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FAI academy plan: ‘We’ve let politics get in the way of football for 25 years’

Sum of €10m needed annually from Government, private investors, Uefa and Fifa to run club academies

“There is no silver bullet solution,” says Will Clarke, the FAI’s academy development manager. “We are €40-odd million in debt.”

The number of Irish footballers in the top five European leagues has plummeted since 2003 when 33 players averaged 1,420 minutes. Last season, 16 Irish men averaged 613 minutes across the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga and French Ligue 1.

“If we do not get the funding we need, things will just continue on as they are,” warns Clarke. “Ireland will always have good footballers who are successful despite the system. We will have relative success on an ad hoc basis but there will be nothing sustained over a period of time. We want to give as many kids the chance they deserve to fulfil their potential because at the moment, going back many decades, Irish kids have not had that opportunity.”

There are 357 Irish-born male professional footballers; 193 play in the League of Ireland, 81 in England and 83 are spread across 13 countries. There are 26 Irish-born-woman professionals; 21 in England and another five in the US, Belgium and Scotland.


Short- and long-term strategies are being rolled out by the FAI to arrest what FAI assistant director of football Shane Robinson brands “20 years of mismanagement”.

This weekend the EA Sports League of Ireland Academy hosts the best under-15 boys in Abbostown, where the focus is on developing creative talent over the “rigid functional players” the country has historically produced.

Last November, an academy development document was submitted to several Government departments. This follows former taoiseach Micheál Martin stating in May 2021 that €80,000 annually in State funds could be given to each League of Ireland club academy.

The gap of 3½ years between Martin’s interview on Off the Ball and the association submitting a plan is due to their facilities upgrade, which seeks an additional €517 million from the Government over 15 years.

Outgoing FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill had been the point of contact with Leinster House.

Now, the association spends €5 million annually on its 24 club academies — money that largely comes from Uefa and Fifa coffers. It needs to be doubled to €10 million, contend Clarke and Robinson.

This five-to-10-year plan includes a scholarship scheme which the FAI hopes will trigger a football industry, which is now deemed essential for the Republic of Ireland men’s side to have a “realistic chance of being competitive globally”, says Clarke. “If you look at the countries that are investing [in academies], there is a financial return.”

Comparisons to other European football nations, like Portugal and Poland, make for stark reading. Ireland has 10 full-time employees across the 24 academies while the Poles have 376 staff working in 16 academies and the Portuguese have 315 people across seven centres of excellence. Both have 13 full-time youth coaches.

When pressed about how the Irish academies would work, if Government purse strings loosened, Robinson points to the success of Croatia where domestic academies have produced some of the best players in the world.

“Croatia invests heavily in five academies,” he says. “We can’t fund 24 academies. If 24 private investors came in, great.”

The FAI plan to reduce the number of elite academies by introducing a stricter certification process that rewards the better-run clubs.

Former Shamrock Rovers academy director Robinson also noted how the IRFU taps into the privately educated system where two South Dublin schools, Blackrock and St Michael’s, supply 18 of the current Leinster senior squad.

“If you look at the rugby, what the IRFU have done, that is a good model, working with a small talent pool filtered into an academic system where they really focus on player development. Obviously, football is a more global game than rugby and it is going to take a hell of a lot more than that but it is a perfect model that is staring us in the face,” he says.

“The one thing we lack in this country is common sense when we are dealing in football. Putting the player first ... We’ve let politics get in the way of football here for 25 years. We need to have hard conversations happening now and get in front of Government.”

Alongside the search for a chief executive to replace Hill, a director of marketing and communications, and a senior men’s manager, the FAI are interviewing for a head of talent identification and head of performance.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent