Eighteen years have passed since Liam Brady became head of youth development at Arsenal. As one of the club’s greatest ever players, the man who once won the Scudetto for Juventus with a penalty in the final game of the season arrived back at Highbury with a specific task. He was charged with rebuilding the academy and under-age set up. Of course, as an Irishman, Brady gave himself a wider remit than just that. The Dubliner wanted to bring more Irish on board because it just seemed wrong even in the mid-90s that Niall Quinn had been the last of his compatriots to break through from the youths to the first team.
After close on two decades in office, Brady retires this month with not a single Irish lad at the club. Worse still, nobody came through in the interim to replicate the journey made by Quinn. When asked about the lack of Irish over the years – Graham Barrett, Keith Fahey and Anthony Stokes all threatened to make it to the first team but had to move on to do so – Brady was typically candid. He felt that the coaching in Ireland was so far behind other countries that an outfit like Arsenal had to look elsewhere. Many people took that criticism badly but Brendan Rodgers said something very similar last week.
“It’s a lot more difficult now,” said Rodgers when asked about the lack of Irish at the top clubs. “A lot of them (Irish lads) start the apprenticeship at 16 but even then it’s too late as a lot of boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16 they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”
So the most skillful Irish midfielder of the past half century and the Irishman most likely to manage a club to a Premier League title anytime soon have basically told us the same thing. The Irish boys are not getting the coaching required to allow them to measure up against the best teenage talents from other countries. This is not news to anybody who has been paying attention. The problem is not everybody is paying attention. Too many people in positions of power seem to be ignoring the fact there is something seriously wrong with the way Irish players are being developed.
Witness the recent over-reaction to Seamus Coleman being voted onto the PFA Premier League team of the season. This was a great accolade for the Everton man and an acknowledgment of his growth as an attacking force over the course of the campaign. Even if his defending still needs some serious work (something that could be said about most full-backs these days), it’s obvious that his fellow pros have seen up close that he’s become a serious player at that level. But, the worrying thing here is that too few people were willing to point out something truly troubling about Coleman’s award.
The Donegal man was the first Irish footballer in five years to make the Premier League’s best XI and nobody thought this was, you know, seriously worrying. One every five years? Is that what we are reduced to? Is that the kind of token recognition that will make the decision-makers in the FAI convinced everything is going fine? Just as a comparison to that depressing statistic, three different Belgians have figured on the PFA Premier League team of the season in the same time frame. A small illustration of how we are falling behind nations we once considered our equals.
In a different country, this might be cause for alarm. The head honchos in charge of the sport might convene a conference at which those with a vested interest in the future of the game might come together. Over the course of a few days, they could talk about the problems on the ground, the issues confronting the grass-roots and the obstacles impeding the progress of our brightest young players. They might even come up with a few solutions to the most glaring problems. They could even invite experts from abroad to offer advice on what changes to implement.
In Ireland, under the stewardship of the FAI, there is no crisis. The World Cup will go on without us next month and nobody will care that we aren’t there. Unlike Wales or Sweden, the cognoscenti won’t be lamenting Ireland’s failure to qualify for Brazil because it’s denying a special talent like Gareth Bale or Zlatan Ibrahimovic from playing on the biggest stage. Why not? Because we have no special talent right now. And, from what all those working at the coal face are saying, there isn’t any coming through. But, never mind, there’s no crisis.
Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill have been attending matches all over England and Scotland but the nearest we get to a hint of them adding new quality to their squad is talk of persuading players born and reared in other countries to consider switching allegiance. That’s a legitimate tactic in a world where nationality has become an all too fluid concept in so many professional sports. But, even if we persuade one or two up and comers with Irish ancestors to wear green, we shouldn’t be blinded to how bad things are in terms of the type of players we are producing these days.
Unless something crazy happens with Coleman’s future at Goodison Park, Anthony Stokes will be the only Irishman with a serious chance – Celtic’s successful navigation of the qualifying rounds permitting, of starting a game in the group stages of the Champions’ League next season. Like it or not, the Champions’ League is now the benchmark in the world game. It is where the best play and the best want to play. That the Irish representation has diminished from the glory days when two Corkmen could start a final for Manchester United to Stokes ploughing a lone furrow is another reflection of the falling standards. But don’t worry, according to the FAI, there’s no crisis.