Michael O’Neill: globalisation of British football has left Irish leagues behind
‘The Irish League still has the same format: two nights training and a game on Saturday.'
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill: “Irish rugby is so strong, producing players of a world level. It’s very difficult to then say ‘here’s a wee lad playing for Crusaders, watch him’.” Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
In a quiet corner of an Edinburgh café, Michael O’Neill has a list of names in front of him. It is a short list. It features players born in Ireland who appeared in the Premier League last weekend.
“It’s tougher and tougher for our boys to come through,” O’Neill says. “Irish-born, North or South, there’s not a huge number going into the top structures. It’s a major concern.”
At Burnley, Kevin Long was a used substitute, while Jeff Hendrick watched from the bench. At Southampton, O’Neill’s Northern Ireland captain, Steven Davis, also watched 90 minutes from the sideline, as did Jonny Evans at Leicester City.
London-born Irish internationals, Harry Arter and Ciaran Clark did appear for Cardiff and Newcastle United respectively, and Coventry-born Cyrus Christie was a used substitute by Fulham. Declan Rice produced another impressive 90 minutes for West Ham, though Rice is not certain to be Irish for much longer.
Of 220 starters, four were born in Ireland. Under 2 per cent. That’s it.
On any given weekend such statistics confront both Michael and Martin O’Neill. Injuries must always be factored in – Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady, for instance – but injuries affect all nationalities.
Five weeks away from the two Irelands meeting in a friendly in Dublin, Michael O’Neill has just been asked to survey the state of Irish football.
As a one-time Irish League teenager with Coleraine and former Shamrock Rovers manager, O’Neill knows domestic issues. As Northern Ireland manager since December 2011, he understands international questions.
A semi-sinking feeling accompanied Nations League results in early September, when a 4-1 defeat for the Republic of Ireland in Wales was followed by a 2-1 Northern Ireland defeat in Belfast by Bosnia.
It feels like the talent pool shrinks year by year. The League of Ireland and Irish League struggle on.
And though both Irish international teams rallied in their next games against Poland and Israel, O’Neill knows the scale of the issues facing Irish soccer.
That his responses range from Conor Clifford to Kevin Moran, from Coleraine to Kilmarnock, from Bulgaria’s 1994 World Cup squad to Manchester United’s vanishing Irish tradition to Ulster Rugby’s recruitment process reveals a level of complexity.
At the end of an hour, O’Neill concludes: “We have to elevate the perception of Irish football. We have to elevate the perception of our leagues.”
He knows it is easier said than done. The 1994 World Cup was put to O’Neill because it was the fourth consecutive tournament with an Irish presence. There has been only 2002 since.
“It’s the combination of a number of things, globalisation for a start,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s feasible to sit down and devise a strategy to combat this. The demographics, demographic change – there were hardly any African players in Europe in 1994 and far fewer South Americans.
“Then there’s being so close to England and the culture and history of English football. All of those things, it’s very difficult to change. We’re suffering because of the power of the Premier League, no doubt about that. But, you know, it’s not just an Irish problem.”
This is when O’Neill switches to Bulgaria in 1994, when the team of Hristo Stoichkov were semi-finalists. Then Stoichkov played for Barcelona; today Bulgaria is full of Brazilians. And a consequence, O’Neill says, “at international level Bulgarian football is awful”.
“Look at Romania, the same, or similar. Poland have bucked the trend a bit, they’ve players at Monaco, Bayern Munich. Do you know who’s the top player from the Czech Republic any more? Actually, it’s [Vladimir] Darida, who plays in the Bundesliga. But it’s another country affected.
“Another thing: in academies in England now there’s a lot of non-British staff. That probably leads to a different thought process, and you have to ask what they associate Northern Ireland with? What do they associate Irish players with? Is it technical ability? There’s always our fighting spirit ...”
That internationalisation of British football is what O’Neill is stressing, and he adds ominously: “The way I look at the Premier League, it’s not going to change. In five years’ time, whoever is manager of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is not going to wake up and have 10 players each playing in the Premier League. I can’t see that developing. So what are we going to do?”
As he says, O’Neill is not poised with an all-encompassing answer. At the Irish FA he has helped implement the Club NI programme which sees the best young boys train and play together as often as possible, and he would like to see the introduction of compulsory underage players in Irish League first teams every week – two per team is his suggestion.
“As an association we do a lot for our young players. But at the minute we’re not seeing that translate as 20 players every year going into English football. The ones who do go are going typically to lower level clubs.
“Of the 20 outfield players I brought to France [(Euro 2016)], six had a Manchester United upbringing –- the Evans brothers, Cathcart, Oliver Norwood, Paddy McNair and Luke McCullough. “Today we’ve one, Ethan Galbraith. He’s under-18.
“Instead our kids are going to Stevenage, Rochdale, Chesterfield. It’s so difficult. Look at Jack Byrne at Man City. Jack’s a sub at Kilmarnock now. Conor Clifford at Chelsea – he came back and went to Limerick. That’s how difficult it is.
“When is an Irish boy going to come through and play at Liverpool or Chelsea or City? I know there’s the young keeper from the Republic, [Caoimhin] Kelleher at Liverpool.”
O’Neill compares how it is with how it was when he was a boy leaving Coleraine in the Irish League to join Newcastle United in England’s top flight in 1987.
“Look at my route. I came at 18 from Coleraine, doing my A-Levels, still at school. Three weeks later I was in Newcastle’s first team. That wouldn’t happen now.
“Today Newcastle wouldn’t even be looking at me. If they did it would be to stick me in their under-23s. Rafa Benitez wouldn’t even know who I was, whereas Willie McFaul took me for dinner. That’s the reality of the change.
“The Irish League was stronger then. But it’s the standard of the Premier League that’s risen dramatically, that’s the thing.
“English football has changed, the Irish League still has the same format as back then: two nights training and a game on Saturday. It’s a part-time league.”
Crusaders in Belfast are addressing professionalism, but as a league the part-time status remains. Crusaders admire Dundalk, as does O’Neill, but as leagues he thinks there are questions for both.
“I read Niall Quinn’s recent comments about boys staying at home longer and the benefit of that. I’d be in that camp – unless you’re getting a really good opportunity.
“Then the responsibility falls on the associations and the clubs to develop players. We need to develop players. The League of Ireland and the Irish League have to recognise their place: are they development leagues?
“And if the argument is that young players should stay at home for longer, then we’ve got to play them.
“Looking at it domestically, bar Gavin Bazunu, the young keeper who’s going to Man City, there isn’t an Irish player in our leagues that a Premier League team is thinking, ‘he could be in our first-team in six months.’ I don’t see that.
“The Irish League is in danger of the co-efficient dropping to 50th in Europe out of 55. The Republic’s is higher, they’ve banked enough through Dundalk in recent years, and League of Ireland teams are better equipped to deal with Europe because of the calendar of their season.
“I’d like to see both leagues’ seasons run on the same calendar. I’d like to see a version of the Setanta Cup back – maybe even at under-23 level. Those would be positive changes.”
An all-Ireland league?
“Can I see it happening? Not in the foreseeable future, because you’d be giving up European places. But from a purely football point of view, it would certainly develop football. The onus would be to go full-time, it would attract investment, better television exposure. Maybe it would work. I’m not sure what level it would go to.”
Crowded sporting landscape
Investment and exposure: he refers not solely to England’s Premier League, but to Ireland’s crowded sporting landscape. O’Neill was a talented Gaelic footballer, his father Dessie hurled for Ulster, and his brother Sean was an 800m runner who represented Northern Ireland at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. O’Neill understands the squeeze on soccer.
“Rugby and GAA are miles stronger than when I was growing up, and, obviously, more professional. If you’re a kid in Northern Ireland want to live there and be a full-time sportsperson, Ulster Rugby is the only team sport that provides it.
“Play for Ulster – or Leinster – and you can live in your own city. Rugby players aren’t being asked at 16 to go over and live in Manchester or Oldham.
“It’s different – Ulster Rugby concentrate all their recruitment on eight schools but they will move boys. If they find a 15-year-old in Fermanagh they’ll move him via a scholarship to Campbell College in Belfast. That model exists. They recruit in GAA as well.
“The competition facing football is greater than it’s ever been in terms of audience. Leinster Rugby is massive, Munster fill Thomond Park, Ulster fill Ravenhill with the game on BBC Northern Ireland. That didn’t exist when I was growing up.
“Irish rugby is so strong, producing players of a world level. It’s very difficult to then say ‘here’s a wee lad playing for Crusaders, watch him.’ But at grassroots, participation level, I’m not so sure. I think the ones who want to play soccer will play soccer.
“It’s a different mentality. GAA is all about representing your county. Rugby? Not sure. From what I’m hearing, old rugby clubs like Ballymena, Dungannon are suffering because of professionalisation.”
Rugby has risen to occupy a heightened space in Irish sport. Two years after Euro 2016, Irish soccer feels in a different place.
Next month the teams of Robbie Brady and Gareth McAuley meet again. Even though O’Neill says the eligibility issue means there is “a bit of an undercurrent”, he is looking forward to it.
He recalls lining up in tunnel at Lansdowne Road for Northern Ireland in 1989. He had just turned 20, and was the weight of a packet of crisps. Kevin Moran, staring across, may not have been intimidated.
“It’ll depend on where we are in the Nations League,” O’Neill says of the competitiveness of the friendly. “We’ll have one game left at that point.
“We both went to Euro 2016, both sets of supporters came out with immense credit. We’d like to see the game as an occasion, showcase Irish football both sides of the Border.”