It’s tougher at the top for our best young Irish prospects
Top English Premier League clubs are scouring the globe for the best young talent
Jack Grealish: will be hoping to make a big impression with Aston Villa’s first team this season. Photo: David Rogers/Getty
There will be few better days for Roy Keane to combine his club and county roles than the opening day of this new Premier League season.
Aston Villa’s visit to Stoke leaves the former Ireland skipper nicely placed to weigh up the early season form of Martin O’Neill’s options amongst the home team while also putting in his shift on the day job. There were won’t be too many weeks, though, during the coming months when things fall into place quite so nicely.
The number of Irish players involved with clubs in the English top flight will be generally but not dramatically down on the days when Keane played with Manchester United.
Critically, though, there is a significant decline in the quality of the opportunities available to them and as the new campaign opens Everton are again likely to be the top -placed side in which Ireland will maintain a real presence.
Really talentedLiam Brady lamented the fact last week that there are no really talented young Irish players coming through. While there are a handful of youngsters at Liverpool and Manchester United whose families might disagree, the leap from academy to A-list at the top four or five clubs is so difficult to make at this stage that it is almost impossible to be optimistic about them making the breakthrough.
More recently, the trio of Samir Carruthers, Derrick Williams and Jack Grealish shared the same Villa bench for a Premier league game or two having impressed as the club won the NextGen series by beating Chelsea in the final.
Now, Grealish is the only one still at the club with Williams having decided it was time to go a year ago when he headed for Bristol City and Carruthers having made a permanent move last week to MK Dons where he spent the best part of last season before being sidelined by a knee injury.
And this is at Aston Villa, where the budget has been cut dramatically and the manager, Paul Lambert, has a reputation for giving young players their chance.
More competition“It’s ever so much harder for the lads now than it was in my day,” says former Ireland under-21 international boss Don Givens who came through the Manchester United youth system and made his first debut at 19, “There’s so much more competition for them.
“I think the only thing that saves us is that our players tend to have a good attitude, a real hunger and determination to succeed and that helps them, even if they are let go. If you have that you can drop down the divisions and then come back, like I did when I went to Luton then came back to play for QPR.”
His successor in the under-21 job, Noel King, spends much of his time looking at players in those lower divisions – there are around 80 who are eligible in Championships squads compared to half that in the top flight.
When O’Neill named his initial squad of 29 for the Serbia game in the spring for instance, just 15 were with Premier League clubs and around half of the 20 top-flight managers will get through the coming campaign without once playing an Irish player.
In the case of Arsenal, long a hotbed of Irish talent and where Brady was in charge of youth development until the start of the summer, the first team squad contains players of 17 different nationalities but no Irish or, for that matter, Scots.
Scouting networksThe Dubliner said last week he had warned the FAI years ago that the outlook was bleak and the reason is not hard to find. Though the academies at the biggest clubs have expanded dramatically over the years, places are still limited but the scouting networks employed to fill them have become global in their reach.
“You scout every corner of the globe,” said Brady. “You have to. Because if there’s a great 16-year-old in Argentina then you can bet your life that Manchester City also know about him.”
Being transplanted halfway around the planet is no guarantee of success. The vast majority of young kids fail to make the top grade and many are lucky to make a living from the game’s lower levels. Moving a youngster from Ireland requires rather less effort or commitment and so it is inevitable they fall by the wayside in larger numbers.
“I think the introduction of compensation being paid to schoolboy clubs was significant for our lads,” says Givens, “because for a lot of them it was the difference between the club taking the chance and giving them a professional contract or letting them go. I think the payments are a good thing but it definitely cost some of the players.”
Despite instances of meanness involving even the most high-rolling of outfits, that’s probably less of an issue with the Premier League where the bigger problem is managers reacting to the intense pressure to pick up points week in week out by buying in proven players rather than handing youth an opportunity.
Really talented“Every year you’ve got a really talented batch of lads going over,” says King of the conveyor belt that rolls away, largely unseen.
“But senior players are playing longer and there are far more lads competing to replace them. Everyone wants to play in Premier League, that’s the reality . . . .
“I don’t think we do too badly, though,” he adds. “To make it at a club like Arsenal, you’re effectively talking about a young player proving himself to be worth something like €30 million and that’s very, very difficult; of course it is.
“At a lot of the other clubs, though, the Evertons and the Stokes and the Hulls, we do okay. They’re good clubs, strong teams and I think we’re still punching above our weight . . .”
A decade ago Keane might have bristled at the suggestion. As he watches Stoke and Villa today, it seems safe to presume he’d concede the point.