There is a huge shortfall in the number of supporters attending League of Ireland matches in contrast to the national team; how can it be fixed?COMMENT
By Peter Staunton | Chief Editor
The problems facing Irish domestic football are deep and manifold. Monaghan United exited the Airtricity Premier Division a fortnight ago and Dundalk could soon follow them into oblivion. Crippling costs, including a participation fee of €19,000 per season payable to the FAI, hamper the efforts of impoverished clubs to budget long-term. Gates are way down on where they should be; about 8,000 in total people watched Premier Division matches last weekend. And that's despite the consistently rising playing standards in the League of Ireland.
The wider public continues to shun the national league but support for the senior national team is thriving. Over 30,000 people made the trip to Poland to watch Ireland's disastrous Euro 2012 campaign while the Boys in Green registered the fifth-largest overall attendance during the qualification campaign at almost 43,000. That 43,000 people can make it to the Aviva on any given Tuesday but only 18 per cent of that number attend League of Ireland Premier Division matches is more than just a worry. It's a crisis.
There is clearly a disconnect between fans of football in Ireland and Irish domestic football. People are prepared to shell out €45 a time to watch the national team but not the €15 to attend a game in the Premier Division. It's under €10 in the First Division.
The General Secretary of the PFAI, Stephen McGuinness, acknowledged recently that a true connection between the domestic scene and the national team is amiss in Ireland and suggested that Giovanni Trapattoni be 'forced' to include some domestic-based players in his national squads.
It is a pertinent point and should be duly considered. Indeed, Ireland were the only side at the 16-team European Championship not to have a single player supplied by its national league. It's shameful. Shameful because players within the League of Ireland have proven, consistently, that they are of sufficient calibre to step up to the English Premier League and international football for Ireland. Only when we all stop thinking of our own national league as inferior, and an entity apart from the Premier League and Champions League, will it be in a position to move forward.
Six players in the initial 23-man squad for the European Championship played domestic football in their home country - David Forde, Stephen Ward, Keith Fahey, James McClean, Shane Long and Kevin Doyle. McClean and Long are established now as EPL players while three of the other four have significant experience at the top level across the water. Another, Seamus Coleman, was on the standby list. These players did not become international class overnight on the basis that they transferred to English clubs.
What is now required is the exposure of those talents while players still ply their trade in Ireland. By signposting genuine internationals-in-waiting, the League of Ireland could open an avenue towards casual supporters coming back to the grounds.
The establishment of an elite panel, an international development squad, picked from players within the ranks of the League of Ireland, would help to forge a connection between regular League of Ireland fixtures, casual fans and the international set-up. It would facilitate international recognition to those with the ability to play at that level before appearing on the radar at English teams.
The shadow squad would train full-time together, apart from club duties, with the view of creating a coherent system of play and preparation for international football. They would then take the place of the intermittent 'B' team used by the senior management to look at players as well as playing as the Airtricity League XI in the friendly summer tournaments and other one-off matches as and when they can. Even a friendly against the senior team at squad get-togethers would be beneficial.
This squad of players would best be paid centrally, from the FAI itself, in order to both guarantee full-time payment and ensure that financial incentives are offered for high performance in the domestic league. The England and Wales Cricket Board operates a similar central contract policy for its international representatives.
Crucially, a quota of domestic-based players from this squad would be placed mandatorily with the full international team when every long list is released. It would be at the discretion of the senior manager whether or not he decided to use these players in his matchday squad but being convened would at least ensure a level of domestic interaction.
Clubs could be rewarded for their players' involvement in the set-up through a bonus paid per each representative player and the waiving of salary obligations for international players within the squad.
And while the League of Ireland 'seniors' could help to generate interest in a domestic-international crossover, changes at under-age level could further enrich the relationship between Ireland's domestic game and its national teams.
One of the chief problems on the development front in Ireland is that young players who emerge do so at different clubs in different countries at different times, doing different things, giving a scattered identity to Ireland's play. And, for varying reasons, the very best players are often lost to overseas clubs at too young an age.
For example, the current under-19 squad features players at clubs in four different nations. Only three of the 18 players convened represent Irish clubs. In the case of the under-21 squad, tellingly, no player is at an Irish club. There is no coherence. What's more, promising players like Doyle and Fahey are exceptions. Supremely talented players don't tend to stick around long in Ireland, leaving the league without 'names'.
Instead of relying on the occasional force of nature, like a Shay Given or a Robbie Keane, greater efforts must be made to harness promising talent and to develop it, centrally and consistently, in a way that will benefit Irish football and not exploit it; for players to stick around the League a little bit longer to complete their education and bring interest from fans and for clubs to receive a fair price when these players are eventually developed and sold on.
The current Emerging Talent programme is a step in the right direction and the levels of young players are rising, according to the former FAI High Performance Director Wim Koevermans, who recently left his post to coach India.
At the moment there are 12 regional centres at which the best talent from the 32 league centres convenes and trains. But according to Damien O'Brien, who recently pulled private sponsorship of the programme, players are convening only once a month at the regional centres and are even bringing their own kits.
Instead of the 12 regional centres, five, full-time provincial centres should be established to which the 32 League Centres send their most promising talent for schooling by the age of 11. One of these centres should be located in Dublin, with more in wider Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht. It's not beyond the pale to ask for Government spending, even in these times of austerity, to upkeep elite facilities that will benefit the country, both in a sporting sense and a financial one, in the coming decades. Private funding should also be courted.
The Fifa Goal Programme has money available for spending on projects in each member nation to develop football infrastructure as it is needed. Grants of up to US$500,000 are available for each project. The FAI has used funds from the Goal Programme twice in the last six years. Once, to develop facilities at its new headquarters and again in 2009 for a technological and communication upgrade at Abbotstown. If the money is there, then it should be sought.
At these centres proper playing surfaces, accommodation and schooling should be provided on-site by dedicated Uefa A licenced-coaches, mentors and teachers, following and developing the templates laid down at the successful Ile-de-France Clairefontaine facility and the DFB's Extended Talent Promotion Programme.
Coaches could even be recruited from the dole queue. There is nothing to stop the Government setting up Uefa-licence programmes as Fás schemes. Qualified coaches could then be placed in each provincial centre, at League clubs or even try their luck overseas.
From the ages of 11 through 17, players should stay at the centres of excellence from Monday to Friday, where they play, study and learn under one footballing philosophy, with one coherent strategy, and with an emphasis also on a rounded education.
The syllabus, in a football sense, is key and should be in line with a centrally-decided code and implemented by the High Performance Director. The benefits of this kind of group development can be seen in the current German team; under-age players are inculcated with an adherence to playing the same way regardless of their provincial origin and given the proper mentoring and guidance to prepare them for life after their education.
Only after sitting the Leaving Cert, would students be permitted to leave, thus helping to legislate for a career away from football too. Fifteen to 20 players in each centre, in each age group, should provide the student body, giving a pool of up to 80 players in all age groups, nationwide. The players in their respective age groups should play inter-provincial ties against their peers, as well as playing for their origin clubs at weekends. The national under-age team at respective levels would be selected from that pool too.
Likewise, the provincial sides at U18 level should be entered into the NextGen Series to gain precious continental experience. Provincial teams have captured the public imagination in rugby, why not football too? The idea of the best provincial Irish talent competing under lights against their counterparts from Real Madrid, Arsenal or Bayern Munich is one to be relished.
Following the completion of the process, players would be available for placement in overseas clubs, in which case fees should be due and retained by the centre and shared with the origin club, or for placement at Irish clubs in a draft allocation, ensuring a consistent stream of developed talent to the League.
The current national Under-19 League would also provide grounding for emerging talents as it has supplied a good number of practising Airtricity Premier Division players. Of course, League clubs would continue to produce talent at their own under-age facilities.
Elite-trained players could carry a clause throughout their careers that a certain percentage of any future fee is due to the centre of excellence which brought them through, as well as their origin club. Also, a tax could be levied on the wages of all full-time, professional players developed at the provincial centres to help with the maintenance for future generations.
The national U19 team would only be drawn from this pool with a quota laid down for representation at U21 level. Eventually, a steady flow of talent would filter through to the domestic-based international squad and even the senior team.
The very foundations of Irish football are cracked and it will take massive stimulus from both fans and administrators of the game to rectify the problems that presently spire forth. We cannot continue to shirk responsibility for the welfare of our footballers by leaving it almost exclusively in the hands of overseas clubs.
The immediate establishment of the shadow squad proposal would, perhaps, bridge the current divide that exists between the domestic and international scene, while improvements to the academy structure could safeguard the future of player development in the country.