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There's A Very Worrying Reality Awaiting Irish Football And There's No Point Ignoring It

There's A Very Worrying Reality Awaiting Irish Football And There's No Point Ignoring It
By Gary Reilly
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There's an entirely believable stat doing the rounds this week that now that all is said and done in terms of squad selection, Ireland officially head into Euro 2016 as the oldest team in the competition. For the second European Championships in a row, we emerge as the old timers which, in itself, is no bad thing.

You only need to look at 29 year old Shane Long as the perfect example of what ten years of experience at the highest level can bring. His mobility has always been his redeeming feature, even when the goals haven't been flowing, but it's now abundantly clear to see what he's been able to add to that metronomic ability to cover every inch of the opposition's half.

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Technically, it's difficult to say that he's now a better footballer but the added intelligence that is now in his game has resulted in a remarkable transformation for a player who was on the fringes of O'Neill's squad when qualifying began back in 2014. In the short term, experience can be viewed as a positive. We certainly shouldn't be bemoaning our status as the oldest squad heading to France but once this summer's festivities come to an end, that age profile is going to be a rather severe worry.

Before anyone says it, yes, I am disgusted with myself for sounding like such a sour gobshite in the week before Ireland return to major tournament football but just stick with me for a couple of minutes and then we can get back to planning the party. Back in November, I wrote in the Sunday Business Post about how there was a rather uncomfortable reality awaiting Irish football after this summer.

Martin O'Neill's squad selection this week has now rubber stamped that opinion and it needs to be revisited. Shay Given and Robbie Keane may be the outliers when it comes to the fact that their game-time in France will be rather limited but in O'Shea, Whelan, Hoolahan and Walters, we still have a starting XI built around players approaching the twilight of their careers.

And now that the average age of 29 has been confirmed, there's a rather startling sequence stretching all the way back to 1988 that comes into effect.


Ireland have qualified for six tournaments with a fairly definitive breaking point in the middle. Three tournaments with Jack Charlton at the helm and three tournaments since 'the golden age' came to an end and we were forced to adapt and change in the aftermath of the Charlton era.

When Ireland finally emerged onto the tournament stage at Euro 88, we did so with a squad who listed Kevin Moran as the oldest player at 32. It wasn't exactly a youthful squad but with the likes of Niall Quinn in attendance, the average age was down at 27.


Move on two years and there wasn't exactly a huge change in personnel. Steve Staunton brought the average age down a bit but for the most part, everyone was two years older and the average age was up to 29.


We may not have known it at the the time but when USA 94 rolled around, the Charlton era was reaching a natural end. Roy Keane and the three amigos, brought the age down but this was a squad with nine players 30 or older. The average age was up to 29 and failure to replenish the stocks went some way to ensuring that Charlton stepped aside in 1995.

And so came an end to the Charlton era. What followed was the clichéd period of transition and by the time 2002 rolled around, the next defining generation of Irish footballers had come through. It might be fair to call them the Brian Kerr generation considering the work that Kerr put into the youth setup during the late nineties but in years to come we'll surely look back on it as the Robbie Keane era.

An in 2002, the Keane-Duff axis was at its pinnacle. It wasn't all change but the likes of Staunton and Quinn were exception rather than the norm. Keane, Duff, Harte, Reid and Morrison gave the squad a very definitive break from the Charlton era and the average was once again down to 27.


What followed was less a period of transition and more a period of near misses and floundering. By the time Euro 2012 rolled around, Trapattoni's team was still based on a spine of Given, Dunne, Duff and Keane. It may have been ten years since our last tournament, but not that much had changed.

In the intervening period, the average age stayed fairly stationary or even dropped at some points but when it was time to head to Poland, the average was once again up to 28.

And now that the Robbie Keane era is coming to a very definitive end this summer, the cycle from the Charlton era has repeated itself.


Keane will retire, Given will retire and the average age of the Ireland squad will naturally come down. But the question remains about who is there to replace them. After 94, you had Kelly, Babb, McAteer, Keane and Staunton to take up the mantle. This time around, it's difficult to point to the 20-25 age group and say, there's a group that will weather the coming storm.

The qualification criteria for the European Championships may mean that it won't be ten years until we return to tournament football but if the end of the Charlton era thought us anything, it's that once that average age creeps up to the 30 mark, it's exceedingly difficult to keep things going at that level.

Once the dust settles on Euro 2016, the Ireland squad is going to undergo a significant change. Whether we have the players coming through to ensure that that transition reaches the level of what we saw in 2002 is very much debatable.


Now enough of that. Go forth and enjoy all that this summer has to offer. Forget average age profile and sour harbingers of doom, it's time to forget our troubles and concentrate on the here and now. Tomorrow's another day and we've always been rather good at remembering that.

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