Irish football needs a Spanish Inquisition

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At the start of this season, there was talk that this was the year Robbie Brady was all set to become a first-teamer at Manchester United. That was in high summer. By November, he was on loan to Hull City and last week his temporary move to the KC Stadium became permanent. There is no shame in not making it at Old Trafford and there is certainly plenty of time for somebody of Brady’s age to try to make Alex Ferguson regret his decision to allow him to move on. But, his departure now means that since Johnny Giles, John O’Shea is the only Irish player in half a century to come through the youth ranks at United and become a starter there.

That statistic should be making people in authority in Ireland ask themselves a rather important question. What is wrong with the way we are developing our best and brightest that they can’t make the break through at the biggest clubs anymore? Citing the increased presence of foreign youngsters in the English academies is a fair enough excuse up to a point. That should certainly affect the numbers of Irish. But we should surely still have at least one or two capable of cutting it with the very best every few seasons. Not one every fifty years.

Brady’s presumed emergence at Old Trafford was one of the positive stories of the pre-season yet now he becomes more evidence that something is not right in Irish football. When was the last time an Irish youngster broke through at Highbury? Was it Niall Quinn in the 1980s? Who was the last one at Liverpool? Steve Staunton, the same decade? Perhaps the really galling part about this is nobody sees it as indicative of a larger malaise within the Irish game.

I first came across Brady during the 2008 European Under-17 Championships in Turkey. I watched that tournament online because my first cousin, Gearoid Morrissey, then on his way from Ringmahon Rangers to Blackburn Rovers, now a stalwart with Cork City, was playing. And, our family was inordinately proud of this fact. Ireland didn’t get out of the group but the odds were stacked against them, having been drawn in the same foursome as France and Spain. When news broke of Brady’s move to Hull the other day, I revisited the team-sheets from four and a half years ago.

Of the Irish XI that started in the 3-1 defeat to Spain (Brady was sub that day), the numbers haven’t been good so far. Aaron Doran made three cameos for Blackburn Rovers towards the end of the 2009 Premier League campaign but now plies his trade with Inverness up in Scotland. Greg Cunningham came off the bench for Manchester City twice in recent seasons before eventually moving to Bristol City. Sunderland’s Conor Hourihane had to go to Plymouth Argyle for first-team football and Chelsea’s Conor Clifford, forever out on loan from Stamford Bridge, will have to drop the divisions to do likewise.

Others from the squad are scattered around the foothills of the English game. Some are in the League of Ireland, and one is in America on a soccer scholarship. All are still young enough and hopefully good enough to get back to the top but the return so far hasn’t been promising, has it?

What of the Spanish though? They went on to win the event, beating France in the final. What happened to their players? Where do they stand almost five years on from their trip to Turkey? Well, you might know some of them. Thiago, the always-impressive midfielder who would play more at Barcelona if some of the greatest players ever weren’t in front of him, might be the most successful. He’s already won senior caps for Spain and is tipped for great things. And anybody who followed his progress at U-17 would have expected as much.

Of course, we know that underage potential doesn’t always translate. But even with this being Spain during what has been the most productive period in its history, it’s stunning to see 12 of their squad have played first-team games in La Primera Liga.  Not just with lesser lights either. Martin Montoya has started  20-odd times for Barcelona and Sergi Roberto came off the bench for the club in a Champions’ League semi-final against Real Madrid. Impressive stuff.  Alvaro Morata recently scored his first goal for Real Madrid while Sergio Canales has dropped back a bit with Valencia after initially making a bright start at the Bernabeau.

Keko moved to Catania in Serie A after failing to nail down a starting spot at Athletico Madrid where Jorge Pulido, a central defender from the Turkish adventure, also broke through. Oriol Romeu played just once for Barcelona before Chelsea paid 5m pounds for him in 2011, the Spaniards thinking highly enough of his prospects that they insisted on putting an automatic buy-back clause in the contract. He’s started 22 Premier League matches for the Londoners.

Between Oreu and Ruben Rochina, who moved from Barcelona to Blackburn Rovers in 2011, the Spanish U17s have played more Premier League games than the entire Irish squad they took on that day. This, despite the fact most of the Irish players were then at or on their way to English clubs. Why does all this matter? Because it shows that there is something fundamentally not right with the way we are producing young players.

By reaching the finals of that tournament, Sean McCaffrey’s team had proven themselves to be among the top eight in Europe. Quite a boast. And they weren’t embarrassed either, despite running into some of the best countries in the international game. Yet, since that May the Spanish have travelled in one direction whereas our boys have almost all travelled in another. Whose fault is that? Is it down to the mindset and ability of the individual players? Or has it more to do with the culture that produces them? Just asking.
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