Richie Sadlier: Not in FAI’s nature to nurture young talent

As long as Martin O’Neill’s men keep delivering, the problem will unlikely be tackled

Harry Arter thinks it’s harder for players with English backgrounds to play for the Republic of Ireland. Have a closer look at the health of Irish football, though, and you’ll see nothing could be further from the truth.

He feels this is the way it should be. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he said, “if I was born in Ireland, came through the ranks and had earned my chance on the international stage, it would probably annoy me that an English-born player was getting in ahead of me”.

Arter wasn’t to know this, of course, but if your aspiration is to play internationally for the Republic of Ireland, there’s no disadvantage in being born and developed abroad. In fact, there’s a reasonable argument to make that it’s actually of benefit.

If you assess the state of football in a country by the standing of the senior team, then the Republic of Ireland is in a good place right now. The Euros were a success and the qualifying campaign for next year’s World Cup is going well. A couple of positive results in the coming days will have some thinking the job is almost done. The FAI could be looking ahead to another financial windfall and the talk will turn to when O’Neill should be offered his new deal.

You’ll see a different picture if you scratch the surface a little. The Republic of Ireland had the second-highest number of foreign-born players in their squad at last year’s Euros. Eight of the 23 players chosen by O Neill were developed elsewhere. Out of 24 competing nations it was also the oldest, with an average age of just under 30.

Deserved recognition

Robbie Brady picked up the FAI’s Young Player of the Year award for last year, despite being two weeks shy of his 25th birthday by the end of it. He deserved recognition for his performances for sure (he picked up the senior award too) but he wouldn’t be considered a youngster in any other squad.

None of this is O’Neill’s doing. He said he was determined to give the best young players a chance when he first took the job. A few months later he was publicly questioning where they could be found. That search is ongoing.

I’m sure he has looked at the under-21 side play several times but there’s slim pickings there too. Remarkably, Noel King’s recent squad selections have contained as few as five players born in the Republic of Ireland. King and others will say a country like Ireland must exploit the granny rule as best it can.

As he has said publicly many times, bigger nations do it so we should too. King also acts as the FAI’s head of recruitment so it’s his responsibility. On the one hand, he can say he’s delivering on that promise. But who’s taking ownership for so few being produced at home?

The new underage national leagues will be cited as reasons to be hopeful in the long term but I have my doubts. St Kevin’s are the only elite-level schoolboy club involved which makes little sense. The League of Ireland clubs make up the rest and that beggars belief. There are notable exceptions, but that’s not a group renowned for planning for the future. Nor is it a group with much of a track record in youth development. Think of the League of Ireland and you don’t think of stability, yet the best of what Ireland has is being directed towards them.

Entice players

In the meantime, King, O’Neill and others will continue to entice players trained abroad to declare for the Republic. As recently as last week at the Hibernia Trophy, contact details were being sought for a 14-year-old Northern Ireland player. News that Salford-born Scott Hogan is applying for an Irish passport came the week before. Whatever their success rate in getting players on board, it all feels like they’re just papering over the cracks. Why have we fallen so far behind in producing our own?

Premier League clubs have a wider scouting network and more money than ever before but you’re missing the point if you’re attributing the reduction in standards of Irish footballers to developments in other countries. It’s the FAI’s responsibility to nurture talent in this country to international standards. Of all the areas where the FAI could improve, this is the one where getting it right could have the greatest impact.

To many Republic of Ireland fans, the background of a player is irrelevant. If they’re good enough and they want to play they’ll be welcomed. To others, a sense of Irishness is vital, however a thing like that can be measured. For O’Neill, having the right attitude is key regardless of background.

If Ireland beat Georgia this evening, nobody will mention the birthplace of the goal-scorer. If Serbia are beaten in Dublin on Tuesday, nobody will care for this conversation. If World Cup qualification is secured in the coming months, it’ll be hard to convince some people that all is not well.

There was once a time when Ireland provided players for the top clubs in England but these days it’s a struggle to provide them for O’Neill. The FAI’s response is to bank on the League of Ireland clubs delivering in an area they’ve little experience of any success. What could possibly go wrong?