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”.