Home Football The Discussion: Is The FAI’s Underage Football Agenda Only Serving The Elite?

The Discussion: Is The FAI’s Underage Football Agenda Only Serving The Elite?

11 November 2013; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill with FAI Chief Executive John Delaney during a tour of the Aviva Stadium. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images)

In this week’s edition of ‘The Discussion’, we take an in-depth look at the current state of Irish underage football, and debate whether the grassroots is being eroded by the actions of the FAI.

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The changing landscape of schoolboy football in Ireland is a topic of huge debate amongst those involved across the spectrum of Irish soccer. Elite players are moving in their droves to national league sides upon each transfer window.

The U15 league, introduced in 2017, was the League of Ireland’s first true step into schoolboy waters following the relative success of its older brothers, the U17 and U19 leagues.

The U15 national league is what really brought the schoolboy and national set-ups into the same atmosphere. The U13 version of the tournament will be implemented in 2019, the impact of which remains to be seen.

For the elite player, these changes are undoubtedly progressive and beneficial. Former Cork City defender, Neal Horgan, is of the view that the route towards underage national leagues is a massive step in the right direction for a number of reasons.

“The link-up between the League of Ireland and the Irish schoolboy system has always been a problem. This is an effort to resolve that. It will take time, as it’s a big change, but it’s a necessary one. 

“Players can stay in Ireland during their developmental years, play senior football, complete their education and still reach a high level abroad.

“It all aligns itself to the league becoming a place where players make their first step into professional football. It makes far more sense than the risk of going to UK as a 16 year old.

“At clubs like Cork City you have five or six former professional footballers teaching the young players. Most schoolboy clubs won’t have that exposure and it allows the elite player to be influenced about the habits, the risks and rewards of professional football before he has set foot outside Ireland.”

A constant theme to Horgan’s discussion is that the importance of finances must not lead any arguments and decisions when it comes to the wellbeing of young footballers.

There is a more important reason for this whole change than just the health of the domestic league. That reason is the health and welfare of the young player.

“I believe that in 99% of cases, going across to England at 15/16 is just too young. I saw first-hand with City players who left at a young age, players who returned from England, and how they changed in the meantime.

“An issue brought up by some schoolboy clubs, following the league’s introduction, is that they miss out on compensation income for players. In my view, this has everything the wrong way around. Player welfare should come first. Finances of schoolboy clubs, whilst being important, should not trump the welfare of a minor, underage player.

“Social development, connections with friends and family, education; these are all key factors that are left behind. Even if the UK had the very best environment and set-up for our players, I don’t believe it’s the best way for a young person to develop socially, to be parted from his friends and family at such a formative age.” 

Horgan is a firm supporter of the system followed by many Scandinavian countries whereby the vast majority of footballers learn their trade at home, play senior football and gain an education prior to being exported to larger leagues.

“Very exceptional players should perhaps go at that early stage but, other than that, keeping them within the national league is key. This is how it works in Scandinavia.

“Crucially, the players can play first-team football at home in a professional environment. They have access to European football at some clubs and ideally full-time football which prepares them for a career later on.

“Players can do this whilst still being in school, such as Aaron Bolger at Shamrock Rovers, or in college as shown by Cork City’s UCC student Sean McLoughlin. It allows our best players to stay here, do their Leaving Cert and then decide at a later age if they want to make the move across the channel.

“I played with John O’Shea at Munster Schools level and he’s always an example I use. At 15 he had clubs queuing up to sign him. He was exceptional. But he stayed in Ireland, did his Leaving Cert and Manchester United were still waiting to sign him after he did his exams.  

“All the while he was playing local football with his schoolboy club Waterford Bohemians. The lesson there is that if you are as good as John O’Shea the clubs abroad will wait for you.

“However we’ve had many players over the years, maybe not as talented as John O’Shea, who thought, ‘If I don’t go over at 16, maybe my chance is gone’ and so they risked it.

“Instead of that situation what we have now is a progression in Ireland whereby elite players who maybe wouldn’t be an exceptional as a John O’Shea can stay and not risk a cross-channel move at an early age.  They can play in a national underage league and look to progress to senior League of Ireland football and their social and educational welfare is not risked while they chase their dreams.”

Another viewpoint that deserves consideration is one of those currently operating within the league. Kevin Ronayne is in his first season as manager of Cobh Ramblers’ U15 National League side.

Having come directly from coaching schoolboys football he knows first-hand how the league is helping the elite players progress,

“The U15 League of Ireland essentially allows the best to play with-and-against the best. This can only be positive for Irish football and for the aspiring young players who wish to develop their games.

“I’ve coached at schoolboys level in Cork and we enjoyed success in terms of winning titles. These titles mean little though if the child isn’t developing as a player. In this league every game is a challenge, whereas in local games we would win games by large figures which was essentially benefiting no-one.”

All of these transitions have an excellent thought process but ask anybody involved with the process of change and they will probably agree that the manner in which this transition has taken place leaves a lot to be desired.

Schoolboy clubs particularly have been left out of the loop and Neal Horgan fully acknowledges that this can be handled better.

There are a huge amount of stakeholders involved as it is a huge transition. Schoolboy clubs feel aggrieved and I understand that. The schoolboy clubs have and continue to do great things, there’s no doubt about that.

“They are volunteers and they have their understandable issues. It isn’t fair, for example, to be losing players midway through a national cup competition.

“Previously, the schoolboy clubs and the LOI clubs were living in two different worlds with different interests. The animosity between the two was clear. I feel that some of the problems that exist nowadays are because of the historical animosity between the two factions.

“Once these issues are ironed out the underage national leagues can really progress and this will be for the goodwill of young players.

“What you want is partnerships along the lines of what has recently occurred with St Kevin’s and Bohemians in Dublin. It was a big step to be able to bring these parties together for the benefit of the players. Irish soccer needs to modernise itself and these steps will help to do just that.”

Cobh coach Ronayne concurs with Neal Horgan in that the process has not ran smoothly, that schoolboy clubs face difficult situations.

He asserts positivity though that this will change.

“I’m in no doubt that there are issues that need resolving. It is unfair on clubs to lose players halfway through their season and that can’t continue. Hopefully, when the seasons align and summer football comes in, these problems will be rectified.

“The coaches at local level give up their time and effort and deserve to be treated with respect accordingly.”

While agreeing that more can be done to support schoolboy clubs during the transition, Horgan believes that some of their disputes are somewhat flawed and unnecessary.

“There seems to be an argument made that schoolboy clubs are the only party with the experience and knowledge of dealing with underage players. Why would you take schoolboy football away from the only people who have dealt with it, people that have been very successful in producing Robbie Keane, Liam Brady etc? 

“My view is that no-one else has ever done this in Ireland, so it is a flawed argument. The schoolboy clubs are comparing themselves to nobody. If no-one else has ever done it, how do you know the League of Ireland clubs can’t do a good or even better job at creating elite players? They must be given a chance at the very least.”

While Kevin also acknowledges that the treatment of schoolboy clubs must improve, he does not see this as a one-way street.

According to him, there are other organisations aside from the FAI and LOI clubs that must improve their behaviour regarding the changing football scene,

“Attitudes need to change from certain organisations. We had a case where players were not allowed to attend trials for our U15s despite the players and their parents wishing for them to attend. We tried to sign an u14 goalkeeper from a club in Cork and the club was instructed that he was not allowed to sign.

“The young lad was devastated and couldn’t understand why he was being denied the opportunity. Overall it will take time but it will work and Irish football will see the benefit of it in years to come.”

We can see here that there is an animosity between the two sectors, for whatever reason. Regardless of who is in the right, this situation is not satisfactory.

Irish football cannot continue along while this war of attrition engulfs the background. We cannot let an underlying battle between LOI and grassroots tarnish the positive development that is these national underage leagues. That relationship must be mended.

2019 will see the implementation of the U13 League of Ireland, a real bone of contention among stakeholders. The idea of setting the bar at U13 level is not something that former Cork defender Horgan agrees with at this still early stage but again he fully backs the overall transition.

“Bringing it down to U13 level, I’m not so sure if we’re ready for that yet. Maybe further down the line it will work but it might be a bit too soon for that. Overall though this process is one of the only large-scale strategic decisions that the FAI have made in my lifetime with regards to domestic football.”

It is evident that for the elite young players in this country, these leagues are pivotal. It will allow the most talented footballers to develop at home in environments that hopefully prepare them for careers in football. Our national league and national team should benefit accordingly.

Schoolboy clubs that I spoke to were anxious of their viewpoints being quoted in fear of possible repercussions from the FAI. It was clear, however, that some of their representatives were vastly unhappy at the way these changes are happening. They see Irish football as so much more than elite players and that is true.

In October 2016, at least four Cork entities, in addition to Cork City and Cobh Ramblers, expressed an interest to the FAI in joining the new U15 National League. The league was intended for LOI clubs and representatives from areas without a senior club, as such their rejections were unsurprising rejected, which was probably the correct decision in truth.

One of these entities however says that none of the four received acknowledgement of expression of interest and they had no communication from the FAI until they received a letter of rejection weeks before the league commenced with no reason cited for rejection or possible alternative arrangements such as partnerships.

In contrast, it later emerged that the FAI had worked closely with St Kevin’s Boys to try to broker a partnership with a League of Ireland club. St Kevin’s were ultimately allowed to enter the U15 National League in their own right, before partnering with Bohemians in 2018.

In speaking with some schoolboy representatives one gets the sense of a growing disillusionment at grassroots level in Irish football towards those at the top. The more the League of Ireland and schoolboys clubs enter each-other’s worlds, the more they diverge apart.

They can see the players that are dropped from LOI squads mid-season or at the end of campaigns and are then expected to contact the player, rehabilitate his confidence, and try to retain him in the game. The welfare of all players, not just the elite must be taken care of in their eyes.

Nobody is saying that schoolboy clubs have done a perfect job. In fact, some clubs have engaged in actions far from best practice. But to ignore them and leave them behind has to be seen as disregard.

Similar to how not all League of Ireland footballers transfer to England, not all schoolboy players transfer to the League of Ireland, at any age group. These players cannot be forgotten about.

Yes, we want an elite structure that works and performs, but we want places for ordinary footballers to enjoy their games simultaneously. The U15, U17 and U19 leagues have been a superb addition to the Irish football scene and they deserve to flourish without hindering lower levels of the game.

A coach at schoolboys level that I contacted made a valid point whereby the introduction of leagues at intermittent age levels (U15 – gap – U17 – gap – U19) has led to the construction of a yo-yo player pathway whereby players come and go and do not end up belonging anywhere.

Very few U15 players make the step up to U17 the season after. The same happens between U17 and U19 level. Players are moving to and from national and local leagues, which causes havoc for managers, coaches and teams.

We know that Irish football has to change at the elite level to better serve the domestic league and the national side. That’s plain to see. The national underage leagues are an excellent overall method of achieving this and have been a great success so far in ingraining League of Ireland clubs into the overall football environment.

However, Ireland is a small country with a limited football population. We can see that a lot of grassroots stakeholders are not fully pleased with the way it is being implemented.

The views and considerations of all parties must be considered and once that is achieved, the landscape of Irish football will be a far more positive place.

About Thomas Stafford

Third year Finance student in UCC. Former Media Manager at Cobh Ramblers FC and current PRO for UCC Soccer. Aside from writing for Pundit Arena, Thomas has contributed to the Evening Echo, Junior Soccer Portal, loi19.com and many others.