Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Where Do We Go From Here? - The Future of Irish Football

I thought Irish football had hit rock bottom in late 2007. The team were booed off the pitch at Croke Park after leaving it late to salvage a point at home to Cyprus. Qualification for Euro 2008 had long since slipped beyond our grasp and manager Steve Staunton was sacked within a couple of days.

To me the current state we find ourselves in seems less hopeful than that of six years ago. We have no manager. No real quality players.  We're currently ranked 59th in the world behind the Cape Verde Islands, Wales, Finland and Uzbekistan. We've just finished finished a massive 14 points off the pace in our qualifying group and now face another eleven months before the next competitive game comes around, missing out on the World Cup in every football purist's dream location of Brazil next summer.

A dreadful campaign ends in as many defeats as wins

John Delaney has promised a new manager before Christmas but based on this man's shocking incompetence at his job, we shouldn't really read too much into that comment. It was eight months last time between Stan's sacking and Trapattoni taking the reigns in May 2008. If the FAI haven't already signed a manager by now, expect it to be the new year before one is appointed. The situation really hasn't been helped by players like McGeady coming out and saying the job is a "poisoned chalice" which is quite frankly ridiculous. The new manager will likely be paid €1m plus per year, for eight games and need only qualify for a major tournament and avoid falling out with players in order to be lamented as a national hero. I'll have some of that poison if it's going. Aiden should probably spend more time worrying about how to beat the first man when he takes a corner. A skill he has yet to master despite his 61 Irish appearances.

I would have liked Noel King to put on a strong show in these two games to put his name into consideration but I think he can be effectively ruled out of the equation now. Some of his comments in interviews, particularly after the Kazakhstan game, highlight how un-trained he is in terms of media friendliness. His tactical naivety has also been painfully obvious. Yes Kevin Doyle has played on the wing before but he is a striker. So is Anthony Stokes for whom King's fondness I cannot comprehend. He must be a Celtic fan. Aiden McGeady and James McClean are wingers and logic would dictate it is better to use wingers on the wing rather than strikers. And Andy Reid is not a number ten, although it was good to see him given a chance.

With regards to players though, the main issue at hand, Ireland have a real problem. Trapattoni for all his flaws did have quite a valid point when he pointed out he didn't have a national league to pick players from. Whilst technically this is untrue and more than a bit disrespectful to the local game, there simply aren't any League of Ireland players worthy of a place in the national squad. If they were they'd be playing professionally in England by now. Almost every other nation in Europe has a pool of domestic talent that can be relied upon to bolster the national side.

The current squad is probably the weakest I've ever seen in terms of star quality. Pick out our best four players (my opinion):
  • James McCarthy - Regular at Everton. Signed from Wigan on deadline day.
  • Anthony Pilkington - Fighting for a place at struggling Norwich. Injury prone.
  • Seamus Coleman - Regular at Everton. Class player.
  • Robbie Brady - Regular at Hull. Huge potential if he keeps his feet on the ground.
The Everton boys aside, none of our squad is represented in the top half of the English league. Back in 2000/01 we had Roy Keane in his pomp at United, Robbie Keane and Ian Harte firing Leeds into the Champions League semi-finals with Gary Kelly a mainstay in their defence, Shay Given was competing in Europe with Newcastle under Sir Bobby and Steve Finnan and Damien Duff showing great potential that would earn them moves to Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. Even Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland were established Premier League midfielders, akin to McCarthy and Gibson now.

The best of our current crop: James McCarthy, playing at Wigan until six weeks ago

Sweden have Zlatan. They beat us. Austria have David Alaba. They beat us too. Is our go-to guy still Robbie Keane? He's 33 now and whilst his passion for his country and goal scoring record cannot be question by anyone, he's not a very good footballer, totally devoid of any sort of flair, not the kind of player who'll win you a game on his own and not the man we should be still relying on if we hope to make it to France in 2016.

Unfortunately there aren't any obvious gems waiting patiently in the under-21s so the immediate future does not look any brighter than the present. Irish football is in need of a drastic overhaul from grass roots level and to be fair the FAI have recognised this and taken some positive steps, assigning the task to Ruud Dokter, a Dutch under-age coach. He has a serious job on his hands.

Insert 'Dokter' pun here

Germany went to Euro 2000 and were embarrassed. Failing to win a game and going out at the group stage. Since then the German government has invested €20m annually in grass-roots football throughout the country. 400 training centres have been set up nationwide. Here, 15,000 kids aged 11-14 receive two hours extra training per week by qualified coaches. Money has also been invested in improving club academies where these youngsters will further hone their skills. Germany started to see the benefits of this in 2009 when they won the under-21 European Championships. The same youngsters took the World Cup by storm the following year and reached the semi-finals, destroying Messi's Argentina 4-0 on the way. Two German clubs contested the Champions League final this year and we saw first hand just how brilliant the national side was on Friday night.

Ireland only has a population of 4.5 million people, 5% that of Germany so the investment needed to boost the game in this country would be minimal by comparison. Training centres for the more skilled players from each schoolboy team could be set up around the country and the kids sent to train at these one night a week. Playing with equally talented boys would give them a chance and an incentive to improve their skills to the required level. Serious investment would also be needed it the League of Ireland clubs to improve their credentials and as a result the quality of the league. The best schoolboys produced in this country are being shipped over to England at 15 where they are just one of millions of talented boys and their abilities quite often go to waste. The country needs the resources to nurture its own talent. Given the current state of the economy, any notable investment in what is essentially a past-time seems unlikely any time soon.

Ozil: One of the many prodigies nurtured in Germany in the 2000s

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to the growth of football in Ireland is the GAA. Ask a selection ten 11-14 year old's growing up in rural Ireland what is their sporting dream and nine times out of then the answer would be to represent their beloved county in an all-Ireland final. They don't care in the slightest for "that foreign sport". Throw a ball to them and they'd more than likely catch it. Throw a ball to a kid on the street in Stuttgart and you can bet he'll bring it down with an impressive well-developed technique. While the GAA exists, "soccer" in Ireland will always play a secondary role in most of the country.

In the short to medium term, don't expect the new manager to come in and change everything. Despite the Euros being expanded to 24 teams, Ireland will still face an uphill battle to qualify and the very low FIFA ranking we're going to carry into the draw will not be of any help in the slightest. People like Eamon Dunphy are living in dreamland if they expect us to be a match for Germany. We are almost always going to lose those games. For the foreseeable future anyway.

Were there to be significant changes at grass-roots level it would likely be a decade before the senior side reaped the benefits. These changes aren't going to happen overnight and fans need to be patient and understand this. If the required changes are made, the long-term future can be bright but for the next few years we may see more nights like last Friday in Cologne which emphasise just how far we are behind Europe's elite.

For the next two campaigns (France 2016 and Russia 2018) however our qualification hopes (and we can really only hope to qualify at most) rest on the shoulders of Robbie Brady, James McCarthy and Co. along with the new man in charge. Whenever the FAI get around to appointing him. Grinding out results away from home will once again be the order of business in terms of putting ourselves in the qualification picture but hopefully the new man can do it with considerably more class than his predecessor. The road ahead looks bleak but keep the faith.

Deep-Lying Playmakers

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