Friday, May 24, 2024

We have decided to become a minnow of international football. When are the FAI going to change it?

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LET’S DUST OFF an old diagnosis of venerable historian Joe Lee. 

“An absence of systemic self-appraisal as distinct from complaint,” he once wrote, “remains characteristic of the Irish intellectual condition.”

This condition is evident in Irish football too, which has existed for a more than a century as a loose confederation of competing interests united only in mutual suspicion; differentiated largely by the direction in which their grievances are pointed. 

But as for a true reckoning of self-appraisal, many of us aren’t quite there yet. Perhaps delusion is more comfortable means of living. 

If you consider it a rank failure for Ireland to miss out on a men’s or women’s European Championship – you’re not there yet.

If you chase a manager out of town for not qualifying – you’re not there yet.

If you think the next men’s manager will guarantee qualification – you’re not there yet. 

The reality is that Ireland have no business qualifying for tournaments on a regular basis, because for the past 20 years, Irish football has decided to make itself an international minnow. 

Yesterday’s trip to Abbotstown for a briefing around academies and the national underage leagues was another bracing reminder of our tragically diminished status. 

Football is a capricious business but on the wide scales on which a football association works, it’s like anything else: you get out of it what you put into it. 

And for decades the FAI have decided not to put anywhere near enough money into developing players. 

Irish football employs 10 full-time academy staff across the country. For comparison, Poland employs 376 people in the same area of the game, for Croatia its 190 people, and for Austria its 114. 

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These are the mid-tier nations who enjoy the status of major tournament fixtures to which some of us believe we are entitled. 

Average the number of full-time development staff out per club and Ireland’s is less than one. Only Northern Ireland, Andorra, and Luxembourg score as low as we do here. 

The average academy budget per LOI club is less than €500,000. Here’s a list of the other European countries with an average academy budget that low: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Cyprus, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Northern Ireland, Romania and San Marino. 

Read that list again and you’ll realise Ireland’s years of survival in League B of the Nations League are feats of underdog escapology that would make Sam Allardyce proud.

So are we underachieving in international football, or are we actually over-performing? 

Irish football will always produce talented players, but we have done an abject job in maximising this talent. The research presented yesterday by LOI academy director Will Clarke showed that success at U17 and U19 level – with which we are pretty well acquainted over the last five years – is a poor indicator of success at senior international level. 

The best indicator of success is a pretty obvious one: it’s the number of minutes of action players accrue in Europe’s top five leagues. 

Ireland’s has collapsed in the last decade. In 2012/13, there were 30 Irish players involved across that quintet of leagues, and they accrued 44,205 minutes of action.

Last season, we had 16 players across the top five leagues and they played a total of 9,818 minutes. 

Benchmarking against other European countries has led the FAI to deduce that we need between 36 and 42 players playing on average 1,350 minutes each every season across the top five leagues to compete.

In other words we need to almost triple our number of players in the top five leagues and have them play just more than double the minutes our current representatives are playing.  

The extent to which we are lagging behind is frightening, and this is before the impact of Brexit is considered. 

We can no longer outsource the development of our 16 and 17-year-olds to the UK, but the early signs are that not enough of the first batch of those blocked from getting the boat are getting the level of training they require. According to the FAI’s figures, we had just nine 17 and 18 year olds in full-time training across the LOI last year. 

Before Brexit, it was estimated that between 30 and 50 players aged 16 and 17 went from Ireland to the UK to join full-time academies, so if you forecast a similar decline feeding into Irish minutes across the top five leagues in the medium-term future . . . well, that’s the scenario in which Luxembourg are ashamed and disgusted at losing to us. 

The only thing that will reverse this trend is investment: young players need more coaches and more contact hours in better facilities.

The scale of that task appears daunting, but the liberating thing is it all begins with a choice.

The FAI submitted an academy funding plan to the government last year, and they estimate they need to make up an annual shortfall of €5.5 million to give themselves a chance of remaining relevant on the international stage. Uefa and Fifa will provide some of that money, so the ask of government is really not that big, especially given this year we handed over €19 million to the allegedly agricultural pursuit of greyhound racing. 

Irish football is in this mess because it decided not to invest in academies and elite player production to the same extent as the rest of western Europe did. Now we can decide that shamefully late is better than never, and deciding to prioritise all of this is free. 

Interim CEO David Courell can decide to start banging on the doors of Leinster House to tell them that the government that doesn’t back this plan is condemning Irish football to an indefinite future in the backwaters of international game: that is not exactly a vote-winner. 

And the FAI board can decide to give this their full-throated backing in public. 

To pick one small example, Packie Bonner can decide to come out and clarify his curious comments last year in which he urged Celtic to buy a LOI club as a feeder operation, which isn’t part of the academy plan, nor Marc Canham’s broader football pathways plan. 

The pathways plan is a broader document but its aligning of the professional, adult amateur and grassroots parts of the game in a single football pyramid is the kind of common-sense commitment to unity and self-improvement that other countries made decades ago. 

The FAI board have already unanimously endorsed the pathways plan but there is no harm in repeating their support to disabuse sceptics of their fears that this will be another grand plan to be suffocated by the FAI’s addiction to politicking.

Marc Canham and Packie Bonner. Ryan Byrne / INPHO

Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

In that context, it would be helpful to make it clearer that Canham is not solely responsible for the ongoing managerial search, given its shambolic appearance risks undermining his reputation and authority in delivering the pathways plan.

Bonner and Jonathan Hill have been involved along with Canham in the search up to now, with Courell and Paul Cooke now involved too. It’s a pity none of them appeared in the recent FAI TV interview nor the unveiling of John O’Shea in March, but perhaps they will feature at the next media event around the subject. 

We can become inured to our status and disenchanted by the scale of our fall from relevance, but the FAI and government can simply choose to address it. 

If they don’t do it now, then we will learn the harsh reality that there is always further to fall. 

Football in Ireland will never die, but it can fade further and wither dismally. 

That would be a social and cultural travesty. 

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