Radical overhaul of underage development required in Irish football insists John Devine

Former international points to success of small-sided game as evidence that less can be more when it comes to producing skilful kids

John Devine (centre), who wants a  radical overhaul of the underage set-up.

John Devine (centre), who wants a radical overhaul of the underage set-up.


Just two days after the FAI’s new High Performance director, Ruud Dokter, alluded to the difficulties that exist between different strands of the Irish schoolboy game, former senior international John Devine has called for a radical overhaul of the underage set-up and insisted that the complete abandonment of competitive leagues for young kids is essential if technically better players are to be produced in the future.

Devine, who played for Arsenal, Norwich and Stoke, is now the Coaching Director of South Dublin Football League where a pilot programme, aimed at getting six- to 10-year-olds to play three- or five-a-side without results being recorded or league tables compiled, has proven so popular that the traditional structures will be set aside next season.

The 54-year-old says that assessments of the trial, in which the methods employed were modelled on trends in the likes of Belgium and the Netherlands showed that players got an average of 70 per cent more time with the ball at their feet and greatly aided the development of key skills like passing, control and dribbling.

“The seven-a-side game being played at present by seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds on a 70 by 50-metre pitch is totally inappropriate,” said Devine yesterday. “As are tables with promotions and relegation at seven or eight years of age . . . they only encourage the coaches and parents to start shouting and screaming at the kids.”

Club loyalties
Instead, Devine and fellow coach Paul Barry of Knocklyon United are championing a system that involved dispensing with club loyalties, ability streaming and even referees in order, they say, to recapture the essence of street football, an environment in which young kids got more opportunities to hone their ball skills.

The FAI and key elite league, the Dublin and District Schoolboy League, seem lukewarm regarding the initiative but Devine says that the number of sides involved in the SDFL’s pilot has swiftly increased from six to 60 and that the feedback from parents, children and coaches has been universally positive, with players of all levels enjoying their football far more while learning more quickly than before.

“It’s not our place to tell the SFAI or DDSL what they should be doing but we are delighted with the results we have seen since John brought in this system and we would be happy to share any information we have if asked,” said SDFL chair Michael O’Brien.

His comments come after Dokter suggested he has been getting a sense of the challenge that faces him just to get everybody involved in the underage game here working together. “My question would be: ‘do we co-operate in a good way and are we all on the same page?’” he has said.