The following is the fourth part of an article I had previously planned to be included in a Lovely Left Foot project, which has since not come to pass. With some rewriting to make the overall content more current (the bulk was written a year or so ago), I present it now in several sections, which I will publish in the lead-up to the 2014 seasons kick-off at the beginning of next month.
The first part, on League Organisation.
The second part, on FAI Oversight.
The third part, on Internal Club Issues.
Creation/Retention Of Quality Players
On to players then. In terms of the actual talent on display in Irish football, a lot could be done to alleviate problems and reform the current situation.
As it stands, to be a young Irish footballer with talent is to be a person trying to get out of the country as fast as possible. The likes of Shane Long and James McClean show that the LOI and its clubs are capable of finding good players and giving them starts in the professional game, but the truly exceptional will be gone to England within a very short amount of time.
But even the number of such players has decreased over the last few years. Before tackling the problem of players leaving, we must look at the creation of such players. I’ve talked about the problems within junior level football in Ireland before on Lovely Left Foot, but let’s get more specific.
In order to create better players, the under-age system needs to be improved, with not as much emphasis on “win at all costs” in order to impress visiting scouts, but to improve footballing skill. Players have to stop being dismissed at absurdly young ages for lack of progress, and the direction must be taken, as Spain and Germany have done, on creating a new generation of players who can play the modern game better. The modern game is not just the English game, which has been shown up repeatedly at numerous levels, but a game of short passing, retention of possession and a refusal to back off from the opposing teams: the very quality that many critics believe the current Ireland set-up lacks.
The establishment of a national academy, run by the FAI and taking advantage of the recent FIFA grants, is a top priority, to take the best of our youngest players, hone their skills and get them set up to represent clubs and country when they come of age. The wheels are in motion for such things already, and work on such facilities is due to start soon. Similar facilities for coaching would also not be amiss, and the participation of the FAI in the Futsal program is a good sign of where things are going.
But it is not enough to just create good footballers if one is to reform the LOI. Such players should also see the attraction in staying, at least for a while in the LOI. I do not begrudge any person seeking to make it big abroad. They only have so long in their footballing careers after all.
But if someone was to graduate through an FAI academy, or any local club academy for that matter, I do not think it is unreasonable for that person to be obligated to play a few years in their native league. You can discuss further ways to implement this: an open free agency, a draft ala MLS, whatever. But the important point is that the LOI needs younger, better Irish players in its ranks and if the FAI or clubs are using their resources to create those players, the expectation should be met.
Also, in line with other reforms designed to make clubs more profitable, the contract system of Irish football should be reviewed. As of right now, the better players of the LOI frequently swap clubs on a constant basis, usually staying in one place for only two or so years. This might be due to the financial irregularity that plagues Irish clubs, as players attempt to make the maximum income from their all too brief time on the pitch.
If clubs were to become more profitable through reforms and resultant gate increases/FAI support, contracts of greater length could be given out that could maintain continuity of squads, which will certainly aid in the attachment of local supporters. It is, in essence, a case of domino’s falling. A youth academy to create players, a contractual obligation to play in the Irish league for a time, a better quality of player to drive up interest and support, increased income, longer contracts becoming a reality.
The other major thing to do with the retention of players though is the attraction of the league as a spectacle, which also ties in to supporter numbers. Make the league better, by acquiring capital and reinvesting it where it needs to be invested, make the type of football on display a better level than it is right now, and more of our young players can be convinced to stay and ply their trade here, rather than on the fields of England, if only for a few years.