Lille 22nd of June 2016. The time is 9:42 in the evening. Wes Hoolahan curls a sumptuous ball into the Italian box. Robbie Brady cannot miss. Republic of Ireland 1, Italy 0. Ireland are through to the knock-out rounds of the European Championship for the first time in their history.
That historic victory and also the subsequent performance in the 2-1 defeat to hosts France in the last 16 of the Euros has dramatically altered many Irish football fans perception of the state of the beautiful game in the Emerald Isle. After years of ceaseless negativity and the abysmal end of the Trappatoni regime, it appears that a bright new dawn is emerging in Irish football led by the heroes of that famous night in Lille, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady. However, on closer inspection a far grimmer picture is presented of the state of football in Ireland.
There is a dearth of young players coming thorough the Irish set-up currently. Ireland had the oldest squad of all teams competing at the Euros with an average age of 29 years and 297 days. The underage teams are failing to provide a steady stream of players to beef up Martin O’Neil’s selection choices. The Under 21 team were comprehensively beaten 4-0 by Italy in a recent European Championship qualifier and have also endured the ignominy of losing 3-1 away to Lithuania in the current qualifying campaign. One must ask why is Irish football struggling to produce young players capable of making the step–up to international football and edging out the old guard of John O’Shea and Robbie Keane?
Like many problems that have beset Irish society since the foundation of the state in 1922, we have exported the issue of educating our best young footballers to England. Our most talented footballers head across the water at the age of 16, diminishing Irish football’s ability to influence their development. They are at the mercy of the ruthless English academy system, where only the strongest survive and in our globalised and corporate football environment, the odds are stacked against young Irish footballers like never before.
As the recent European Championships have demonstrated, English football is in a deepening malaise. The goal of player development has been sacrificed at the altar of brand expansion and profit maximisation. The corporate behemoths that elite English football clubs have become demand immediate results and, in the case of Chelsea, view young players as merely part of the profit-making machine. What hope is there for elite Irish footballers to make the grade in an atmosphere so poisoned by odious amounts of money?
Take the case of the great hope of Irish football, Jack Byrne. Byrne is currently on loan at Blackburn Rovers from Manchester City having spent the previous season on loan at Cambuur, playing for the Eredivisie strugglers in Holland. Many hope Byrne can develop in into the creative midfielder that Ireland so desperately need to replace the ageing legs of Wes Hoolahan. However, the chance of the now 20 year-old Byrne making the breakthrough at City are slim even under the tutelage of a firm believer in youth such as Pep Guardiola. He will more than be likely be ferried out on loan to a different club again next season as his development becomes further stymied on the merry-go-round of loan transfers.
Irish football culture needs to radically change. Irish football culture needs to change its Premier League and Championship dominated view of European football. Byrne’s reasoning for choosing Blackburn is indicative of this narrow-minded outlook: “That’s part of the reason why I came here and didn’t go back to Holland. I had options in France, I had options in Israel, I had options everywhere. Maybe people don’t know me that well in England, but because I played in Europe, a lot of people know me around Europe.” This is a damning indictment of how we view players here in Ireland that a player of Byrne’s calibre and potential felt the need to experience the blood and thunder of the Championship in order to be recognised by the English and Irish football cognoscenti.
Irish football needs to wean itself off its reliance on England to develop its elite-level footballers. In a rare moment of leadership, the Republic’s football association, the FAI, has initiated such a process by establishing a national under 19 and under 17 in conjunction with the domestic League of Ireland clubs, with an under 15 league mooted for next year. Such developments can only be deemed as encouraging. However the cold reality is so long as senior League of Ireland teams continue to rot away in a league poisoned with financial mismanagement, miniscule fanbases and decrepit stadiums such a system will never truly work.
The domestic game in Ireland is in a state of complete disarray. Although Dundalk and Cork City have enjoyed excellent European campaigns, they are two shining lights in a pit of darkness. The league has significantly regressed since the Celtic Tiger induced highs of the mid noughties. Most Irish football fans view the league with scorn and derision preferring to gorge on the overhyped feast of Premier league football rather than sampling the taste of the domestic game. The League suffers from dilapidated facilities and a lack of investment. The sense of resignation and despair amongst League of Ireland aficionados is palpable at most grounds. And yet the FAI continues to neglect the domestic game.
One need only look at the figures.The FAI received an €11 million windfall from the team’s performances in France. The chances of this being invested in the League of Ireland are slim. Dundalk, the current double winners received a paltry €100,000 for winning the league last season. To put that measly number into context, the club received €1.2 million for advancing through one qualifying round of the Champions League. Such a huge discrepancy indicates the blatant disregard the FAI holds for the domestic game. This is after all an organisation whose chief executive John Delaney, once called the league a “problem child”. It is no wonder that many dedicated League of Ireland people view Delaney and his cronies with contempt.
And so to the man himself, the ineffable John Delaney, the dear leader of Irish football. Since becoming chief executive in 2004, Delaney, who earns €360,000 (that’s nearly double what the Irish Prime minister earns) has overseen a comedy of errors. From his farcical appointment of Steve Statunton as manager in 2006 to his shady €5 million dealings with FIFA, this man is quite simply an embarrassment to Irish football. While many clubs in Ireland teeter on the brink of financial ruin, Delaney glides along, happily turning a blind eye to Irish football’s ailments.
There are no dissenting voices within the FAI. Delaney and his apparatchiks are given free rein to ignore Irish football’s problems and most importantly ratify John’s cushy little salary. Those who work in the game and speak out about the sorry state of many facets of Irish football are crushed. The manager of struggling First Division club Waterford United Roddy Collins is one such victim. Having criticised the state the League is in, Roddy was handed a six-match ban and find €1,500, a gigantic sum of money in the penniless world of League of Ireland football. Such a response is emblematic of the culture within the FAI, don’t deal with the issue, deal with the person exposing the issue.
So those are the problems but what are the solutions? Irish football needs radical change. Quite simply, John Delaney is incapable of leading that change. The FAI must create a viable alternative to exporting our most promising footballers like cattle. For that alternative to come about, a large amount of the money generated from the Euros must be invested in the domestic game. There is no point in creating the underage leagues without financially supporting clubs who incur huge costs in setting up their underage structures.
Irish fan culture also must change. People need to be made aware of how Premier League football clubs truly view fans, nothing more than cogs in the soulless revenue generating machine that the Premier League has become. English football has sold its soul to greed and profit. Irish football has not. The domestic game may not have the glamour of the Premier League but it has something much purer than that. It has a sense of community and togetherness, a sense of belonging that listening to the dry musings of Jamie Redknapp cannot hope to achieve. You are more than just a customer at a League of Ireland ground, you are making a valued contribution to the betterment of your local football club and more importantly your locality.
Irish football’s future does not look rosy. Our youth teams continue to lumber from one failure to the next. The domestic league continues to falter as a disinterested FAI ignores the pleas for change. Irish football needs to change fast at all levels of the game or else we are facing into a dark abyss.
Faolin is @FaoFao96.