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Malachy Clerkin: A rare dose of FAI truth reveals that Irish soccer is in a worse state than you think

The presentation this week on the academy system shows why the past six months of public humiliation has been such an unmitigated disaster for the association

There are currently just nine footballers in Ireland between the ages of 17 and 18 who are receiving full-time professional coaching. Nine players. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Nine players. Nine. Hold that number in your head for a minute. We’ll come back to it.

There was an FAI briefing during the week. No! Stop! Don’t flee! This was different. Depressing, still, yes. But different nonetheless.

It was one of those rare occasions where the usual obfuscations and prevarications didn’t apply. This wasn’t Jonathan Hill dancing on the head of a pin to try to explain how a joke in an email somehow ended up with nearly €7 million in Government funding being withheld. It wasn’t FAI officials showing a turn of pace on Kildare Street to get away from journalists after an Oireachtas hearing. It wasn’t Marc Canham dodging questions during an in-house FAI TV interview about the search for a new manager.

It was none of those. Instead, it was two well-informed, homework-done individuals with a PowerPoint presentation and a library of brutalising stats. Will Clarke is the League Of Ireland development manager. Shane Robinson is Canham’s second-in-command, the FAI’s assistant director of football. Neither of them came peddling guesswork. The situation is dire, everyone knows that. They came to inform you that it’s far, far worse than you think.


The stats whooshed out in a blizzard, all of them drifting into a thick, heavy blanket of bad news. We have somehow designed a system whereby Ireland has 24 soccer academies and just 10 full-time staff for them. Only four countries in Europe have fewer than one coach per academy – our compatriots in this regard are Northern Ireland, Andorra and Luxembourg.

To compare all that against the best in class, Portugal has seven academies and 315 full-time academy staff. If you ever wonder why there is always such a reliable flow of Portuguese players into the top teams and leagues in Europe, it isn’t by accident. The accident is when one of ours makes it.

FAI assistant director of football Shane Robinson and director of football Marc Canham. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

And of course, fewer of ours than ever are doing so. As Gavin Cummiskey reported during the week, Clarke had some entirely grim numbers about the collapse of playing minutes for Irish players at the top of the game over the past decade. In 2012/13, 30 Irishmen played 44,205 minutes in the top five European leagues. Last season, 16 Irish players registered 9,818 minutes between them at that elite level.

You can get blinded by all the figures but you can’t not see the trend. A 78 per cent drop in 10 seasons. Fewer Irish players than ever are playing fewer minutes than ever at the level of the game that matters most. And if that doesn’t drive home the gravity of the situation, then brace yourself. Because it’s arguably not even the worst part.

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

This is where the nine players come in. According to the presentation, there are currently just nine footballers in Ireland between the ages of 17 and 18 who are receiving full-time professional coaching. Since Brexit has cut off the time-worn path to the UK for promising Irish teenagers, the system here has had to pick up the slack – a job for which it is disastrously underfunded and cumbersomely designed.

Nine players. Not even the makings of a full team. Another 28 are part-time and those numbers don’t include the likes of Mason Melia at St Pat’s and Jaden Umeh in Cork, who are still in school. But, for context, back in pre-Brexit times, anywhere between 30 and 50 players aged 16/17 went to England every year and became full-time professionals. We don’t have English football to do that job for us any more. We have to do it ourselves.

FAI interim chief executive David Courell and director of football Marc Canham. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

This is the nitty-gritty of running soccer in Ireland. This is the base level of organisation and planning and strategic capacity needed to keep pace in the world’s most popular sport. Fixing the Irish academy system isn’t like aspiring to a better model of car that runs smoother and goes further. It’s more a case that our existing jalopy has no tyres and we are scraping around for the money to buy some. Even when we get them, we’ll still be miles behind everyone.

Which is why the past six months have been such an unmitigated disaster for the FAI. This can’t be fixed without years of sustained government investment. With the double whammy of Hill’s demise and the manager fiasco, the FAI couldn’t have picked a worse time to be revealed as looking like the least safe bet any government could make.

Canham’s video last week, the non-update update on the managerial search, did the apparently impossible by making things worse. Up to now, Canham has been viewed as a smart guy in the background, professional and savvy, not the usual kind of FAI dissembler. And then he went and spoiled it all by opening his mouth in public and now his reputation lies in ashes.

It’s all such deeply unserious behaviour. One minute Canham is laying out the strategic plan for the coming decades, the much-trumpeted Football Pathways Plan that is going to rely on a completely new funding relationship with the exchequer to come to fruition. The next he is doing a video with Cathal Dervan saying he hopes John O’Shea will take the Ireland team for the upcoming friendlies – without having confirmed it with O’Shea first.

How can they not get it? How has the penny not dropped that every minute they spend bringing public ridicule upon themselves is a minute further away from rescuing a sport that Irish people love, one whose guardianship is their responsibility? From where do they get the arrogance to be so blithe and casual with the future of the game here?

There are nine full-time professional footballers in Ireland who are aged either 17 or 18. This is going to get worse before it gets better.