The real problem with Irish football, part one: politics of failure

It was the moment when Wim Koevermans, the man that John Delaney had in 2009 described as the most important appointment in Irish football history, first wondered whether the job was worth the trouble.

In February 2010, the recently-installed FAI High Performance Director was at a meeting with the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland to discuss the implementation of 51 recommendations from the 2009 underage review. Most of the items were “common-sense stuff” like small-sided and non-competitive games for children under 11. As one figure at the meeting explained about the benefit of such changes, “they’re the kind of the things the Spanish and Germans have been doing for years”.

The response to that from a senior SFAI official was alarming: “What the fuck would they know about Irish football?”
It could be argued that very quote reveals enough about Irish football, except for the merciful fact it is a single administrator. That obstinate resistance did ensure the guidelines were shelved, however, and that in itself points to a crux that has conditioned our game.

What we definitely do know about Irish football are a number of broad truths. If Germany have put in place the perfect football structure, Spain the finest coaching, and Belgium and Holland have found a way to apply both for smaller countries, Ireland still remain some way off such ideals.

One widely respected European official said in 2011 he’d “never seen a football structure as crazy” as in this country. That framework ensures we are still ultimately producing a competitive international team by accident rather than design, despite some admirable changes to coaching across the spectrum.

Quite simply, the current structure is not making efficient use of the talent that is there. Irish football remains hugely dependent on English clubs to finish the coaching of players older than 16, yet the statistics indicate fewer are going across than 15 years ago, and even fewer still to the top teams. That may well be down to fact so many of those top teams are now global super-clubs recruiting talent from all over the world, but that then raises the question of whether the mean standard of Irish player has risen at the same rate.

One university study indicated that, between the crucial formative ages of six and 16, central European players get an average of 14 times more touches than those from Ireland. Needless to say, that has a multiplying effect on fundamental technique, with the difference arguably seen at Euro 2012 and a number of recent squad call-ups. Research also indicates that a lack of playing time has led to a huge drop-off by the age of 11. These young players similarly suffer from a paucity of coaches consistently laying down modern training, given that there are estimated to be 10 times more coaches per player in the elite countries.

A current Premier League manager confided that most Irish underage players “struggle to adapt”. The worry, as a Uefa analyst put it when asked to survey Ireland in the context of continental football, is that the country is “not keeping up”.

“What matters at the moment is that there are better players coming from so many more countries than Ireland,” he said. “That must be tackled.”

Alan Kinsella, who is seen as one of the most progressive underage coaches in the country and has recently moved from Templeogue United to Everton, echoes that concern.

“I have a fear we’re going to be left behind… the bottom line is our kids don’t get enough contact time with the ball.”
In theory, there should be no reason Irish football cannot do what Spain, Germany and so many other countries have done on our own scale. In theory, there is no reason Ireland cannot make the changes that see other countries talk about our technical ability in 10 years’ time the way they do about Belgium now. The question is whether that is actually possible in reality.

Many within Irish football insist that finally sorting out the sport’s infrastructure and youth production is now the single most important issue the FAI face.

At the least, it seems to be a view finally shared at the top of the association. The subject was the main item at a late 2013 board meeting, which was not the case at the previous eight. There is said to be a new will about the issue, and that many of the problems raised here are starting to be addressed.

That’s what the FAI maintain.

Almost four years on from that meeting that saw Koevermans get so frustrated, his replacement is sitting in a Dublin hotel lobby. Ruud Dokter is, by contrast, very optimistic.

The new High Performance Director isn’t in the job long but recognises an atmosphere for change.
“It’s a good time,” the 57-year-old Dutch official says. “We have a new management team, with Roy [Keane] and Martin [O’Neill].

“There’s a huge desire to take it to the next level, that’s what I have found speaking to people, to leagues, observing games.

“I’m here because I’ve come from a country with a big history in youth development. I’m not here to copy that system but I’m here to instil some principles of development, which are all over the world the same… you need to have a pyramid structure, one way or another.

“You can do it.”

The caveat to such a positive sense of purpose is we have heard such plans before, we have heard what must be done for so long, but we have so far seen no real effects.

The wonder, and hope, is whether that is finally changing…

At the very least, Dokter’s focus is clear, even if Irish football is not.

“It’s about putting a point on the horizon and saying this is where we’re going to go and this is how we’re going to play it.”

That end point is currently an ideal, but one Dokter has a fully rounded image of: it is the “uniform pyramid structure” that has been talked about since the Genesis Report.

“That’s something very important,” Dokter says. “If you want to develop, we need to have certain principles, and a pathway from six to 21. You need a common philosophy.

“How we play at the age of eight, 10, 12 should be in any league the same; same size of the field, same size of the goal, same size of the ball.

“For me, it’s an important part of the puzzle, the pyramid structure. There should be national leagues for under-19s, 17s, 15s; at every level there must be a competition structure that allows, if you’re good enough, to go [to the next step].”

Fundamentally, that means a local club playing in Bushy Park should be a certain number of promotions away from the League of Ireland. Similarly, a young player starting out in Bushy Park should – if good enough – have a clear pathway through schoolboy football to either a foreign club or League of Ireland academy.

As it stands, and as elementary as that sounds, none of that is the case. Kinsella says there is still “no real alternative to England” for elite 16-year-olds. The feeling persists that positive initiatives like the Emerging Talent Programme still run alongside the structure rather than through it, that they are not a true tier.

If the ideal is a pyramid, it is actually very difficult to describe what the current shape of Irish football is. It doesn’t even have fully joined-up lines.

Broadly speaking, there are three main pillars: schoolboy (the SFAI), junior (the provincial FAs) and senior (the League of Ireland). Between those pillars, the links are unclear. Within them, there are even more disparate blocks and often multiple different leagues in the same county, some of them with no defined place in the structure.

A kind view would call it an Escher painting. A harsh one would call it a mess.

Rather than clear steps, there have traditionally been gaps and ceilings everywhere, with the situation historically complicated by endless political issues.

It is for that reason that, while Dokter’s end point may be clear, the path there is not.

One FAI employee tells the story of a meeting he was at in 2008, when a pyramid structure was being discussed. “Why bother,” came one response. “It’s a political nightmare.”

That description would appear to be backed by the fact that, of 31 people approached to speak for this article, 11 would only do so off the record. As that same employee says, “anyone speaking publicly nearly has to have every phrase siphoned through a lawyer – one word could cause a political bomb.”

Officials from the SFAI did not return calls, those from the Dublin District Schoolboys League did not want to talk because of the dispute with the SFAI over the contentious radius rule – whereby players are only allowed join a club within a certain distance of their registered school.

That row actually reflects the entire problem. It would just never have existed if the structures were correct.
Eight different figures, some of them currently working for the FAI, boiled the issue down to this: the FAI traditionally have not governed football in the way the German or Dutch federations do.

All of them pointed to the crucial first step in the structure as one of the most important examples. The absolute key ages of development are between six and 12, yet the affiliation immediately in charge of those players have not always proven the most progressive. The SFAI rejected 44 of the 51 guidelines in that 2009 underage review, which remains untouched. Despite how important and obvious it seems, a significant number of leagues around the country for players under the age of 12 still involve 11-a-side matches as well full-size pitches and goals.

Speaking in general, Kinsella says “it’s a crazy situation the SFAI have one rule and the governing body another.”
When one FAI employee was asked why that was, he responded “you’d have to ask the schoolboy bodies”.

“Power? Some within the SFAI seem fearful of the FAI having any proper control of underage football. If John Delaney tried to railroad those changes through, they could just say no, and then turn around to thousands of volunteer administrators and say ‘we’re against this’.

“The Mé Féinism at local level goes right up, where you then have people at council not concerned about their county or affiliate, just their own club, and that’s of no value to a strategic approach to development.”

One notorious story has rippled around coaching circles, and was repeated verbatim by four different sources. In January 2013, the coaches of the under-15 Irish team staged seminars in Dublin and Limerick to inform Kennedy Cup managers what they were looking for, since that squad is the first international age group. It was a logical and encouraging move, and should have precipitated wider integration.

The SFAI, however, were not initially consulted about this. So, shortly afterwards, the affiliation sent a memo to their 32 leagues to disregard the seminars.

The sessions went ahead, with 76 coaches attending in Dublin and 35 Limerick, but a number explained they wouldn’t be going because the SFAI had instructed them not to.

As recent as that story is, the FAI insist things are changing. Senior figures stridently deny the association is as “political” as historically outlined. “The FAI run football in this country,” one official asserted when some of the above stories were put to him.

For the FAI’s part, there is evidence supporting their stance. Early in Delaney’s tenure as chief executive, the voting power at council was changed. The SFAI lost out and the League of Ireland gained, but this always had to be a first step in re-aligning the power balance along European lines so the senior game becomes more influential than the amateur.

One FAI figure also cited how the progressive DDSL wanted to leave the SFAI, but the governing body blocked that. Only a few years ago, too, the FAI would not have been able to put an exact number on the amount of clubs under their jurisdiction. It was much easier for a club to be formed out of nowhere to sidestep a political dispute or increase the voting power of a league. That has been tightened.

On a player level, the FAI has remarkably never had a full central registration system for the amateur and underage game – preventing statistical analysis – although a deal was signed in mid-November 2013 for the implementation of necessary software.

Leading FAI officials also believe criticism of the SFAI is “hugely unfair”, that there are a number of progressive people in the affiliation, and that the schoolboy body has “historically been very good for Irish football”.

That history is relevant, and there is no escaping how much a complicated political past has conditioned the current situation. When the major sports were first codified over a century ago, football was unfortunate the GAA and rugby had more fixed foundations, particularly in schools. From that, their structures were more smoothly built. As the League of Ireland clubs have repeatedly found, the GAA almost completely appropriated local representation.
Football had to find a different way to grow around such monoliths, which explains the formation of so many disparate affiliations, from the FAI Schools to the WFAI. While such a structure makes no sense compared to the modern fluency of the Dutch and German federations, it was an inevitable consequence of how football first laid roots in Ireland.

One of many catch-22s at the core of any reform is that it may require a lot of individual bodies and competitions to decide whether they must exist.

Evolution is rarely painless. Belgium found that during their own 2002 revolution. As their technical director Michel Sablon explained recently, “it took more than five or six years before everyone could bring themselves to accept… in the beginning it was terrible, but eventually they began to see it.”

Before that, in the mid-90s, the Dutch federation took 20 regions all working independently and combined them into just six. Dokter was involved in that process, alongside the legendary Rinus Michels, but does not necessarily feel a combative approach is the right way here.

“These competition structures are obviously a complex area,” he says.

“It’s about consultation, a professional discussion. Yes, you need sometimes to think outside the box, and that’s the challenge.

“We have to get everybody more working together, collaboration.”

That collaboration could be key because there is still so much separation and discord within Irish football. Even if every player under 12 was to enjoy the perfect coaching environment, the next step is fraught with further political complications.

If the ideal is that elite kids go through a schoolboy club to either England or a League of Ireland academy, many involved can still not stomach the idea of linking up with traditional rivals for players. There is a historic lack of trust – even “hatred” – from schoolboy and junior clubs towards the senior domestic league.

One primary aspiration for some clubs is to make money from selling players on, but one corresponding major fear is other teams poaching the finest candidates. Disputes over compensation remain rife.

Again, actual blame is somewhat difficult to apportion given the situation is so shaped by history as well as the gravitational pull of England, but that also makes it harder to untangle.

To begin illustrating the dilemma, there is the very fact the five biggest schoolboy clubs are not also five of the biggest Airtricity League clubs. That is another situation almost unique to Ireland. Instead, those clubs are found at the top of the DDSL, and have produced the key proportion of internationals over the past few decades. In terms of pure coaching and style, outfits like St Kevin’s Boys and Belvedere are shining examples to the rest of Ireland – another factor in the dispute over the radius rule.

“You cannot argue with how successful the DDSL have been to mine players,” says Dave Henderson, who has worked as a scout for Shelbourne and Aston Villa. “There’s something working there.

“The Belvederes, the [Cherry] Orchards and Kevin’s, they’ve kept the international team going, so you can’t just say go away.”

The crux is the long-term benefit of Irish football as a whole may require them to go a slightly different way. As many interviewed for this article state, the historic success of such teams has blurred the line between whether they are still just schoolboy clubs or effective “businesses” selling players abroad.

In an ideal structure, those teams would be linked to League of Ireland academies. The likes of Cork City and Sligo Rovers should be umbrellas for all the clubs in their region, serving as a defined tier in the pyramid.
Dokter supports this.

“Building strong clubs is very important: financially – which is a problem – but also in terms of organisation, logistics, facilities.”

The problem is not just asking the most successful schoolboy clubs to make a financial sacrifice. There is also the the reality that so many League of Ireland teams remain afflicted by necessarily short-term approaches, but that only reveals another crux. Initial small investments in youth structures would begin to have long-term benefits, gradually breaking the endless cycle of strife. Only a few clubs to do it, most notably Shamrock Rovers, Limerick and Waterford United.

That tension between short term and long term runs right through this entire issue of restructuring Irish football, right to the core of taking hard decisions.

When the idea of lowering the League of Ireland under-20s to under-19s was first broached a few years ago, there was “uproar”. Schoolboys clubs feared it was an encroachment into their territory; senior clubs worried about extra expenditure.

Gradually, reform came. The under-19 Elite League of Ireland was announced in 2011, and is now encouragingly being filled by Emerging Talent Programme graduates. It stands to reason that, over the next few years, the technical level of the League of Ireland will rise.

The FAI maintain that is proof Delaney’s gradual approach is the correct way to about this plan, and will secure sturdier foundations. “John will only make a move on something once he’s put the building blocks in first,” one association source said. “Things cannot just be done overnight.” Those close to the chief executive state he is conscious never to “burn a bridge with anyone involved”.

The other factor that can’t be overlooked is the FAI cannot exactly afford to burn money either. Even the implementation of small-sided games from the 2009 underage review would have cost around €3m, and that at a time when funding was being cut. That slowed the process, but there is still the dilemma that the limited money invested will be used inefficiently while the structure has so many gaps. That, again, makes reform imperative.

Critics of Delaney’s gradual approach argue that makes it all the more important he starts taking harder decisions with people; that the glacial pace will only lead to more rock-faces being formed, all while other countries stream away. Despite Delaney’s reluctance to risk future negotiations with a hardline attitude, some involved believe that is unavoidable. Three different high-profile sources stated that the chief executive now has a “golden opportunity”. They insist, however, that it is necessary to “grasp the nettle”, to draw a defined line in the sand like Germany in 2000 or Belgium in 2002.

The FAI maintain that juncture was the appointment of Dokter as High Performance Director.
of course, similar sentiments have been heard about his predecessor, but FAI sources explain they have learned from the 2012 departure of Koevermans; that they are now ready to rectify previous mistakes.

For one, the job description has changed, given that Dokter’s requirements are now 70% domestic. Secondly, there is his personality. Whereas Koevermans would get frustrated with disagreement, Dokter is much more conciliatory.

“I’m not here to say this is my law, so do this and this,” he states. “That’s rubbish. Our common point is the game – what is good for football.”

“It’s about persuading, and that’s why I’m here – for the football, not the personal. We have to stand above that.”
There are signs that may be having an effect. Previously, figures within the SFAI have been resistant to the idea of the Emerging Talent Programme incorporating players under 14. In January, however, Dokter’s recommendations that be changed will be put to the FAI board. It is expected to be waved through, in what one former association figure describes as a “big step”. It is also hoped the under-19 national league will be under-laid by an under-17 competition, as Dokter completes his technical plan. He will be assisted by a committee of coaches, and it is anticipated the SFAI will put forward John Devine, whose own proposals have earned praise.

“There is a desire for change,” the optimistic Dokter re-iterates. “It has to be step by step, how we can implement the good things.”

With Irish football, it’s hard to know.

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