Brexiteers and Irish footballers are the unlikeliest of bedfellows. –
The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union triggered a blockade on Irish teenagers moving to British clubs while simultaneously, via the Common Travel Area, created a smooth path for players to cross the water on their 18th birthday.
Unlike everyone else in the world, Irish citizens do not need a work permit to earn a living in the UK.
This feeds directly into last Monday’s win in Cyprus when the Republic of Ireland became the first country to qualify for the under-17 European Championships in Hungary this summer.
Colin O’Brien’s team’s results are as impressive as the spread of League of Ireland clubs within the squad: a 2-2 draw with Italy and Mason Melia’s hat-trick to beat Ukraine 3-0 before this week’s 3-2 victory was spearheaded by Naj Razi.
In any other era, Melia (15) and Razi (16) would be away to Arsenal and Nottingham Forest, like Graham Barrett and Andy Reid back in 1998 when Brian Kerr’s under-16s and under-18s were crowned European champions.
“Our teams had class players, an experienced manager and staff who really knew what we were doing,” Kerr remembers. “The current under-17s won a group in Cyprus. Our under-18s won a European Championship in Cyprus.”
Twenty-five years later, the football ecosystem in Ireland is unrecognisable. Ten of Kerr’s 15-year-olds had already signed for English clubs or Glasgow Celtic while most of the rest, including John O’Shea, would follow.
Of O’Brien’s current crop, 19 are signed to eight League of Ireland teams with only five – Marcus Gill (Celtic), Jake Grante (Crystal Palace), Niall McAndrew (Derby County), Stan Ashbee (Hull City) and Trent Kone Doherty (Liverpool) – playing in England. Doherty was born in Derry, the rest in Britain.
Under Kerr’s guidance between 1997 and 2003 Ireland won two European titles alongside a third-place finish at an under-20 World Cup as over 20 players from five different age groups went on to win 600 senior caps.
“It wasn’t those two tournaments in isolation,” says Barrett, now a football agent. “There was a large group of players spread over four or five age grades that were not just qualifying for tournaments but getting to the latter stages, all the time.
“To do that now you have to have more resources. The Premier League gives their academies £1.4 million to run them. League of Ireland clubs get €20,000.”
While the under-17s promise a bright future, the FAI, Barrett and Kerr are on the same page in 2023; this week’s success is unsustainable without Government support. A hand up, not a hand out. It is believed that financial support during the lifetime of two governments would get an Irish football industry on its feet.
Will Clarke, the FAI’s League of Ireland academy development manager, summed up this week’s progress: “Timely moment to remind people that we are one of only four nations in Europe that has less than one full-time employee working at academy level per club which makes this achievement even more remarkable when you consider the resources available in other nations.”
Northern Ireland, Andorra and Luxembourg are the other European football nations lacking adequate academy structures.
Key numbers further enhance the achievement of O’Brien’s boys. On average, coaching contact time for League of Ireland clubs with under-17 players is 260 minutes per week. A category three English club academy like Rochdale or Accrington Stanley spend between 600 to 720 minutes developing teenagers.
A conversation between then taoiseach Micheál Martin and Joe Molloy on Off The Ball in 2021 has proved a false dawn.
“Governments have provided funding but I think we should up it a bit in terms of the league itself, the current funding,” said Martin.
When asked if the Government could front €80,000 per academy for the largest participation sport on the island, he replied: “I think we can”.
So hard cash? “Yeah,” said Martin.
The cost of operating an academy is €500,000 per annum. Uefa provide €65,000 from their solidarity fund and the FAI currently give €20,000 per club. Talks with Government are widespread and ongoing.
Irish football remains stranded at a crossroads and insiders are adamant that league-wide professional academies will be created in the coming years.
“Most clubs are doing their best regarding facilities and coaches, on limited money,” says Kerr.
“Links with educational institutions is a key one, I always felt. The GAA and rugby in UCD are way ahead but the potential is still there for shared facilities and educational opportunities for players. All the obvious stuff.”
“Brexit obviously makes a huge difference,” Kerr continues, “but agents are busy now trying to get them out elsewhere.”
Brexit opened new domestic and foreign horizons for Irish football as League of Ireland clubs must cater for home-grown boys and girls, or the talent will follow Kevin Zefi (Inter Milan) and Cathal Heffernan (AC Milan) to the Continent.
“I’d like them to stay and experience first team football here before they go,” says Barrett.
“Look at Gavin Bazunu, for example, he played in the first team for Shamrock Rovers. The biggest part of his decision making – by Rovers, and by his mam and dad and before signing for Man City – was largely based on the fact that he could complete his education.
“If clubs in Europe can’t give kids the opportunity to complete their studies I would be against it straight away.”
Barrett was already at Liam Brady’s Arsenal academy when shining for Kerr’s under-16s side. The 41-year-old has been singing these tunes since 2016.
“I do agree with Colin O’Brien and Will Clarke in that this is the best time to put in peoples’ minds that across the league there is only one full-time person working in academies, on average.
“Qualifying is a great achievement in the context that we have volunteers all around the country mucking in to maximise what we have. Now these people who put in so much time and effort to improve our kids need financial backing from the Government.”
The FAI are actively engaging with different strands of Government to turn this into a reality. Outgoing chairman Roy Barrett even suggested the betting levy is raised from two to three per cent, with the extra tax funnelled directly into establishing a football industry in Ireland, similar to horseracing and greyhound racing.
“Look at Gavin Bazunu, Evan Ferguson, Caoimhín Kelleher; we are capable of producing top players but it is done differently now,” Barrett explains. “There is a science to it.
“It is well documented that kids don’t play street football anymore so we have to replace that, as other countries have done, with resources to have organised practice. The training hours in other countries are through the roof. If we can do that all around the country we have a chance to go and win things again. Because we do have excellent coaches and absolutely have the raw talent, but you have to harness that.”
Another concern focuses on whether the game needs, or can sustain 20 centres of excellence, with four in Dublin – Bohs, Shels, St Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers – while UCD use Mount Merrion as a feeder club.
“I think every professional club in Ireland should have an academy,” says Barrett. “It should be part of the participation agreement, that they have the means to run their own academy. But how do they do that? They don’t have the money to do that.
“There is an awful lot of work to be done. We won’t be able to maximise all of that over the next 50 years – we’ve seen what happened over the last 30 years when nobody built on what Brian Kerr achieved with underage football in Ireland.
“The world changed, professionalising younger age groups, and we fell behind. Now we are doing our best to catch up.
“The under-17s, who did so well against Cyprus, Ukraine and Italy need help from the Government. And not just token gestures, real help. We can’t replicate what is happening 30 minutes away in England because we do not have the funding.”
The wonder is how the 15-year-old Barrett, scouted by Arsenal in the 1990s, would fare in the 2023 market.
“We should never stop kids like Bazunu or Ferguson going to the highest calibre of club quickly but everybody has their own path. All League of Ireland clubs can do is give my mother – as was the case 20-odd years ago – the best possible choice. What is the path if he stays, what happens if he goes?
“At the moment, clubs have not received enough backing to provide that path. Some are trying their best, but they still need more help.”
How do we convince the Government that planting the seeds of a football industry is worthwhile?
“We convince the Government by football’s governing bodies in this country all coming together. The governance of Irish football is fragmented – the SFAI, affiliated leagues; there needs to be one joined-up way of thinking and healthy conversations.
“People need to get on the same page, and fight for the same goal – only then will the Government listen. Anyone who has left Ireland to coach or play abroad will tell you that is the only way this will happen.
“Get off the FAI’s case and work with them. They went through a bad time but now they have really good people leading it. People in Ireland need to stop fighting with each other and get together.”
Republic of Ireland under-16s squad 1998: Joe Murphy (Tranmere Rovers), David Madden (Tramore Athletic), John Thompson (Home Farm), Keith Foy (Nottingham Forest), Jim Goodwin (Celtic), John O’Shea (Waterford Bohemians), Andy Reid (Nottingham Forest), Shaun Byrne (West Ham United), Brendan McGill (Rivervalley Rangers), David McMahon (Newcastle United), Liam Miller (Celtic), Graham Barrett (Arsenal), Dessie Byrne (Cherry Orchard), Jonathan Douglas (Monaghan United), David Warren (Mayfield), Brian O’Callaghan (Pike Rovers), Ian Rossiter (Galway United), Kevin Grogan (Manchester United).
Republic of Ireland under-17s squad 2023: Marcus Gill (Celtic), Jason Healy (Waterford), Stan Ashbee (Hull City), Daniel Babb (UCD), Jake Grante (Crystal Palace), Kaylem Harnett (Wexford), Sean Mackey (UCD), Cory O’Sullivan (Shamrock Rovers), Adam Queally (Waterford), Romeo Akachukwu (Waterford), Niall McAndrew (Derby County), Taylor Mooney (St Patrick’s Athletic), Daniel McGrath (Bohemians), Matthew Moore (Cork City), John O’Sullivan (Shamrock Rovers), Freddie Turley (Shamrock Rovers), Luke Kehir (St Patrick’s Athletic), Aaron McLaughlin (Finn Harps), Mason Melia (St Patrick’s Athletic), Matthew Murray (Cork City), Nickson Okosun (Boheminas), Ike Orazi (Shamrock Rovers), Naj Razi (Shamrock Rovers), Trent Kone Doherty (Liverpool).