The real problem with Irish football, part two: why arguments about populations don’t add up

As if the difference in quality wasn’t daunting enough, the dilemma was that something so simple made it all much more complicated.

The signs were there early on. In the opening minutes of Germany’s trip to Lansdowne Road in October 2012, Thomas Muller made a quick run inside from the right wing. It was just one movement, but the dart immediately took four Irish players out of position – the left-back, the left-winger, the left centre-half and the left central midfielder. None of them could work out what to do, but Muller instinctively knew to keep doing it.

Gradually, the space got wider. Eventually, Germany’s lead became vaster. The ultimate 6-1 defeat remains the worst result Ireland have ever suffered at home, even if embarrassment was tempered by the fact the opposition were one of the best teams in the world.

Yet, to portray that thrashing as merely the consequence of a top team on top form would be to lamentably miss both the point and the potential for a more profound lesson to be learned. This was not just a mid-tier country coming against one of the absolute elite. It was a group of players that have arrived together at the end of a haphazard youth structure facing off against a squad that had been purposefully shaped by one of the finest underage systems in the world.

While one team’s talent had been broadly moulded, the other’s had been maximised. On the night itself, that contrast served to amplify the existing gaps between the teams. That should be eye-opening.

The root of such a repeatedly devastating move was not the kind of innate magnificence that someone like Mesut Ozil is born with. It was the kind of instructed run that can be learnt over time.

Muller’s movement created the space for virtually everything else that Germany did in that match, but was something that had been completely fashioned on the training ground. It seemed almost automated. It very likely was.

Muller had essentially been made to understand how to make that run, why to make it, why it didn’t matter if he never got the ball and how it would consistently help his team.

“The only way you can actually learn that is by having it explained to you,” one Uefa analyst says. “And the only way that can happen is if somebody explains it to them. That’s where Ireland is falling down at the moment.”

It is a viewpoint that should really realign how we think about Irish football, not to mention our aspirations. Fundamentally, there is no valid reason a German player should better know something as rudimentary as a run. Fundamentally, there is no valid reason the average Spanish player should have superior technique. All of these aspects can be coached, right up to a highly competitive point.

Of course, some individuals will always have the innate ability to far surpass such a point. Barcelona will not always nurture a Leo Messi. On the whole, however, it is not like nations are genetically predisposed to produce a certain type of talent. Twenty years ago, Spain were most famous for bottling it in tournaments. Twenty years ago, Spain were not fielding players like Andres Iniesta.

The far-reaching changes both the Spanish and the Germans made to their infrastructures have by now been pointed to many times, as have the much higher populations of both countries. Arguments about greater numbers, however, don’t really cut it. Everything can be done to scale.

Most importantly, when you scale it all right down, every country starts from the same point: a child learning the game. It is a view encouragingly put forward by the FAI’s new High Performance Director, Ruud Dokter.

“Children of eight are all the same,” he says. “The culture might be different, but you are the same. Your psychological development, your physical development, it’s all the same.”

Most pointedly, as Dokter puts it, “the principles of development” are the same.

Regardless of whatever future tactical revolutions the game goes through, comfort on the ball is the single transcendent quality. That obviously involves a quantity of connected aspects: the understanding of how to receive the ball correctly, the ability to control with both feet, the mentality to pass rather than punt, the bravery to try and keep it. They are vital elements to develop, and there is only one way to start.

“Young players, they need to discover the game, and they need to have the freedom to play the game,” Dokter enthuses. “Let them play. They will make mistakes, you will concede goals and you will lose, but a good coach will help his players. Freedom of play is essential up to the age of 14.

Naturally, that involves freedom from the pressure to just win. Greater contact time on the ball is crucial. Consider Arsene Wenger’s first question to academy players at Arsenal after a game. It is not whether they won. It is how many times they touched the ball. Then, it’s how they used it.

Alan Kinsella, whose work at Templeogue United has received such praise and seen him move to Everton, echoes Dokter’s philosophy.

“The most important ages are between six and 12 so the coaches of those age groups are the most important coaches.

“When I got involved, I wanted to try and develop players to take chances, to play it out. We wanted to try and play through midfield, play it forward.

“You see, the kids don’t know any different. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the way you play, don’t kick the ball away. Like, you hear at a game of seven-a-side, where a player kicks the ball out to touch and a manager applauds him, whereas I’d be thinking, can he turn and play it back to the keeper? That’s just a small difference and a defender could get caught trying it, but if he doesn’t try, he’s not going to develop.

“I think that’s what we should be promoting, that the FAI should be heavily involved in, an idea of taking chances, getting on the ball. If you mistakes, so what?”

It would also be a mistake to say such principles are not evident in Irish coaching. The vaunted Emerging Talent Programme is built on such an approach, and underage international coach Niall Harrison is known to be a huge advocate of the way the Spanish and Belgians play. His sessions promote those principles, as does the FAI’s coaching education programme. A significant number of elite schoolboy clubs practice them, particularly in the DDSL.
The problem is how deep all that can go. Liam McGroarty has been a member of Uefa’s Grassroots Panel since 2010, and previously worked for the FAI, but retains concerns about the consistency of it all.

“If you’re going to watch what Ajax are doing, or a session that Sparta Prague put on, it’s the exact same stuff a coach would do in Cork,” McGroarty says. “It’s not rocket science, but what they do is consistent and across the board. That’s the big difference.

“The FAI has a responsibility there – we have educated tens of thousands of coaches since the early 2000s. This has been a great feat, but continuous monitoring and support is an issue.

“A difficulty is the amount of clubs we have. If a young coach is not monitored, he or she reverts back to what they know. They forget about proper technique, building possession.”

One coach in the Emerging Talent Programme tells the story of when a club near him put on a workshop for children and managers based on the Coerver approach.

“One of the kids I coach, he had a great day. So I asked him on the Tuesday, did he use any of the Coerver stuff at his next training. He says ‘we didn’t use any of it’. So what chances does that have?

“A player could be with us on a Monday, go back to his club and be told to boot it or, even worse, have no game for three weeks.

“We need to completely change how we see football being played at a young age. Winning should go out the window until you’re 13, 14.”

It is a problem exacerbated by the current structures. While manpower and funding are obviously broader issues, volunteers would be unable to revert if all the young kids were playing mostly small-sided, non-competitive matches. As it stands, too many are playing 11-a-side in full-size goals, with full pressure on them.

It boils down to this: children under the age of 12 will not get as many touches as required if volunteer managers just want to win as many matches as possible.

“What will happen,” Dokter says, “is you will put physical strong players on the back four, you would not substitute anybody.”

That is why structural reform is essential; that is why it is so important the kind of guidelines suggested in the 2009 underage review finally start to go through.

“In order for a player development philosophy to take root,” McGroarty says, “this education needs to be supported by the right competitive structures.”

Kinsella concurs: “Every year, there’s a good batch, but how good could they be if there was specialised coaching?”

Spain may not always produce an Iniesta, Germany may not always produce an Ozil and Belgium may not always produce an Eden Hazard but that is not really the point.

“If a player has all the right attributes but doesn’t get the practice or opportunity to use the ball, he will never become as good as his physical attributes would allow,” the Uefa analyst explains.

“If you have the blocks in place, you’re in the best position to take advantage of any crops that do come through. Even if Belgium didn’t have such a good group, they would still have had something good.”

As it stands, most of what is good in Ireland tends to be fairly “ad hoc”. Scout Dave Henderson believes it is not a coincidence most of the best talent come from an existing football environment.

“There are only a few quality ones. Most of them evolved through their parents, because they’ve played League of Ireland… it often goes back to the father is a coach.”

That is the case with Kinsella, who attempted something so distinctive with Templeogue. While his former club were still fortunate enough to come through one of the most progressive leagues, the DDSL still has elements that are counter-productive in a wider context.

Even beyond the “business” of selling young players to England, clubs pride themselves on schoolboy trophies won, and many kids are poached in this pursuit too. Except, despite Templeogue’s relatively small size, Kinsella’s team didn’t quite suffer that. It is telling.

“It didn’t happen with the group I have, which is this year’s under-16s, and the reason I think it didn’t happen was because I’ve been with this group since under-four and worked on technical ability a lot: both sides, left and right foot, beating players, losing players, trying to work on basic co-ordination, skill levels. So, by the time we got to play at under-7s, we were better than everybody else.

“You might concede goals by beating the player in the wrong area or trying to pass the ball across the back, but you’ll get the benefit later on – if you’re prepared to stick with it.

“It can be difficult even at seven-a-side because it’s very competitive, a lot of shouting and screaming, but the parents bought into what we’re trying to do.”

Kinsella and colleague Eric Stokes took the time to initially bring all of the parents in and explain their plans, and it created the platform for everything that followed: a series of National Cups, a number of underage caps, and a lot of interest from English clubs. The key was that Templeogue did not specifically target such achievements.

Because Kinsella and Stokes didn’t concentrate on just winning, they didn’t lose players. The children were enjoying themselves, and then began to enjoy victories as a by-product. It is an approach Dokter would approve of.

“Coaches are also facilitators,” Dokter stats. “You bring [children] to the club and they play, they enjoy the game, and you help them to become a better player. By doing that, you facilitate winning the game, instead of only addressing winning the game.”

“Football isn’t a short-term thing,” Kinsella adds. “It’s a long-term thing. The players are going to be competitive anyway.

“We won a few trophies but forget about all that. Work on development. We’re seeing it in some of our guys now, where they’re stepping on and showing what they can do.”

That step is key, and reflects the importance of implementing a pyramid structure. Once players have perfected the basics, they can then be coached the more complicated aspects of the game; team collaboration; tactical shape; the type of runs that Muller makes.

“Everybody should have enough playing time at underage football,” Dokter surmises. “Once you go up, at 17, 18, 19, the team is more important than the individual. All underage football is for me development, but the result becomes more and more important at the age of 19 because that’s the last step to go to the seniors.”

Streamlining the structure would make it easier to then produce a higher standard of player.

“We don’t produce enough players who can do that something different, go past a player, produce something out of nothing,” Kinsella states. “Those players are there but we don’t help them enough, we don’t have many game-changers at international level or just below, League of Ireland level.

“I think working on the technical level of the younger players will help bring them out.”

It may make the difference in the long run.

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