“Brexit”, says Will Clarke, director of the League of Ireland Academy, “presents a golden opportunity for us”.
With regulations changed to ban an Irish player from moving to a UK club until they turn 18 – they can still move to another EU country from the age of 16, a la Kevin Zefi and Cathal Heffernan – more responsibilities have now been imposed on the Irish. system.
Credit: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
“Probably for the first time in our history, we have to take ownership of the development of our most promising young players,” Clarke says.
Some of the FAI’s long-term plans in this area remain unclear, with the Association yet to name a successor to Ruud Dokter in a new role as director of football. Pending this appointment, the Association’s four-year strategic document understandably contains few concrete commitments.
He says the player development plan will be open to refinement by the new director of football, for example, while plans for a residential National Center of Excellence in Abbottstown are under review.
What is clear is that the FAI is maintaining the League of Ireland Academy system as key to developing elite players, and this year’s domestic U15, U17 and U19 leagues will start next week. . (The U14 league starts in July, but more on that later.)
Clarke and the FAI have made some changes to the minor league format, to address some issues that arise.
There are now more matches: In 2019 – the last full season without Covid – teams were guaranteed 21 matches, but that number has now risen to 30. Competitions will be split into tiers after the first phase of matches, to better guarantee a meaningful and competitive action throughout.
U14 and U15 matches have been lengthened from 80 minutes to 90 minutes – the rationale being that an extra 10 minutes each week is considerably more football over a year – while matches have been split into three 30-minute periods in which each player must be guaranteed at least 30 minutes of playing time each week.
To better respond to the problem of talented players who are slow to develop physically, U15 teams will now be able to play two players born in 2006 each week, that is to say those who are U16 and play at U17 level. (The fact that the FAI only has age ratings every two years from under 15s has been a constant criticism.)
U19 teams are also allowed to play up to two U20 players each week, as well as two senior players of any age: this goes a bit to bridge the current chasm between the U19 leagues and first-team football, with no transition league in place in Ireland.
“A lot of the changes we’ve made have been quite incremental,” Clarke says. “There is a golden opportunity to rethink and reshape the way we do youth development in this country and we are all aware that we don’t have the greatest resources in the world so we need to work harder and we have to work smarter.”
Work harder, smarter…and together. Last December, the FAI board took the decision to postpone the start of the U14 leagues from March to July, supposedly to avoid disrupting schoolboy teams mid-season. As the calendars of grassroots/schoolboy clubs and LOI academies are not aligned, academies recruiting U14 players first do so in the middle of the school season.
It was met with a backlash, with Shamrock Rovers issuing a statement calling on the FAI to explain a decision they described as “a completely random and thoughtless decision”. Many LOI academies went ahead and signed players anyway, arranging friendly matches with each other until the league officially launched. The recruitment of Cork City and Cobh Ramblers led Cork Schoolboys League Secretary Eddie Doyle to issue a statement to the Echo newspaper saying the clubs were acting “despicably”.
Longtime SFAI honorary secretary Martin O’Hanlon has resigned amid the fallout.
“As far as this is concerned, a decision has been made and it is up to all the different parts of the game to work together to do the best for football going forward,” Clarke says. ” The CEO [Jonathan Hill] publicly mentioned that the FAI was setting up a task force to look at the whole transition from schoolboy academies to minor academies in the League of Ireland. He mentioned it at a meeting of the General Assembly last week.
“We have had a few internal meetings and this group will be expanded in the weeks and months to come. This working group will be made up of people from the FAI, the League of Ireland, the minor section and the school sector.
Ultimately, we have to stop putting people in different boxes. These are football problems and we will tackle them with football solutions. We need to move away from the “us and them” mentality and be fair to the people of SFAI, there has been a very good dialogue between FAI and SFAI, and from our point of view in the LOI department, we have a very close working relationship with people like Ger McDermott, who is responsible for Grassroots.
Clarke was also keen to point out a shift in focus. “We want to emphasize player development rather than competition and the competitive nature that has existed in youth football here for 30 or 40 years.”
He refers to these changes to match and competition formats as the “first phase” of improving youth development in Ireland, and the next phase could prove more difficult.
One of the next works is the introduction of an academy certification system, similar to the four-category grading system used by the FA in England. The FAI will define the criteria for their different levels this year, with clubs being asked to apply for status by the end of the year.
“Academy certification is about trying to improve standards on and off the pitch and making sure there are checks and balances in place. At the moment we don’t really have any measures in terms of who succeeds at the academy level and at the development level, again, it’s very subjective, so we want to put metrics around things like that.
“The great thing about the process is that there will be a lot of verification, so if a club says they’re going to do something, then we have to make sure it’s verified. It’s important that we incentivize clubs to do a better job in terms of youth development; each club has its own strategy and its own point of view, from our point of view we must try to support, reward and incentivize those clubs which interest in youth development.
The certification and format changes are smart and relatively inexpensive upgrades, but ultimately the whole system requires significant investment to make up for the UK road cut.
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Basic training time is an issue: In an interview with Le42 in December 2020, before taking up his newly created role at the FAI the following March, Clarke pointed out that Irish players at U15, U17 and U19 levels averaged around six hours of contact time per week, while in the UK United, this figure was at least 15 hours a week.
But it’s an investment product: a UK Tier 1 academy requires a minimum of 18 full-time staff and a budget of at least £2.5 million. Of the 19 League of Ireland academies, only six currently have a full-time manager.
Left to right: Craig Sexton, Academy Manager, Bohemians, Liam Kearney, Academy Manager, Cork City, Will Clarke, Conor O’Grady, Academy Manager, Sligo Rovers, and Isabelle Connolly, Coach Bray Wanderers Under-17s
Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE
“It’s improved slightly, but not nearly enough,” Clarke says of contact time for Ireland’s top players. “We’ve eliminated format changes, now we’re moving into phase two, part of that will be academy criteria and the various programs clubs have in place to increase contact time.
“It’s a huge challenge, we still depend a lot on volunteers. We need to address these issues now and resolve them as best we can. I would like to sit here next year and turn around and say there has been an increase in contact time.
Clarke says he will strive to maximize FAI Education and Training Council programs and mentions Shamrock Rovers’ link to transition year students at Ashfield College as educational programs that increase player training time.
Ultimately, however, it all comes down to coaching and the number of coaches.
“There are a lot of areas we need to look at, but ultimately we need to get to having more full-time staff working at academy level in this country. That’s what we need to aim for. C is the long-term goal.”
The FAI will go to the government with its strategic document and plans for youth development in this country, for which it will seek investments. However, it is highly unlikely that any of this money will be awarded this year.
There is a lot of good done and in the process of being done… with a lot of things to do.