Graham Barrett: ‘The time for action in Irish football is now’
Ex-Arsenal striker warns Irish football’s future is bleak unless radical changes are made
Graham Barrett: ‘What is most frustrating is that the reasons we are so far behind are as clear as day. Our structures are outdated and they have been failing us for a long time, yet we still dance around the subject and pretend that we are doing something, when the reality is that we are not doing nearly enough.’
Graham Barrett: ‘Put simply, our problems are down to the fact that we have stagnated while the football world around us moved on. We have stood back and watched as other countries professionalised themselves in how they developed players from an earlier age and invested in new facilities.’
I believe there are huge issues at grassroots/underage level within Irish football - issues that are either not given enough recognition, underplayed or glossed over to give the impression that the powers that be are doing enough to see us kick on.
As things stand, I believe the simple truth is that the technical and physical standard of the majority of young players in Ireland will continue to steadily decrease unless we act and tackle these issues dramatically.
It’s imperative that we open our eyes and recognise that we have drastically fallen behind our rivals.
What is most frustrating is that the reasons we are so far behind are as clear as day.
Our structures are outdated and they have been failing us for a long time, yet we still dance around the subject and pretend that we are doing something, when the reality is that we are not doing nearly enough.
Almost 20 years ago, under the guidance of Brian Kerr and the late Noel O’Reilly, our underage set-up was seen as one of the best and most productive in Europe.
The success of our senior teams in Euro ‘88, Italia ‘90 and USA ‘94 inspired a generation of youngsters to believe that despite our small population, Ireland should expect to win and expect to succeed regardless of the level of opposition.
With this sense of belief, the country’s youth record between 1997 and 2003 was unprecedented.
A third place finish at the Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia; two European Championship titles at Under-16 and Under-18 literally three months apart the following year; a third placed finish in the Under-18 European Championship in 1999; a place in the last eight of the World Under-20s, losing only to hosts Nigeria on penalties; and yet another excellent showing in the 2003 World Under-20 Championship in the UAE.
This period of time is seen as the birth of what has been referred to as a “golden generation of players”.
More than 20 players from five different age groups would go on to earn a over 600 senior international caps between them.
It is fair to say that this success was unprecedented.
But things have changed. There is no comparison between our productivity at youth level from that period to the present day.
Paul Doolin’s 2011 Under-19 group aside, it is rare that our youth teams even qualify for an underage European Championship now, let alone challenge to win one.
It begs the question, why has there been such a change in our fortunes at youth level?
Put simply, our problems are down to the fact that we have stagnated while the football world around us moved on.
We have stood back and watched as other countries professionalised themselves in how they developed players from an earlier age and invested in new facilities.
As measures were implemented elsewhere to increase the numbers of properly qualified coaches, we did next to nothing and now it has come back to haunt us.
All over Europe, aspiring young footballers aged 8-12 train between eight and 12 hours a week while players aged 12-16 can practice as much as 12-15 hours per week at fantastic training facilities.
At 16, the best players then enter a full-time football environment at professional clubs.
Here at home, our kids get an hour on a Tuesday and Thursday, more often than not on very poor surfaces that might be more fit for a local gang’s piss up than a technical football session.
With just that in mind, how in God’s name do we expect to continue to keep pace with other countries unless we radically change our approach?
People might argue that players like Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, Roy Keane, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff only trained three hours a week on the same facilities, coached by volunteers with no real football education.
But the vital difference is that there have been massive social changes over the past 20 years.
Players of generations past were out kicking a ball on the street as soon as they got home from school until well after dark.
Computers, television, video games and social media outlets have provided children with exciting ‘hobbies’ deemed more attractive than kicking ball from dusk ‘til dawn out on the street.
There is absolutely still a love for football within society and many children still dream of becoming a footballer, but there are so many more distractions that kids just are not playing enough street football anymore.
They have become more reliant on their limited practice time at clubs to allow them to improve, rather than the self-educated street footballing greats of our past.
In an economic climate that sees our country hugely under-resourced in comparison with our neighbours, I understand that it is unrealistic for the FAI to invest and transform facilities throughout the country overnight.
It will also require time to install measures to improve the volume and standard of our coaching.
But the plans put in place so far are just not good enough. For example, the Emerging Talent programmes set up by the FAI to provide extra coaching for our elite football players aged 11 and up do not provide enough training time.
Indeed, the drawn out development plan to improve grass roots football in Ireland is only so-so and although some parts are good, overall it fails to scratch the surface in terms of establishing the foundation we now need to put in place before we can kick on.
Changing the ‘win at all costs’ mentality for children is something that has been fairly well received, but in my opinion, not fairly well explained.
There is nothing worse than going to watch my 10-year-old son’s team and, more often than not, seeing a raving lunatic of a coach hopping up and down on the opposite sideline shouting and roaring, rather than encouraging imagination and expression from his team.
I must counsel though – and this is such an incredibly important point – that it is also wrong, in my opinion at least, to create a perception that winning doesn’t matter either. That is just not right.
We risk losing the very essence of what we are all about out of the sort of footballer we produce.
It is important in football, sport and life to understand the feelings and emotions that go with winning – and losing – so I would never agree that it is simply the taking part that counts.
Participation is great, but alongside learning skills, techniques and game understanding, there has to be an inner desire to win – it is the very pure essence of sporting competition.
Children need to take pride in winning and understand what helped them along the way.
But they also need to understand that winning at all costs, by any means necessary is counter-productive to their individual and collective development.
I’m sick of hearing people say we must change the culture of Irish football. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life.
We must add to our culture, we must continue to improve our culture.
This should not be at the expense of what we hold so sacred – spirit, heart, desire and that never say die attitude; the fearlessness to never ever be intimidated; our unique and street-like expression of how we play the game.
We have huge qualities that are in danger of dying, not just because of social issues and the emergence of Twitter, Facebook etc . . . but also because we are not sending the right message to our children.
The message from the FAI and Ruud Dokter is vague and almost comes across like: “Sure don’t worry about winning or losing – it doesn’t matter”. That is just not who we are.
I’m certain the great players I mentioned above would compete as hard in a game of ‘three-and-in’ on the local field or street corner as they did in World Cups and in the Premier League.
Their competitive nature was as important for them as their unquestionable talent and it was all honed from an early age.
What we have now when we watch most youth football is too much of one wrong thing or the other.
You have the raging lunatic coach – that everyone agrees needs to be done away with – and you have the guy on the other side, standing on the touchline giving no sort of encouragement to his team of how he wants them to play or what he wants them to do.
Both scenarios are equally dangerous.
At any level, the first obligation of a coach is to inspire the players he works with.
To make them feel confident enough to express themselves, while also making them believe in what they can achieve.
The enthusiasm and assertiveness a coach brings, even when correcting an error from a player, is vital.
Kerr was incredible, as was O’Reilly. They made you feel 10 feet tall as a footballer but at the same time, struck a balance of when and how they should be critical – being able to correct without killing a player’s confidence.
I also worked with Don Howe at Arsenal and he was the same. Incredibly talented people when it came to getting everything out of young players by encouraging and correcting, but always within the right manner.
Their style was so successful because it commanded respect, as their information was always fair and accurate.
Most importantly, it created a real spirit and desire among the players as their passion was so infectious it made us believe without a doubt in what they were preaching.
In plenty of cases, modern coaches are prevented from expressing their enthusiasm to young players because it may go against what is written in their development manual. I find it incredibly sad that we have reached this point.
Despite a hugely encouraging start to my own career, I turned out to be a very average footballer – absolutely no question – but I played in an era of youngsters who were not just talented, but fearless.
Our attitude made even the least talented of the group perform to a standard that was perhaps unrealistic.
But we proved that once you went across the white line, dreams could be achieved.
We simply cannot lose our footballing ‘soul’, as that scenario is unforgivable. Nevertheless, it appears to be happening today.
When it comes to our current underage international teams, our shortcomings have never been more evident. I just cannot identify with what I see.
Most of the performances lack belief; we are rigid, very robotic and we play in a very un-Irish like way and that kills me.
The 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation is apparently the way forward. It’s as if this is some sort of new invention that will help us fix everything, and get out youth teams playing more like Spain, the Netherlands or Brazil.
We are not and never will be able to replicate these great nations’ style. We can take bits and learn off everyone, but we are who we are and we should take more pride in developing and improving our own style and individuality.
Many of the kids in our youth teams look as if they are tactically bogged down with instructions of, for example, playing in this zone when the ball is here and playing in that zone when the ball is there, because this is what other countries do.
During our period of success in the late 1990s, I remember changing from one formation to another and being comfortable in whatever way Brian or Noel wanted to play.
If the formation changed from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, which it did frequently, the one thing that absolutely did not change was the ultra-positive and hugely passionate intent in which we played.
Yes, all of the teams between 1997 and 2003 had some exceptionally talented individuals, names that now belong in Irish football folklore.
But in truth Kerr and O’Reilly’s methods made most of us perform well above ourselves and the results were historic.
It may sound like I am trying to big up what we achieved, but that is honestly not my intention.
I am trying to portray what can be achieved when belief and confidence is instilled into a football player – regardless of nationality.
Tactics, technical information and technique are undoubtedly all extremely important, but making a player believe is the biggest job of any coach and I feel that we do not practise this anymore at youth level.
Whether that is because the coaches involved with our international teams are not good enough to motivate these boys and get their message across, or they are instructed to speak and coach in a very specific manner, the reality is that it is just not working.
Our players don’t seem to be responding consistently enough and as a consequence we have achieved average results at underage level for a number of years now.
My belief is that there are some very good people and talented coaches within the FAI, so my guess is that the directive to our international underage staff coming straight from Dokter may be to give a certain level of direction, but also allow the players make their own choices and learn from their own mistakes. If this is indeed the approach, I am not in favour of it.
The theory itself is understandable and I respect the strategy – players should not be over-coached – but we have failed to find a balance between inspiring and educating our kids at this level and giving them the confidence and freedom to play.
It is difficult to comprehend how because our past success at underage level was built on striking such a balance.
This should not be interpreted as an attack on Dokter. I respect that he is a man of real experience and have no doubt that his heart is in the right place, that he only wants what’s best for Irish football.
His credentials are certainly a good indication of his ability but our performances and approach at youth level under his tenure suggest that he has yet to fully understand the Irish psyche.
He still has to find a way to strike the right balance of implementing his new ideas while also preserving what makes us unique if our young players are to progress under his stewardship.
Fire, passion and controlled aggression must be the bedrock of how we must approach football matches at every level.
The technical aspects must improve but won’t until the FAI change their current guideline and put a structure in place to allow kids far more practice time.
The FAI is our national association. It should not be seen as an obstacle for Irish football but an inspiring light.
They must lead us now and show more vigour and invention in aggressively attacking our current issues, even if that means upsetting other stakeholders in the process.
They must be transparent and communicate far more regularly with the footballing public as they have a duty to every person who loves football in this country to regularly provide fully detailed reports and updates on what stage their plans are at and how and why they are suitable to improve Irish football.
There is too much uncertainty at the moment about what plans are in place and how loose recommendations may pan out.
For example, the proposed plan for 80 approved FAI Academies for 6-12 year olds by 2020 sounds like an interesting idea, but how specifically would this sort of academy operate?
Okay, criteria must be achieved for a club to achieve this accreditation and the idea that children will get qualified coaching is fantastic news.
But most of these academies, I presume, will be amateur set-ups, so how will they be able to reach the 8-12 hours a week practice time kids at a Premier League club in England may receive? Is this even possible?
If so, this is absolutely brilliant but if not what is the point in spending time on this initiative if practice hours for kids don’t increase?
This venture has not been fully explained so how can we truly examine if it will work?
The creation of a player pathway from junior to senior football in Ireland is, I agree, absolutely imperative. But is simply encouraging partnerships between schoolboy and League of Ireland clubs really wise?
My feeling is that you are either in something together or you are not, as surely at some point the tree will fall down if the roots beneath are not strong enough.
Loose relationships with vastly contrasting agendas will only cause chaos in time if each entity does not share the same vision.
There is no use just papering over a cracks as that cannot be a long term solution. If clubs are going to join let’s make plans to do it properly.
Accepting that our structures ‘are what they are’ and trying to work around a problem instead of meeting it head on, is just not enough. Let’s make lasting recommendations, push groundbreaking ideas.
We are in a position now where we must make big calls for the betterment of youth football in this country.
I believe that despite our current plight, there is a huge opportunity to push on, but we must be brave and each stakeholder involved cannot allow selfishness to control their agenda.
The improvement of Irish football must be the only priority, and nothing else. We must use what we already possess – our own initiative – and pool our resources to give ourselves a foundation that will stand the test of time and allow us to catch up with our competitors.
The general perception has been that to become a professional footballer the best players leave Ireland at 16 for opportunities in England.
However, the failings with our development methods mean that in my opinion, at this point in time, it is conceivable to think that at least 75 per cent of the players leaving these shores are either not good enough or ready to compete at English clubs.
The recruitment process in England has evolved, and the majority of players recruited today to scholarship programmes are technically and physically more prepared than the modern-day young Irish players because they have already received considerably more training between the years of 12 and 16.
The League of Ireland could and should provide an alternative for our kids to have a career in football, but only if we can make this option viable in every sense.
That is not to say that our children should not want to play at the best level possible, merely that they should not pursue this dream until they are ready.
We should never stop a young player at the technical level of Duff, Keane, Dunne or O’Shea leaving Ireland at such a young age, if they and their parents feel that their maturity levels are ready to face such a challenge.
But in truth, we are not seeing enough players of this calibre or indeed potential at the moment, so staying and playing senior football in Ireland until they reach a level whereby they can compete in better leagues, is in my view the correct path to take off the majority of our lads.
Some of our most prominent senior international football players over the past few years began their senior education in the League of Ireland, rather than leave for England at 16.
For now, and in the short term, this is the route that most of our children aged 15-16 years of age should look to take and the establishment of a new, improved National League should be the very foundation of how we build our way forward.
This new league should consist of one division, with no more than 15 teams.
Clubs from the most dominant football counties should be prioritised to be restructured, and merged with the best and most productive amateur schoolboy clubs of each county – ones with adequate structures in place and suitable facilities – to become one entity.
The two Cork clubs - Cork City and Cobh Ramblers – Waterford United, Derry City, Sligo Rovers, Limerick, Dundalk, Drogheda United, Longford Town, Finn Harps, Wexford Youths and no more than three teams from Dublin.
Given their superior gates and resources, I would suggest Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians.
Other professional teams that are located in the Dublin area such as UCD, Bray Wanderers and Cabinteely should no longer be considered professional outfits due to their lack of fan base, suitable stadia and financial infrastructure, while Shelbourne (a club my father played for) should be encouraged to tie in with St Kevin’s (historically, Ireland’s most productive amateur schoolboy set-up) and Bohemians, given all three clubs inhabit the same catchment area.
The fact is that Dublin is not realistically big enough to house more than three professional teams in what is already a poorly supported league.
Entry and membership to the league should be dependent on proof of financial resources, sensible budgets and most importantly the existence of a sufficiently-funded and structured youth set-up.
These would run from academy level starting with five-year-olds right up to senior, and overseen by at the very least a full-time academy director and academy coach.
Together, they would be charged with overseeing all coaching and recruitment from the youngest level right up to the U-19s and their roles should also incorporate developing strong relationships within their surrounding communities.
Incorporated in such a programme should be an initiative to establish partnerships with local schools that would allow the children’s education syllabus be combined with a football education, for a set number of hours a week – providing the child’s education is not compromised.
This, in turn, would help make up for the hours our children are not getting, with sufficient practice hours in a ‘day-release’ styled initiative evident in England already.
Pressure should be put on the Government to help aid the FAI in providing a full-time scholarship programme, combining education with football for aspiring footballers who would then join one of our 15 professional clubs at 16, similar to the structures which currently exist at English professional clubs and clubs throughout Europe.
These young players would learn their trade day-in, day-out, receive a sensible and small wage whilst continuing their education in association with a college of their club’s choosing.
They would also play in the already established U-17 and U-19 National Leagues up until they are ready to play senior football and become professional in the League of Ireland.
Undoubtedly, there will be a large section of people who will have problems with this plan.
However, when you look at the pros and cons, it is difficult to comprehend why something like this has not already been established.
Amateur clubs not chosen to merge with League of Ireland clubs will worry about extinction and ask why they were not chosen – when their lack of facilities and organisation will be quite evident in most cases.
Traditionalists will rebel and demand their clubs refrain from merging with other clubs, or argue that the amateur entity involved must lose its’ name, or wear a different coloured jersey.
Small superficial and insignificant issues when you consider the bigger picture.
These things should not matter and will only result in huge obstacles and create unnecessary chaos in an already struggling domestic game.
It should be made clear to these types of people that we are the only country in Europe right now that does not prioritise our professional set-up and take pride in our National League, despite the fact that it has been the birthplace of some of our finest current senior internationals’ careers.
People must also be told that our current structures do not make us unique but more accurately, rather backward.
Our back-to-front structures are prohibiting us from putting a foundation in place that could help realign the business and technical model of Irish football.
Such structures would have a significant impact on how well we can develop our players, but also from a business point of view, how we might trade on players with bigger clubs from different countries in the future.
There would be no need for any mass cull of amateur clubs or any regional schoolboy leagues either.
In fact, the clubs not chosen to merge with League of Ireland entities actually become more important, as it is crucial they continue to try to excel to make sure they push and keep the professional academies honest.
Every club should still play in their regional leagues and these schoolboy leagues will still house each team, amateur or professional.
With the introduction of the proposed U15 National League coming shortly - in my opinion, an excellent FAI initiative - there is no reason why such a league could not run in tandem with a regional league, as ultimately the more football these kids play the better.
To achieve this, it is crucial that a nationwide switch to summer football happens, and the proposed FAI switch to a season running from March to November is also a sensible idea.
The lack of facilities and 3G surfaces has led to quite a number of grassroots teams playing an average of just 10 games between August and February - and this is nowhere near enough.
The mathematics with regards to how compensation is distributed when a player moves domestically from an amateur to a professional club should continue to be governed closely by the FAI.
It is important that everyone receives a fair slice of the pie - greed must not be allowed to enter the equation.
It’s vital that people also realise that running a properly organised national professional league and improving the infrastructure will see our League gain more credibility and respect amongst other countries and as a consequence, give our clubs much more bargaining power when they begin negotiating with English clubs for the transfer of our best players.
For example, Finnish side HJK Helsinki play in a very similar standard league to our own, with a population that is almost identical to Ireland.
However, when they trade with Dutch or German clubs for the transfer of their best young players they receive much larger transfer fees than Irish clubs.
This is because their league is seen as a real professional organisation with proper standing.
We must study a structure like HJK Helsinki and replicate their business model and, for example, when the next Shane Long, Seamus Coleman or James McClean leave these shores, be in a position whereby we can negotiate a transfer fee of seven figures, instead of barely six.
Another issue posed would be the clubs involved and their own financial situations.
People will ask how can these clubs maintain academies while running a first team in a professional league?
The solution is simple. Cut the running costs of all senior sides and introduce a cap on senior budgets that allows each club to prioritise their youth structures for now.
At present, a League of Ireland annual budget could be anything between €250,000 to €800,000.
Until initiatives to market the league better commence, which in time will (hopefully) improve attendances and sponsorship, salaries for players participating in the League of Ireland should be capped - similar to the method used in the MLS.
A player should earn no more than €400 per week over 52 weeks - instead of the troubling 40-week contracts that so often do the rounds throughout the league.
A further provision of three marquee players that can be paid no less than €400 per week, but no more than €600 per week over 52 weeks, would allow managers to identify and recruit the best, most professional senior players, and in turn aid in the development of their younger players.
These rules will dramatically reduce the average age of players in the league and push managers into achieving domestic success by predominantly blooding youngsters in senior football, to benefit not only their technical development, but the general business model and eventually our national team.
When revenue streams are so low and clubs are paying older players between €750 to €1,000 per week, justifying this figure as the best way to achieve domestic success and attack the dream of European qualification is not a good business model.
Very rarely has this been productive and most League of Ireland clubs who have chosen this strategy have at some point or another entered serous financial difficulty.
The beauty of this League over the past 10-12 years has been in the young gems it has unearthed, several of whom will now carry the hopes of the nation this summer.
Since retiring seven years ago, I have worked as an advisor to several footballers and have helped move 17 young players from League of Ireland clubs to English professional clubs.
I can assure you that when the majority of these players left they did not earn more than €500 per week, and their goals were not of earning as much as they could in the League of Ireland, but more of using the League as a platform to play so they could develop and afford themselves the very best opportunity of earning a move across the Irish Sea.
Maybe there are better ideas out there. I am not saying that my suggestions are 100 per cent the ‘right’ way, and if there are other people out there with ideas, I believe we should be absolutely open to them.
We possess an abundance of human resources but are we using all the expertise we have available to us?
I’m very close to one of our country’s finest young players and his family. At the start of this season while he was home for a few days, I asked Damien Duff would he mind having a coffee with myself, the player and his brother, with the objective being for the player to listen and learn from one of our greatest ever players.
Despite being involved in football for over 20 years, and having listened to and learned from numerous great players and coaches, I have never witnessed someone deliver a message as powerfully as Damien did that morning.
Citing how hard you must work to get to the top, how much harder you must work to stay there, Damien’s honesty and passion simply blew myself and - most importantly - the player away.
Looking at him, you could see he was hanging on every single one of Damien’s words, and immediately after the conversation, he humbly told us that it was one of the most impressive and inspiring conversations he had ever had.
Surely a person of Damien’s status - one of our greatest ever players - would be ideal to consult and involve in a discussion on how best to improve and develop our youth structure.
A man of great integrity and with huge experience of top level football for such a long time, someone who has been exposed to the best facilities and the best coaching should be asked, even begged for their views.
Critically, he knows what it takes to perform in a green shirt from youth level right the way through to senior, and will undoubtedly have strong views on what should be put in place for our future generations of players.
Have any of our current or former players who served us so well been consulted or offered roles to help us progress?
We have so many ex-players with boundless knowledge that would absolutely be able to contribute hugely to the process.
How much have the likes of Robbie Keane, John O’Shea and Shay Given been informed on what exactly the plan is to improve our youth structure?
All three are exceptionally intelligent and shrewd people, who are in the twilight of their playing careers.
Have Robbie, John or Richard Dunne, who enjoyed success at junior level before starring in the senior ranks, been asked their views on our trials and tribulations at youth level?
What about Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, how much have they been consulted?
Our stellar management team of two hugely intelligent and decorated people who so brilliantly guided a fantastic group of players, a group that embodies all that is magical about this great Irish spirit I keep harping on about, to the European Championships against all odds.
Niall Quinn. Liam Brady. Both greats who have made the transition from player to managing not just teams, but in Liam’s case, one of the biggest and most successful academies in England.
Liam’s 20 years at the helm of Arsenal’s youth structure, and Niall’s time spent as chairman of Sunderland surely warrant them an input into the best way of progressing our youth structure.
Why are we not using people like this to our advantage?
Both Niall and Liam will have undoubtedly been exposed to the plans to radically improve grassroots football in England, ones which are already paying dividends despite being in their infancy.
Knowledge of this, partnered with years of experience, should surely mean that in both these people alone we have two huge outlets of knowledge effectively at our disposal.
Stephen Kenny, Pat Fenlon, John Caulfield, Liam Buckley Trevor Croly, Tommy Dunne or Pat Dolan. These men are League of Ireland stalwarts, who were responsible for unearthing many of the these hidden gems.
Would it not make sense to get their take on how best to structure ourselves moving forward especially if our National League could play such a defining role?
And finally Brian Kerr. One of the most successful and decorated men in underage international football and a man who created history but finds himself outside the ‘circle of trust’.
Brian’s omission from any sort of input on how best to improve our youth structure does not make any sense whatsoever.
His absence cannot be in the best interests of Irish football. This man could have a huge part to play and so many young coaches could learn so much off him. I just cannot understand why he is not being utilised.
I recently spent a few days in Liverpool watching the DDSL underage teams training and playing games at Everton’s Finch Farm Training Facility.
The trip was organised by the DDSL and Emerging Talent Programme, with the objective being for their U-11, U-12 and U-13 sides to test themselves against the Everton academy teams - gaining valuable experience in doing so.
Despite neither result going the DDSL’s way during the first night of games, you could clearly see the huge heart, talent and raw potential of our kids.
But while determination and potential are one thing, realising this potential is another.
Every single one of the Everton kids at both levels were a fantastic illustration of how the English game is benefiting from the way they have implemented their grassroots programme to improve their development structure.
Everton are a Category One club, availing of fantastic facilities and with an incredible reputation for developing young players.
That night at Finch Farm they displayed some of the best 10/11 year-old players I have seen. Every single one of them looked physically a year or two older than their age.
Their technical skills and game intelligence were also well beyond their years.
Their first touch was polished; they showed exceptional weight and choice of pass; they moved, rotated and gave each other so many options; they displayed speed when they dribbled and always at the right times and always showed imagination on the ball.
Absolutely everything they did suggested that this was a vastly new and improved generation of football player and credit must go to not only Everton but also the aggressive English FA directives that have prompted such accelerated growth.
The closeness in score actually flattered the Irish teams and didn’t show the gap in technical and physical performance on the night.
Given the circumstances, the fact that our boys remained so close was down to an insatiable strength of character which also belied their own young age.
I think every Irish parent that supported their son that night was very proud of the effort they put in.
But as a someone who has worked in professional football for so long, I was concerned by the vast technical and physical differences between the two teams as a whole and I can only imagine that each of the DDSL coaches walked away from each game wishing if only they could have as much access to their own group of lads.
On the final day of the trip, I watched the DDSL U-13’s take on Everton. Having got to the game late, DDSL were leading 1-0.
As the match progressed, it was clear that the DDSL team were on top, and although the Everton boys were acquitting themselves well, it seemed as though the tables had turned from the previous two fixtures, making me feel that the games a couple of days before were maybe just a bit of a one-off.
But something didn’t seem right. It turned out that Everton were playing a team predominantly a year young, and even with a few players from their U-11 side.
Most of the Everton boys were giving away at least a year in age and others were giving away over two years to the DDSL team - a huge advantage.
They were behind and under pressure within the game, but in no way were they being outclassed or indeed outplayed, and the fact that they could cope against such older opposition was hugely impressive.
I got talking to a man who told me his son was actually one of the boys from the U-11 team playing in the U-13 fixture.
It turned out he had only missed out on the U-10 age group by one month. This was a 10-year-old child playing against 12 and 13-year-old boys.
As our discussion went on, he told me that his son trained at least 12 hours a week, almost every week.
He said it was a big commitment but that his son loved it and as his football training did not interfere with his education, and given Everton and his school worked hand-in-hand to make sure he continued his school work under supervision with the rest of his team-mates, he felt comfortable as a parent that his son was getting the best of both worlds.
I’m not totally sure what the other Irish parents took from this trip.
Some will have seen it as great experience for their kids, as it was. Visiting Everton, meeting a number of the first-team players, autographs, pictures etc . . .
Other parents with more of a knowledge of football will have been aware of the difference in standard they witnessed and will be concerned, but possibly may have excused what they seen as a product of nerves and a long day of travelling preceding the games.
But me - I have only ever known football so I understood exactly what I had seen.
These young Everton teams were not a one-off. Every Category One Academy in England will have their young players train as much now, and the standard will be somewhat similar.
I came away proud that our boys had shown so much character to compete against such excellent opposition.
I admired the DDSL for organising such a trip as it allowed this young batch of players to see for themselves the standards that are evident at top English clubs.
But finally, the overriding feeling I had was one of guilt.
These children love the game and all dream of one day becoming a top football player.
But I possess the knowledge that although Ireland is my home and somewhere which I dearly love, it is a place where our children will not be afforded the same opportunities as those in England and the rest of Europe, to best allow them achieve their dreams of becoming professional footballers.
I am the same as every parent in that we would move heaven and earth to do the best for our children, whether their interest is boxing or ballet.
We will use our own initiative to ensure that we can provide all the help, love and support we possibly can to aid in them realising their ambitions - whatever they may be.
But given the circumstances and current state of play, I genuinely feel great sorrow knowing that many, many children all over Ireland may never have the chance to realistically chase their dream of becoming a football player, solely because as a nation we have been negligent, and unwilling to make the big decisions that could have a positive effect.
This, and not being prepared to stand together and put our egos aside for the sake of our children, is utterly shameful, and we should be embarrassed that we have allowed selfishness and a self serving agenda help create this scenario.
As someone who watches over 200 games a year across every level, I warn one very last time and without any doubt whatsoever, that if we do not do something drastic to improve our youth development we won’t produce footballers anywhere near good enough to compete at a top level - in fact, nowhere even close, as the gap is getting bigger and bigger.
I will leave you with this. Win, lose or draw, after every game at underage level, Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly would gather us together downstairs at the hotel and Noel would get the guitar out and we would have a right good sing-song.
I remember seeing other teams and coaches staying at the same hotel, looking on not knowing quite what to make of it as we belted out the “Fields of Athenry” or some Christy Moore or Luke Kelly classic.
They were mystified and could not understand our culture, so no wonder they could rarely beat us.
And without going off the point, there was one song - written by The Wolfe Tones, ‘On The One Road’ - that was forever my favourite as the lyrics were the perfect illustration of everything that we stood for as a country and as a group. “North men; South men; comrades all… Dublin; Belfast; Cork; and Donegal we are on the one road…”
If only we could show the same unity and togetherness now, we could still give ourselves and, most importantly, our children a chance.