Focusing on the development of footballers in Ireland, UCD student Jamie Headon won the fifth instalment of the Brendan McKenna Memorial Award with his insightful article.
By Jamie Headon
For many a dissenting voice within Irish footballing circles, the technical limitations of players laid bare by their more cultured Group C opponents at Euro 2012 was perhaps the most vivid vindication of what they had been saying all along.
For quite a while now, the common consensus among these dissenting voices has been that the methods by which young Irish players learn the beautiful game are hindering the production of technically-proficient footballers.
Winning is often the prime objective and so a player’s freedom to express themselves on the ball is sometimes sacrificed in favour of an approach that values taking the safe option and playing the percentages. As a consequence, Irish kids tend not to develop their technical ability to the same degree as young players in countries with underage footballing environments more conducive to the development of skilful youngsters.
Following a long period of discourse about what could be done to alter the failing system, there now, finally, appears to be concrete action taking place to change the course of player development in this country.
In 2008, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) appointed Dutchman Wim Koevermans as their High Performance Director, entrusting the Euro ’88 medalist with the task of restructuring underage football in Ireland. He soon identified the main factors stunting the development of youngsters.
Perhaps Koevermans’ biggest gripe with what he saw was the match format commonly used in the Irish schoolboy leagues. The former FC Groningen boss argued that the 11-a-side game was coming into play at too early an age, so he proposed that the schoolboy leagues took at Holland and how they postpone that format until a young player reaches 12 or 13 years of age.
Instead of the 11-a-side format, games ranging from 4 v 4 at the youngest age of Under 5′s through to 7-a-side for Under 8′s would be more beneficial. Allowing players more touches on the ball, these small-sided game tend to help produce players that are far more competent in possession of the ball.
Much of Koevermans’ thinking on this particular issue has evidently filter down to some of the figureheads at Irish grassroots level. Current South Dublin Football League (SDFL) director of coaching and ex-Republic of Ireland international John Devine has introduced a number of pioneering changes to the small-sided games section of the South Dublin schoolboy league.
These groundbreaking changes include 3 v 3 and 5 v 5 games for players between the ages of six and 10. Assessment of these new formats, based on Dutch and Belgian models, shows they gave players 70 per cent more time with the ball at their feet than the 7 v 7 format traditionally used at those ages.
In addition to the new playing format, neither scores nor league tables come into play until Under 10, thus eliminating the competitive element of the game that often takes precedence over player development. The SDFL are not the only league to introduce such measures as their north side counterpart, the NDSL, runs its leagues from Under 8 up to a 5-a-side basis, until players graduate to a competitive 9-a-side league at Under 11.
Following two years playing 9-a-side football, NDSL teams finally begin playing the game in its full format at Under 13 level. These innovative new initiatives have seen Shamrock Rovers move some of their schoolboy teams to the SDFL, and Bohemians have done likewise in the north Dublin league.
In addition to the progress made by leagues like the SDFL and NDSL, a number of individual clubs have themselves been making strides in changing how our young players learn the game. Clubs across the country have begun using the renowned Coerver Coaching method, including Shelbourne, Esker Celtic and Salthill Devon, to name just a few.
Lucan-based club Esker are a particularly progressive outfit. On top of the Coerver model, the 2013 FAI Club of the Year have introduced methods used by the famed Ajax academy into their coaching practices. These methods clearly work with a number of the club’s teams being among the best at their respective age groups.
Another ailment that Irish football has suffered from through the years has been the absence of successful youth structures at League of Ireland clubs. It would appear, though, that genuine progress is finally being made in this area. For example, it was on Koevermans’ recommendation that the FAI formed the Under 19 League.
Koevermans, since replaced by fellow Dutchman Ruud Dokter, also suggested the formation of a Under 17 League, which is still in the process of being ironed out. Should it come to fruition, the Under 17 League could prove a watershed development in restructuring the landscape of underage football in Ireland.
It is likely that the proposed new league would see the best young talent move from the top schoolboy nursery clubs to League of Ireland clubs at an earlier age – a pattern which has already begin to emerge since the inception of the Under 19 League. The Under 17 League, therefore, would only further enhance this newly-emerging trend of getting the best of the best together.
A shift in power from the big-name schoolboy clubs to the domestic league’s clubs can only be of benefit to Irish football as a whole. And the sooner that young players have the chance to develop in a professional environment without having to leave Ireland the better.
Along with the developments like the addition of a Shamrock Rovers reserve team to the First Division, the materialisation of these proposed youth structures would create a player pathway that could very well increase the amount of players like Seamus Coleman and Shane Long produced in Ireland.
These changes in the coaching and structural framework of schoolboy football have sown the seeds of what is something of a quiet Irish football revolution; a revolution that won’t be without its fair share of detractors who still retain an inhibiting stranglehold on the Irish game.
Should these obstacles be overcome, the possible rewards are immense.
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile