Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?

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Originally published on The Guardian.

The Republic of Ireland teams that went to the World Cup finals in 1990, 1994 and 2002 were full of Premier League players. Why is the country no longer producing great footballers?

Upon arrival in cities, the first port of call for generations of Irish migrants, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

Some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.” The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, but the majority are now educated, skilled and employable. Irish migrants do not face the same hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

Playing in the Premier League represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers, as it does for millions of people around the world. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets it dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, north America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. The former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles writes in his autobiography about how he listened to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight years old, United were his favourite team and the captain, Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers looked to their neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful footballers in England. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United team, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. Last season the largest contingent of Irish players in the Premier League was at Hull City.

In the 2007-08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013-14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to the fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, but Irish football is clearly in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain, are ever dwindling and their career paths have been stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, and the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull City’s Shane Long, now of Southampton.

The paths taken by these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Republic of Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means of finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as the playing pools for England and Scotland continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long are also cases of accident rather than design. They come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams before moving to England as adults. Long was 18 when Reading signed him for a nominal fee; Coleman was 20 when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic, the transfers would have been considered low-risk transactions for the English clubs.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These players would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea, moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with the Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak picture for young Irish footballers. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new team-mates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make the first team of a top flight club, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home. Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5m – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done so in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However, football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over 200 clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However, it is strikingly obvious that, like in England, there are not enough coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 Uefa Pro licences, 183 holders of the A licence and 488 with the B licence. These qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than in Germany and Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who devote their time and effort admirably.

That said, there are also too many coaches who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a club in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant with a population of 200m, with so few creative, dynamic players in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

These players could materialise if Ireland had a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight and, of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the chief executive, has an annual salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing their debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom line is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those at the top the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings that allowed “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”.

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Enjoy watching Spain at the World Cup as you will miss them when they’re gone

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Originally published by The Guardian 13/06/2014.

Despite winning three international tournaments in a row, this Spain team are more respected than they are loved. We should savour their artistry and applaud their successes while we can

As TV becomes increasingly saturated by football coverage, there is a chance that fans might take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players was a rare treat for previous generations but it is now a weekly habit for many. Each weekend we can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence and then switch over to see Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain overexposure can extend to international teams, in particular world and European champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection or even adequate appreciation of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements and the road Spain took to reach such heights.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, the Telegraph conducted a poll on their website, asking: “Is watching Spain boring?” Of the 1,243 people who voted, 66% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter-attack. Games could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, Spain still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with in-from players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, but Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown.

Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying: “It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain were crushed 3-0 by the hosts. After the 7-0 aggregate pummelling Bayern Munich doled out to Barcelona in the Champions League, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki-taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated Spain’s play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil were worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team.

Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of 30. Spain enter this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, this is probably the last World Cup for Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being “boring” return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.” However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time Del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The team has boasted some of the most technically proficient players to have played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. His prime, like that of the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and managing his playing time effectively could be crucial in Brazil. He is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer with such technical ability and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them?

Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so: “Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past did not experience such exposure. Between 1951 and 1956, Hungary played 59 games and only lost once: the 1954 World Cup final, in which they were defeated by West Germany. Games at the time were more open, but this Hungary team are universally adored while Spain’s dominance in the modern era is greeted indifferently by some.

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is dominant and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now. This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

Perhaps this skews some fans’ enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. They have the mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer and keep winning.

This could be the last summer to watch some of their greatest players in action. In that 1981 interview Del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back.” Perhaps people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.