to­gether. That is key for Ir­ish football.

Three weeks ago, I was at an un­der 15 game be­tween Water­ford United and Cork City and I was im­me­di­ately im­pressed by the stan­dard of the football. The teams looked struc­tured and well coached. I watched it think­ing ‘well, these boys are get­ting bet­ter coach­ing than I got at their age’.

They get it from a very young age now. It means we have play­ers learn­ing the game and hav­ing a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of it. They will be bet­ter pre­pared to an­swer ques­tions and ad­dress cer­tain sit­u­a­tions in games.

So it will be more nat­u­ral for wingers to go in­side the full-backs and know when to play cat and mouse. Mid­field­ers won’t run as far but pre­serve en­ergy and be bright enough to stand still in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions to get the ball. And we will have more play­ers like Jon Wal­ters who al­ways tracks back.

We are also going to see more mixed na­tion­al­i­ties born in Ire­land who will be avail­able for se­lec­tion and de­vel­op­ment. In fact, that is al­ready the case with the un­der 21 side and be­low, and it is an in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ment.

The most important thing in un­der­age de­vel­op­ment is that we do not lose our iden­tity. We will still need that fight­ing spirit which is a given for ev­ery Ir­ish­man and wo­man and has been so important for the suc­cess­ful Ir­ish teams in the past, in ev­ery sport.

We should not be fooled by Spain’s dom­i­na­tion over the last four or five tour­na­ments. We have to do what is good for us and I am not so sure we are going to pro­duce an An­dres Ini­esta be­cause we are coach­ing our play­ers to be like him. Are we going to pro­duce some­one who is three times bet­ter than Wes Hoola­han to get to the level of the Span­ish? No.

Real­is­ti­cally, his­tory tells you, we are bet­ter fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of coun­tries like Ger­many or Italy. If you analyse an in­di­vid­ual’s progress from a very young age, he needs to fo­cus on him­self. But it is a love/hate re­la­tion­ship coach­ing him be­cause the last thing you want in a team sport is an in­di­vid­ual. You have to do it the right way to make him a good team player, which the Ger­mans and Ital­ians do so well.

We won’t turn into one of these teams overnight be­cause we don’t have the same men­tal­ity and men­tal­ity and football in­tel­li­gence are the most important things in football.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the un­der 15 League of Ire­land is not per­fect. I feel for the school­boy clubs be­cause they are going to miss out on com­pen­sa­tion and a lot of these boys have been signed to the clubs and have been part of their acad­e­mies for years.

They will have time and a place to come through and be ready to play for English clubs and then be ready to get game time. This is the prob­lem Martin O’Neill has now; the lack of play­ing time in his squad.

There will still be late de­vel­op­ers, play­ers who drop out of English acad­e­mies and play League of Ire­land, ma­ture, go back to Eng­land and make a go of it. That can take time. But play­ers like Ai­den O’Brien have been on the radar for a while. And if you play games, and play well, you will be se­lected.

Hope­fully this new de­sire to im­prove the de­vel­op­ment of young foot­ballers in Ire­land will also help those who don’t make it. There are ma­jor dis­rup­tions and sac­ri­fices to be made by the young men and their fam­i­lies in the years ahead.

There needs to be a bal­ance with ed­u­ca­tion and football and the FAI will hope­fully take guid­ance from Eng­land’s acad­e­mies. When I was a kid at Brent­ford, this was hopeless. We all wanted to play football and that was all we did. English clubs have im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly now and they re­ally look after their young play­ers’ ed­u­ca­tions.

Ul­ti­mately, they are all des­per­ate to be pro­fes­sional foot­ballers and they need a will­ing­ness to learn to be­come bet­ter play­ers. But it re­quires ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment — and there will never be a guar­an­tee of suc­cess.

If you play games, and play well, you will be se­lected

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