Thursday, May 30, 2024

Irish football’s grave diagnosis cannot be allowed become terminal

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THERE ARE ONLY two topics of discussion within Irish football this week that are of any importance or significance for the future of the game in this country.

And yet there have still been enough storylines to surprise, confuse and worry so many within the League of Ireland over the last week.

From Noel King’s baffling return to management with Dundalk to Derry City’s suspended partial stadium closure as a result of crowd trouble, tonight’s fixtures are fraught with a different kind of intrigue.

Throw in Damien Duff’s brutally honest assessment of Shane Farrell following the player’s red card in the 0-0 draw with Shamrock Rovers on Monday and there are three items that would usually dominate any news cycle.

But not this week.

They all feel like superficial matters compared to a health check for the state of the game that amounted to a terminal diagnosis unless a drastic change is made.

Irish football – or at least those who wield most influence – are the 40-a-day smoker refusing to give up their John Player Blue.

Those words again: surprise, confusion and worry.

They seem to be the staple for those on the coalface dealing with everyday issues.

That much became extremely clear when The 42 visited Shelbourne’s academy last week and heard from their two full-time staff members – academy manager Colm Barron and Head of Small Sided Games Aaron Roe – about the strain they are under.

And Shels are the lucky ones given they account for one fifth of the total full-time employees in Ireland’s academy system.

Poland has 376 staff members to cover their 16 academies while Croatia, a country with a comparative (albeit smaller) population, has a ratio of 190:10.

As Finn Harps academy manager Kevin McHugh so succinctly put it with a post on social media: “10x years doing this role. 90% of time in survival mode. 10% in development mode. Imagine if we can reverse these figures.”

There were enough startling stats released by the FAI that have been already covered this week.

Will Clarke, the FAI’s League of Ireland academy development manager provided a sobering dose of honesty, citing that €10 million a year is required “to have a realistic chance of being competitive”.

That means the association requires a further €5.5 million to make up the shortfall.

Shane Robinson, the FAI’s assistant director of football who joined the association from his role as head of Shamrock Rovers’ academy, followed Clarke’s lead with a brutal assessment of the landscape in which he is working.

“The politics within Irish football is unbelievable at the moment,” he said.

“The one thing we lack in this country is common sense, in terms of when we’re dealing with football and sport and putting the player first. It’s thinking about what people who partake in the game need. We’ve let politics get in the way of football here for probably 25 years.”

The murmurings from Abbottstown and the continued fallout as a result of the nature of the search for a senior men’s manager – now set to stretch until just before the start of the Nations League in September – would suggest that such politicking is once again at play.

It was noted that the FAI board approved director of football Marc Canham’s Player Pathway Plan that was presented earlier this year and Robinson feels that needs to once again be driven home by president Paul Cooke.

“It’s supported publicly by the board at the moment,” he said. “That message needs to be really, really clear. That it’s supported by the board. That it’s supported by Paul Cooke.”

It was a document filled with common sense approaches that could, ordinarily, be swiftly implemented.

So of course it was met by resentment and resistance in some quarters.

“Now we have a framework to work that is common sense and it’s trying to bring everyone together. That’s been the hardest part of the job,” Robinson said.

“I think everybody needs to put that to the side. I look at the League of Ireland side, I’ve been really close to it — in terms of having 20/21 clubs, should we do five (academies) right? Should we do 10 right?

“They’re the hard conversations we need to be having, and not shy away from it. Not everybody will like the conversation but they are the conversations that need to be had.”

At the moment, though, there is no one at the top of the FAI seemingly capable of driving those conversations with the politicians and people who can wield influence and be the catalyst for change.

That brings us to the second topic of conversation that is of utmost importance.

Who is going to be the new permanent chief executive?

Jonathan Hill’s tenure will official end next Tuesday, 30 April, with David Courell confirmed as an interim appointment having been promoted from chief operating officer.

This is a role that cannot be allowed to remain vacant in the manner that the men’s manager’s job has.

Paralysis in this area will have a much more damaging effect.

The new CEO must be a person with credibility that comes from a track record of being capable of turning around ailing organisations in whatever field. Trust issues mean it will be an upward battle just to get on an even keel. 

It needs to be a person capable of not only planning and organising long-term change, but someone who has shown they are able to implement it.

Clarke and Robinson have laid out in the clearest, starkest terms possible the state Irish football is in so there can be no more bluff, bluster or half-measures from the person at the very top.

There is no ambiguity now. 

No more people who can feign surprise, confusion or worry.

We all know now.  

If nothing changes, then none of us can say we weren’t warned.

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