Ambitious new FAI player pathways plan aims to raise game at all levels

‘We must think bigger, think differently, and enhance our level of ambition’ says FAI director of football Marc Canham

FAI director of football Marc Canham’s long awaited “player pathways plan” seeks to turn dreams into reality by 2036.

Canham, the former Premier League director of coaching, envisages a landscape where Italia ‘90 is revisited every other year and Shamrock Rovers winter between Milan, Madrid and Munich.

The 107-page document begins with this utopian idea: “Can you imagine what it would be like for Irish football if we had teams that were in the final stages of every major tournament, we had a League of Ireland club regularly competing in the Uefa Champions League and every child in Ireland played at least one hour of football every single week?”

The Canham doctrine originated in England but has been reshaped to fit Irish football, ever since the former Colchester United player was appointed by the FAI in August 2022.


The plan is directly connected to last year’s €863 million facilities upgrade project. Just like that big swing for Government funds, implementation of clear pathways requires collective political will, similar to what led to €50 million being set aside on Tuesday by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for the redevelopment of Casement Park in Belfast.

The plan’s funding model will lean into Fifa and Uefa grants with private investment mentioned in the small print.

“We have opportunities to seek investment from Fifa to support different areas of the game including talent development and pathways and support for academies,” said Canham. “We cannot continue doing what we are currently doing.”

Even the facilities at FAI headquarters in Abbotstown are described by the 41-year-old as “not fit for purpose” to host underage Ireland squads, never mind the senior panels.

“The Government do understand the challenges we have in Irish football, it’s very unique in terms of Brexit,” he continued. “We are optimistic and confident that funding will come to fruition, it’s just that the conversation is ongoing.”

Essentially, the FAI want to create eight regional divisions working off the same rewritten rule book and a streamlined fixture calendar, to make Irish football comparable to European countries, like Croatia and Belgium, that have functional football industries.

“Croatia and Belgium are good examples of similar-sized populations and similar infrastructures that should give us the excitement and the ambition – ‘Well, if they can achieve something like us, what can we achieve?’

“What we do know, other than the prominent nations who have won World Cups and Euros over many years, there isn’t necessarily a correlation between winning at underage and senior level.

“Look at Croatia, they’ve been really successful in recent major tournaments. They haven’t qualified for many major tournaments at underage, they haven’t won anything, but they focus on the pathway and supporting high potential players to maximise their potential as a footballer to get through the system.”

If Canham’s plan is to succeed, a January to December fixture list for clubs will happen alongside a distinctly Irish style of play.

“It is clear that football in Ireland is not maximising its potential. We must think bigger, think differently, and enhance our level of ambition.”

Currently, pathways from the amateur to the professional game are fractured and in some areas of the country non-existent. Canham highlights the “inconsistent approach to underage football” with “very little provision” for under-8 to under-11 teams, while Canham believes there is too much focus on “competition and winning” and he has continually stated that “football is not maximising its opportunity with education”. Certainly not when compared to traditional rugby and GAA schools.

The document reiterates the FAI’s intention to “deliver a woman’s and girls’ football strategy” but it is light on information. Seemingly, such a strategy begins with three words: “collaborate, inspire, impact.” The association has been without a head of women’s and girls’ football since Eileen Gleeson was named Republic of Ireland head coach in September.

The intention is to create a national academy for girls aged 12 to 16, supported by Uefa and Fifa grants, appears to be similar to the Irish Football Association system for Northern Ireland’s male underage talent.

It is exceptionally challenging for Canham to embark upon this enormous, 12-year mission while also recruiting the Ireland men’s manager and Gleeson’s successor.

“My job is to provide that framework for Irish football,” he concluded. “We will ensure the head coach we recruit soon and in the future buys into that philosophy. They will come in to add value to that, to enhance it, to bring it with their own ideas.

“We won’t be asking head coaches to say, ‘bring your philosophy in and deliver it’, we want them to come into our framework and our plan, and we see it being a really joined-up approach, with our head coaches but also our development coaches, from 15s to 21s, they are a key part of it as well.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent