Grassroots Solutions

By Philip O’Rourke (@effect_phil)

A lot has been made of Declan Rice’s decision to declare for the English national team despite playing for the Irish national team from an under-age level all the way up to senior level. There have been various points debated here including the fact that once a player plays a match, even if it’s a competitive one or not and at senior level, should they be allowed to change allegiance. That is an article that can be written on it’s own, but instead I’m going to look a little deeper than that, and the root of the problem which lies in the lack of investment and infrastructure in our own grassroots game.

The very fact that we are chasing down players like Jack Grealish and Declan Rice shows that there must be something fundamentally wrong with our own youth system that we cannot produce any Irish born players here from a schoolboy level.

Now, before you judge this as a ‘English born players have no right to play for Ireland’ piece, I will state straight away it is not that at all. We live in a world now of a multi-cultural race. Sure, even the English have players playing for them from different nations. But there is a sense of dis-attachment to certain players who put on the Irish jersey who were not born here and are only playing for Ireland to raise their value in the ‘stock market’ of football.

To put it simply, if you are an international footballer it looks good on the C.V and you can use this to try and earn a higher wage. I’m not accusing any one player of doing this but watching recent matches involving the Irish football team would suggest there is a lack of trying and certainly a lack of connection between fans and players. Or maybe it is a lack of quality? Again, that is another debate to be had.

The fact that football, or soccer, is seen as this nations 4th choice sport, behind GAA football, hurling and rugby due to recent success of the national rugby team, it makes it even harder to get the funding needed. And that is what it all comes down to, money.

This is the reason why those elite schoolboy clubs ship their best 12 or 13-year old’s over to the English club academies, hoping they sign a lucrative contract as the club gets some partial fee out of it.

While travelling to England and trying to make it as a footballer at such a young age may seem like a dream come true, for most it turns out to be a living nightmare, which ends up with the kid becoming disillusioned about the game, coming home to Ireland and losing interest in the sport altogether. There are no winners here. The kid loses out on potentially becoming a footballer all because of the schoolboy club’s greed to make money and our country loses the potential of having a quality player that could have grown up to be the next Robbie Keane or Damien Duff. Don’t get me wrong, some have made it and have done well, the two players I just mentioned being the prime examples, but how many others have been forgotten about?

Not only that but the League of Ireland loses out as well. The simple solution to me seems clear, if money was not the motivation and instead potential and creating a decent national football team was the goal, then this is what the FAI should be doing in my opinion.

They should put an age limit to how young a player should be sent overseas to another football club as the ages being reported are far too young. They should make it mandatory that before a player can be sent overseas, they must complete a season in the League of Ireland. This way, they learn their trade, they can stay at home and be around their families while growing up and learning other life lessons and values.

The League of Ireland and their fans would benefit from seeing the top young players in the country, boosting the quality of football being played here in the league. The players that do go on to play in England, who will more than likely be picked for the Irish national team, (not necessarily right) will have that affiliation to the Irish fans and will be home-grown players, who will have learned what football means to the Irish fans back here at home. There will be a connection, despite the player probably earning millions in England, they will have that memories of when they were growing up, playing in Ireland.

I’m aware that there are arguments against this like, ‘If we don’t send them over young, they will be over looked, and the clubs may not get the money to then fund grassroots football.’ My answer to that is simple. If they are good enough and work hard enough they will make it. Plenty of League of Ireland players have gone over in later years and made an impact in England. Seamus Coleman, James McClean are just two examples. In regards to the funding issue, the FAI themselves should be funding such things, not the clubs. I do not claim to have all the answers but it just seems a pity that a country like Ireland, with a decent footballing history considering our size and how young we are, are left with taking scraps from our neighbours instead of producing the talent that is already here.

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