State of Play: Player development is in crisis and the FAI must act

The days of English clubs doing our own player-development work for us are over

The eight players who began their careers in the League of Ireland and went on to represent Ireland at Euro 2016. Photo: FAI Twitter

The eight players who began their careers in the League of Ireland and went on to represent Ireland at Euro 2016. Photo: FAI Twitter

 

After the games against Mexico and Uruguay it is back to the more serious business of World Cup qualifying this weekend for the Irish team who take on Austria. It will be interesting to see how many of Martin O’Neill’s original Fota Island squad, many of whom got some welcome game-time in the friendlies, are considered contenders now to start a match that really matters.

The sight of Burnley’s Kevin Long coming on in New Jersey and then starting last Sunday was the latest boost for the FAI’s much-maligned problem child – the League of Ireland. It followed on from eight former league players being included in the Euro 2016 squad and international debuts handed out earlier this year to former Dundalk players Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle. Alan Browne, who made his debut against Mexico also had a spell at Cork City, though he didn’t actually play a competitive senior game for the club.

When the eight who made it to France – Hoolahan, Forde, Long, McClean, Meyler, Coleman, Murphy and Quinn – lined up in their old jerseys during the Euros to promote the link, the accompanying tagline for the league – “Where the next generation of legends are born” – made the situation sound pretty rosy. But a fuller analysis of the link between league and national team reveals significant cause for concern.

It’s hard to find such an analysis, though, because neither Jonathan Gabay in his report on branding the league, nor Declan Conroy in his report on the structure, actually looked into it. My 2016 report – Pathway to International and Domestic Football Success – presented to the FAI by the Premier Clubs Association (PCA), did explore the link between domestic league and national team – and found that the league is actually faring particularly badly.

Of the 24 countries at Euro 2016, only Nothern Ireland had fewer players in the squad who had started their careers in their domestic league. Of the other 10 European countries with a population between three and six million, all have domestic leagues making a much more significant contribution to the national team – a typical national squad will see 18, not eight, players who started their senior careers at home.

Does this really matter? After all, we’ve always relied on the English leagues for players anyway. Well, yes, it does. The number of Irish players in the Premier League is at its lowest level since 1995, when the Bosman Ruling helped remove the three-foreigners rule – a form of protectionism for Irish players in England.

This new low is despite the fact that the number of Premier League players who started in the League of Ireland is at an all-time high. Not surprisingly, the number of Irish players coming through English clubs’ academies has fallen significantly since Bosman, as clubs scour Europe and beyond for players.

So, the national team needs the league here to keep producing players. But it is doing so, isn’t it? Look at Boyle, Horgan and Long, surely? Again, not so rosy. Despite the best efforts of Preston, the number of League of Ireland players signing for Premier League, Championship or SPL clubs – and only Paddy Madden has left the league here for a lower league than those and gone on to play for Ireland – has collapsed since the large-scale financial cut-backs at clubs here in the wake of the IMF’s bailout of the national economy in 2010.

This takes on extra significance in light of the fact that the national team is not a young one. With an average age of 29.4, it was comfortably the oldest at the Euros. A year on and 21 of the Euro 2016 squad have either been called up to play Austria or are currently injured; Shay Given and Robbie Keane have retired. The extended 38-man squad had just two players under the age of 24. Martin O’Neill is working wonders to maintain the team’s competitiveness, but even then, we were fourth seeds in the draw for the current qualifiers, and there’s a worrying spate of retirements looming.

Gabay, during his rightly ridiculed league brand review last December, did comment on the link between league and national team, saying there was no reason why the former shouldn’t continue to produce players for the latter. But actually there is a reason – the League was at its most productive between 2000 and 2010, when it could provide a professional environment for young players to develop in before moving on. But Horgan and Boyle were the first ex-LOI players to make their international debuts in three and a half years. It’s no coincidence that they came to attention playing for a professional Dundalk side. Long left Cork in 2010 and, while Browne departed in late 2013 and many believe Sean Maguire will feature for his country sooner rather than later, the numbers are not generally encouraging. The league is drying up.

So what is the answer? The Conroy Report, bizarrely, suggests bringing in players from South American, Asian or African countries, and selling TV rights for the league to those countries to raise funds. This completely misses the point of the league in developing players for the Irish national team. The FAI have adopted Conroy’s suggested 10-team league – but if it didn’t change things in 2002 or 2009, it’s hard to see how it will work now.

The clubs are asking the FAI for more money – Gabay effectively dismissed this as a sort of “Please sir, we want some more” attitude in his report. The clubs might prefer to characterise it as: “We need more,” and they have a point.

The figures suggest that the FAI actually takes more money out of the league than it puts in. But a €50m turnover organisation has no right to be skimming €500 of FAI Cup gate receipts or giving out practically no prize money to half the league once league affiliation costs are taken into account. How can clubs provide a professional coaching structure in that financial environment? Simple: most can’t.

The stark reality is that, unless the FAI actually take the league – not just its headline-grabbing European trailblazers, but the whole league – seriously as a means of developing players, and realise that the days of English clubs doing our own player-development work for us are over, then the national team – fourth seeds for the current campaign – can only continue to slide.

The FAI will say they can’t afford to invest in the league – but the reality is that they can’t afford not to. For the organisation to overlook its own domestic league as it is doing is to fiddle while Rome burns.

Kevin Burke was previously the finance office for Bray Wanderers. Last year he wrote the discussion document Pathway to international and domestic football success.

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