O’Neill sees hard times for North and South

Norther Ire­land man­ager says in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of Bri­tish foot­ball has left Ir­ish leagues be­hind

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker:

In a quiet cor­ner of an Ed­in­burgh café, Michael O’Neill has a list of names in front of him. It is a short list. It fea­tures play­ers born in Ire­land who ap­peared in the Premier League last week­end.

There were four who started – Shane Duffy at Brighton, Matt Do­herty at Wolves, Greg Cun­ning­ham at Cardiff City and Craig Cath­cart at Wat­ford.

“It’s tougher and tougher for our boys to come through,” O’Neill says. “Ir­ish-born, North or South, there’s not a huge num­ber go­ing into the top struc­tures. It’s a ma­jor con­cern.”

At Burn­ley, Kevin Long was a used sub­sti­tute, while Jeff Hen­drick watched from the bench. At Southamp­ton, O’Neill’s North­ern Ire­land cap­tain, Steven Davis, also watched 90 min­utes from the side­line, as did Jonny Evans at Le­ices­ter City.

Lon­don-born Ir­ish in­ter­na­tion­als, Harry Arter and Ciaran Clark did ap­pear for Cardiff and New­cas­tle United re­spec­tively, and Coven­try-born Cyrus Christie was a used sub­sti­tute by Ful­ham. De­clan Rice pro­duced an­other im­pres­sive 90 min­utes for West Ham, though Rice is not cer­tain to be Ir­ish for much longer. Of 220 starters, four were born in Ire­land. Un­der 2 per cent. That’s it.

On any given week­end such statis­tics con­front both Michael and Martin O’Neill. In­juries must al­ways be fac­tored in – Sea­mus Cole­man and Rob­bie Brady, for in­stance – but in­juries af­fect all na­tion­al­i­ties.

Five weeks away from the two Ire­lands meet­ing in a friendly in Dublin, Michael O’Neill has just been asked to sur­vey the state of Ir­ish foot­ball.

Do­mes­tic is­sues

As a one-time Ir­ish League teenager with Col­eraine and for­mer Sham­rock Rovers man­ager, O’Neill knows do­mes­tic is­sues. As North­ern Ire­land man­ager since De­cem­ber 2011, he un­der­stands in­ter­na­tional ques­tions.

A semi-sink­ing feel­ing ac­com­pa­nied Na­tions League re­sults in early Septem­ber, when a 4-1 de­feat for the Repub­lic of Ire­land in Wales was fol­lowed by a 2-1 North­ern Ire­land de­feat in Belfast by Bos­nia.

It feels like the tal­ent pool shrinks year by year. The League of Ire­land and Ir­ish League strug­gle on.

And though both Ir­ish in­ter­na­tional teams ral­lied in their next games against Poland and Is­rael, O’Neill knows the scale of the is­sues fac­ing Ir­ish soc­cer. That his re­sponses range from Conor Clif­ford to Kevin Moran, from Col­eraine to Kil­marnock, from Bul­garia’s 1994 World Cup squad to Manch­ester United’s van­ish­ing Ir­ish tra­di­tion to Ul­ster Rugby’s re­cruit­ment process re­veals a level of com­plex­ity.

At the end of an hour, O’Neill con­cludes: “We have to el­e­vate the per­cep­tion of Ir­ish foot­ball. We have to el­e­vate the per­cep­tion of our leagues.”

He knows it is eas­ier said than done. The 1994 World Cup was put to O’Neill be­cause it was the fourth con­sec­u­tive tour­na­ment with an Ir­ish pres­ence. There has been only 2002 since.

“It’s the com­bi­na­tion of a num­ber of things, glob­al­i­sa­tion for a start,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s fea­si­ble to sit down and de­vise a strat­egy to com­bat this. The de­mo­graph­ics, de­mo­graphic change – there were hardly any African play­ers in Europe in 1994 and far fewer South Amer­i­cans.

“Then there’s be­ing so close to Eng­land and the cul­ture and his­tory of English foot­ball. All of those things, it’s very dif­fi­cult to change. We’re suf­fer­ing be­cause of the power of the Premier League, no doubt about that. But, you know, it’s not just an Ir­ish prob­lem.”

This is when O’Neill switches to Bul­garia in 1994, when the team of Hristo Sto­ichkov were semi-fi­nal­ists. Then Sto­ichkov played for Barcelona; to­day Bul­garia is full of Brazil­ians. And a con­se­quence, O’Neill says, “at in­ter­na­tional level Bul­gar­ian foot­ball is aw­ful”.

“Look at Ro­ma­nia, the same, or sim­i­lar. Poland have bucked the trend a bit, they’ve play­ers at Monaco, Bay­ern Mu­nich. Do you know who’s the top player from the Czech Repub­lic any more? Ac­tu­ally, it’s [Vladimir] Darida, who plays in the Bun­desliga. But it’s an­other coun­try af­fected.

“An­other thing: in academies in Eng­land now there’s a lot of non-Bri­tish staff. That prob­a­bly leads to a dif­fer­ent thought process, and you have to ask what they as­so­ciate North­ern Ire­land with? What do they as­so­ciate Ir­ish play­ers with? Is it tech­ni­cal abil­ity? There’s al­ways our fight­ing spirit ...”

The last point is about hu­man na­ture, about re­turn­ing to what you know. Ar­se­nal did not have one French player un­til Arsene Wenger joined. They’ve had 30 since Pa­trick Vieira.

In­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion

That in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of Bri­tish foot­ball is what O’Neill is stress­ing, and he adds omi­nously: “The way I look at the Premier League, it’s not go­ing to change. In five years’ time, who­ever is man­ager of North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic of Ire­land is not go­ing to wake up and have 10 play­ers each play­ing in the Premier League. I can’t see that de­vel­op­ing. So what are we go­ing to do?”

As he says, O’Neill is not poised with an all-en­com­pass­ing an­swer. At the Ir­ish FA he has helped im­ple­ment the Club NI pro­gramme which sees the best young boys train and play to­gether as of­ten as pos­si­ble, and he would like to see the in­tro­duc­tion of com­pul­sory un­der­age play­ers in Ir­ish League first teams ev­ery week – two per team is his sug­ges­tion.

“As an as­so­ci­a­tion we do a lot for our young play­ers. But at the minute we’re not see­ing that trans­late as 20 play­ers ev­ery year go­ing into English foot­ball. The ones who do go are go­ing typ­i­cally to lower level clubs.

“Of the 20 out­field play­ers I brought to France [(EURO 2016)], six had a Manch­ester United up­bring­ing –- the Evans broth­ers, Cath­cart, Oliver Nor­wood, Paddy Mc­Nair and Luke McCul­lough. “To­day we’ve one, Ethan Gal­braith. He’s un­der-18.

“We’ve one at Chelsea – Sam McClelland. No one at Ar­se­nal, no one at City, no one at Liver­pool, though we’ve a boy go­ing there soon. We’ve Shayne Lav­ery at Ever­ton, a cou­ple of oth­ers there.

“In­stead our kids are go­ing to Steve­nage, Rochdale, Ch­ester­field. It’s so dif­fi­cult. Look at Jack Byrne at Man City. Jack’s a sub at Kil­marnock now. Conor Clif­ford at Chelsea – he came back and went to Lim­er­ick. That’s how dif­fi­cult it is.

“When is an Ir­ish boy go­ing to come through and play at Liver­pool or Chelsea or City? I know there’s the young keeper from the Repub­lic, [Caoimhin] Kelle­her at Liver­pool.”

O’Neill com­pares how it is with how it was when he was a boy leav­ing Col­eraine in the Ir­ish League to join New­cas­tle United in Eng­land’s top flight in 1987.

“Look at my route. I came at 18 from Col­eraine, do­ing my A-Lev­els, still at school. Three weeks later I was in New­cas­tle’s first team. That wouldn’t hap­pen now.

“To­day New­cas­tle wouldn’t even be look­ing at me. If they did it would be to stick me in their un­der-23s. Rafa Ben­itez wouldn’t even know who I was, whereas Wil­lie McFaul took me for din­ner. That’s the re­al­ity of the change.

“The Ir­ish League was stronger then. But it’s the stan­dard of the Premier League that’s risen dra­mat­i­cally, that’s the thing.

“English foot­ball has changed, the Ir­ish League still has the same for­mat as back then: two nights train­ing and a game on Sat­ur­day. It’s a part-time league.”

Cru­saders in Belfast are ad­dress­ing pro­fes­sion­al­ism, but as a league the part-time sta­tus re­mains. Cru­saders ad­mire Dun­dalk, as does O’Neill, but as leagues he thinks there are ques­tions for both.

“I read Niall Quinn’s re­cent com­ments about boys stay­ing at home longer and the ben­e­fit of that. I’d be in that camp – un­less you’re get­ting a re­ally good op­por­tu­nity.

“Then the re­spon­si­bil­ity falls on the as­so­ci­a­tions and the clubs to de­velop play­ers. We need to de­velop play­ers. The League of Ire­land and the Ir­ish League have to recog­nise their place: are they de­vel­op­ment leagues?

“And if the ar­gu­ment is that young play­ers should stay at home for longer, then we’ve got to play them.

“Look­ing at it do­mes­ti­cally, bar Gavin Bazunu, the young keeper who’s go­ing to Man City, there isn’t an Ir­ish player in our leagues that a Premier League team is think­ing, ‘he could be in our first-team in six months.’ I don’t see that.

“The Ir­ish League is in dan­ger of the co-ef­fi­cient drop­ping to 50th in Europe out of 55. The Repub­lic’s is higher, they’ve banked enough through Dun­dalk in re­cent years, and League of Ire­land teams are bet­ter equipped to deal with Europe be­cause of the cal­en­dar of their sea­son.

In five years’ time, who­ever is man­ager of North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic of Ire­land is not go­ing to have 10 play­ers each play­ing in the Premier League

Same cal­en­der

“I’d like to see both leagues’ sea­sons run on the same cal­en­dar. I’d like to see a ver­sion of the Se­tanta Cup back – maybe even at un­der-23 level. Those would be pos­i­tive changes.”

An all-Ire­land league? “Can I see it hap­pen­ing? Not in the fore­see­able fu­ture, be­cause you’d be giv­ing up Euro­pean places. But from a purely foot­ball point of view, it would cer­tainly de­velop foot­ball. The onus would be to go full-time, it would at­tract in­vest­ment, bet­ter tele­vi­sion ex­po­sure. Maybe it would work. I’m not sure what level it would go to.”

In­vest­ment and ex­po­sure: he refers not solely to Eng­land’s Premier League, but to Ire­land’s crowded sport­ing land­scape. O’Neill was a ta­lented Gaelic foot­baller, his fa­ther Dessie hurled for Ul­ster, and his brother Sean was an 800m run­ner who rep­re­sented North­ern Ire­land at the 1982 Com­mon­wealth Games. O’Neill un­der­stands the squeeze on soc­cer.

“Rugby and GAA are miles stronger than when I was grow­ing up, and, ob­vi­ously, more pro­fes­sional. If you’re a kid in North­ern Ire­land want to live there and be a full-time sportsper­son, Ul­ster Rugby is the only team sport that pro­vides it.

“Play for Ul­ster – or Le­in­ster – and you can live in your own city. Rugby play­ers aren’t be­ing asked at 16 to go over and live in Manch­ester or Old­ham.

“It’s dif­fer­ent – Ul­ster Rugby con­cen­trate all their re­cruit­ment on eight schools but they will move boys. If they find a 15-year-old in Fer­managh they’ll move him via a schol­ar­ship to Camp­bell Col­lege in Belfast. That model ex­ists. They re­cruit in GAA as well.

“The com­pe­ti­tion fac­ing foot­ball is greater than it’s ever been in terms of au­di­ence. Le­in­ster Rugby is mas­sive, Mun­ster fill Thomond Park, Ul­ster fill Raven­hill with the game on BBC North­ern Ire­land. That didn’t ex­ist when I was grow­ing up.

“Ir­ish rugby is so strong, pro­duc­ing play­ers of a world level. It’s very dif­fi­cult to then say ‘here’s a wee lad play­ing for Cru­saders, watch him.’ But at grass­roots, par­tic­i­pa­tion level, I’m not so sure. I think the ones who want to play soc­cer will play soc­cer. It’s a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity. GAA is all about rep­re­sent­ing your county. Rugby? Not sure. From what I’m hear­ing, old rugby clubs like Bal­ly­mena, Dun­gan­non are suf­fer­ing be­cause of pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion.”

Rugby has risen to oc­cupy a height­ened space in Ir­ish sport. Two years af­ter Euro 2016, Ir­ish soc­cer feels in a dif­fer­ent place.

Next month the teams of Rob­bie Brady and Gareth McAuley meet again. Even though O’Neill says the el­i­gi­bil­ity is­sue means there is “a bit of an un­der­cur­rent”, he is look­ing for­ward to it.

He re­calls lin­ing up in tun­nel at Lans­downe Road for North­ern Ire­land in 1989. He had just turned 20, and was the weight of a packet of crisps. Kevin Moran, star­ing across, may not have been in­tim­i­dated.

“It’ll de­pend on where we are in the Na­tions League,” O’Neill says of the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the friendly. “We’ll have one game left at that point.

“We both went to Euro 2016, both sets of sup­port­ers came out with im­mense credit. We’d like to see the game as an oc­ca­sion, show­case Ir­ish foot­ball both sides of the Bor­der.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IMAGES

Michael O’Neill is­sues in­struc­tions dur­ing North­ern Ire­land’s Uefa Na­tions League B Group Three match against Bos­nia-Herze­gov­ina at Wind­sor Park last month. O’Neill can not see an all-Ire­land League in the fore­see­able fu­ture.

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