Jamie Carragher’s rant in the Mail when England found themselves eliminated from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland was both incisive and overdue, but strangely relevant to what’s happening in Irish youth football. He criticised what he dubbed ‘The Academy Generation’. He described a generation of young players so detached from daily life that they’d never had an opportunity to build character, to face daily challenges or deal with the kind of things you or I take for granted.
I call them the Academy Generation because they have come through in an era when footballers have never had more time being coached. At this point I want to make it clear I am not pointing the finger at academy coaches, as others will do.
But they get ferried to football schools, they work on immaculate pitches, play in pristine training gear every day and everything is done to ensure all they have to do is focus on football. We think we are making them men but actually we are creating babies.
Life has been too easy. They have been pampered from a young age, had money thrown at them and, when things have gone wrong, they have been told it is never their fault. Some 12- and 13-year-olds have agents now. Why?
Carragher took aim squarely at what money does to a player at a very early age. What being media-prepped, organised and catered to does to a young mind, and how that affects the mature player when he comes to senior tournaments, high-pressure situations unlike anything they’ve faced.
Why won’t they take responsibility? They live lives now with personal assistants, player liaison officers, nannies and agents organising every little detail for them. Some wouldn’t even know how to book a holiday or an appointment at the dentist for themselves.
It strips character. You can see that in the interviews they give. They are bland and sanitised and come across as if the answers have been rehearsed. There really is no point in watching them, as they are afraid of saying anything.
The issue with Carragher’s assessment is that this problem isn’t only England’s. We export our promising young players over to the English football academies almost as soon as they show any signs of making the grade. So why should they turn out any different? With the astronomical television deals the clubs enjoy at the top level, Premier League sides are hardly in need of developing youth talent at all anyway. It’s for these reasons that the FAI took a long look at how to turn things around for Irish youth football and it looks to be working.
What the FAI are doing with Irish youth football.
Ruud Dokter is the FAI’s Hig Performance Director and he’s been working on a set of changes which would see our young players exported to England at a much later age than 16. We would keep them at home to stop them churning through the system at a vulnerable and impressionable time. The problem in the Irish game lies in the path from being a youth player to the senior team. Dokter is keen to promote a more Dutch method. He told the Irish Independent:
In the Netherlands, that’s the difference, you can go to a club when you are 5 and you know you could stick with them until you are 65. That’s a community club, all the way from a young age to a first team to a committee or whatever. That’s the same with most clubs – not necessarily at professional level although Ajax would have. The others have academies starting at age 13. But what you would say is that there’s a pathway from a young age to the first team and that is important.
The numbers show this is likely the best plan for Irish youth football
Statistics also show that players who spend their formative years in Ireland are actually more likely to make their debut on the republic of ireland national football team roster, compared to players who leave early, represent the Ireland under 17 soccer squad and even Under 19 level, but then drop off the radar for both club and country. What the FAI are doing to help this along is trying to establish national Under 17 and Under 19 leagues and down the line, Under 15 and Under 13 leagues too. Republic of Ireland football needs to change.
That’s why we set up a national U17 league and said to the schoolboy clubs…we have to create a pathway. I know the schoolboy clubs do fantastic work but we need to collaborate with each other, that’s the keyword.
What this could mean for the schoolboy leagues.
The move has been met with some resistance. Schoolboy clubs are likely to feel the effects of this in a very bad way, with talented players and coaches likely to migrate very early on to the new leagues. It may even threaten the schoolboy leagues existence.
The Player Development Plan was launched in 2015 and it involves education for coaches as well as a restructuring the leagues at youth level. Dokter is keen to stress it isn’t simply the implementation of a Dutch model on Irish youth football.
Every country is different. We can’t copy the UK or Belgium or Germany. We can take the good points away. I’ve spent my whole life in football, I’ve worked in UEFA, I’ve been around so many countries from an international management point of view and I know what’s going on. But Ireland is Ireland with its unique structures and that’s the starting point. You can’t ignore that and I won’t. That technical committee gave me a lot of information but it’s not always my ideas; there were people who are a long time in the game
Dokter has set a target of FAI Approved Club Academies for 6-12 year olds by 2020. These are academies meeting a fixed set of criteria for coaching, facilities and syllabus. Then there’s a National Academy for Boys and Girls aged 12 to 15 to be in place by next year in Abbotstown. The players for the Ireland U16 soccer squad and even the Ireland U18 soccer squad can enjoy mammy’s dinners for a few years yet. The FAI twitter account has been keen to promote the changes, but only time will tell if they’re successful.
These are root and branch changes being made to key areas of how Irish youth football is played and the hope is that we can still export our young players to clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, but at a later age, and as more developed, higher quality players, more likely to make it in the extremely competitive atmosphere over there.