FAI’s na­tional un­der­age leagues could be just what the Dok­ter or­dered for our young tal­ent

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

AFEW years ago the GAA de­cided, against con­sid­er­able grass­roots op­po­si­tion, to abol­ish com­pet­i­tive games at the un­der 12 grade. They’re less timid souls in the FAI where they’ve an­nounced that a na­tional un­der 13 league will get un­der way next March.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween the GAA and the FAI is that while the for­mer have the free­dom of liv­ing in a self-con­tained world, the lat­ter have to take for­eign com­pe­ti­tion into ac­count. That’s why Ire­land have de­cided to fol­low the lead of ri­val Euro­pean coun­tries who run a sim­i­lar in­te­grated un­der­age sys­tem.

No­table among these is Hol­land whose pro­duc­tion of tech­ni­cally gifted young play­ers is prover­bial. The FAI’s di­rec­tor of coach­ing Ruud Dok­ter (pic­tured) has vast coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence within the Dutch sys­tem and the re­vamp of the Ir­ish school­boy struc­ture, which has al­ready led to the cre­ation of na­tional un­der 19, un­der 17 and un­der 15 leagues, is very much his brain­child.

When the sys­tem was ini­tially mooted a cou­ple of years back there was out­rage from some of the pow­er­ful Dublin clubs which have long dom­i­nated school­boy foot­ball in this coun­try. These ob­jec­tions were, to a large ex­tent, the in­evitable re­ac­tion to rad­i­cal change in any area and were also mo­ti­vated to a cer­tain de­gree by un­der­stand­able self-in­ter­est. There were predictions of a dis­as­trous fate for the new com­pe­ti­tions.

One of the main ob­jec­tions to the na­tional leagues was that these pow­er­ful clubs were not al­lowed to en­ter and that the leagues would in­stead con­tain teams rep­re­sent­ing League of Ire­land clubs with a few re­gional teams thrown in. The school­boy sides made the rea­son­able point that the League of Ire­land had not been noted for its com­mit­ment to youth foot­ball in the past but would now be pre­sented with the out­stand­ing tal­ent de­vel­oped by oth­ers.

That was a fair point, but had the FAI sim­ply cre­ated an All-Ire­land league dom­i­nated by the tra­di­tional school­boy pow­er­houses, it would have de­feated the pur­pose of the en­ter­prise, which is to cre­ate a struc­ture where young­sters pro­ceed through the na­tional leagues into the League of Ire­land.

Even the most fer­vent sup­porter of the way things used to be can’t claim that ev­ery­thing has been go­ing well for Ir­ish soc­cer in re­cent times. Fewer and fewer of our play­ers make the break­through in Eng­land and the paucity of young stars means we’ve de­vel­oped a de­pen­dence on pick­ing up left­overs from the English sys­tem with Ir­ish names and poach­ing the best Catholics from North­ern Ire­land.

The prob­lem with depend­ing on the scraps from some­one else’s ta­ble is that you have lit­tle personal con­trol over the food chain. This new sys­tem of­fers a planned ap­proach tai­lored specif­i­cally to­wards the needs of Ir­ish foot­ball. That has to be a good thing. There are still plenty of naysay­ers out there who hope the new struc­ture might yet be de­railed. They like to point out that teams from Wex­ford, Long­ford and Kerry have found it very hard to com­pete in the new leagues. Yet there has also been ev­i­dence that the old Dublin dom­i­na­tion of school­boy foot­ball was ob­scur­ing tal­ent else­where in the coun­try.

Last year’s un­der 17 league and cup dou­ble was won by a Finn Harps team whose play­ers could have passed un­no­ticed un­der the old sys­tem. Af­ter all, Sea­mus Cole­man, our best player of the last decade, could have been lost to Ir­ish soc­cer had Paul Cook not spot­ted his po­ten­tial at Sligo Rovers. Ire­land got a lucky break there, but how many po­ten­tial Cole­mans have been lost be­cause they’ve been play­ing in leagues where they didn’t have suf­fi­cient com­pe­ti­tion to bring them on?

Ire­land’s re­cent good form at un­der 17 level shouldn’t mask the fact that in the 20 years since Brian Kerr’s mem­o­rable Euro­pean dou­ble, we haven’t come next nor near a sim­i­lar suc­cess. And the big­gest prob­lem for Ir­ish foot­ball is that our very best young play­ers are sent to an English sys­tem which squan­ders tal­ent on an in­dus­trial scale. When things don’t work out for these prodi­gies cross chan­nel, they are of­ten lost to the game here.

The great suc­cess story in re­cent years in terms of pro­duc­ing great young foot­ballers has been Bel­gium, where most of those play­ers gained first team ex­pe­ri­ence as teenagers in do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion be­fore mov­ing to Europe’s ma­jor leagues. Cole­man, too, ben­e­fited from ma­tur­ing with Sligo Rovers be­fore go­ing to Eng­land.

The FAI are on the right track with the new na­tional leagues which will surely im­prove the stan­dard of our own do­mes­tic game as well as help­ing play­ers bound for Eng­land to max­imise their po­ten­tial.

It could be just what the Dok­ter or­dered.

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