In terms of 'England's exit from major tournament bingo', we're the tabloid rendering of Roy Hodgson's face on a vegetable away from a full house. The usual reasons for their failure have been trotted out: English arrogance in believing they were entitled to beat Iceland; a poor manager; players tired from a long season without a winter break. The biggest problem 0f all is the Premier League, which Didi Hamann pointed out on RTE last night.
Hamann attacked the league's quality, saying that the league is a "fraud", syaing that Richard Scudamore and co. have "sold a Skoda as a Lamborghini". Amidst the influx of foreign wealth and overseas players, clubs are focussed on making themselves money, with the concept of developing youth players for the national team an irrelevance to them.
The disaster of the England national team is important for the Republic of Ireland. For too long, Ireland have relied on British clubs to develop young talent. That incentive to develop young talent no longer exists for Premier League clubs, and thankfully, the FAI are taking stock.
The FAI's High-Performance Director Ruud Dokter (pipped by Arsenal's Sir Chips Keswick and Tokyo Sexwale as football administration's most entertaining name) is the man tasked with implementing a coherent youth development policy in Irish football. Dokter has not spoken publicly very often about his plans with Ireland, bar this excellent interview with Daniel McDonnell of the Irish Independent, which took place earlier this year.
Dokter's overall idea is to have players remain in Ireland for longer, rather than going to the UK at the risk of being chewed up and spit out by the system at a young age.
At the moment, the structures of Irish football remain too disparate. There is no natural, consistent path from underage player to a first-team. There is too wide a separation between youth clubs like Home Farm and Saint Kevin's Boys - who have undoubtedly done some magnificent work in developing young players, particularly the latter with Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady - and League of Ireland clubs, which can offer young players a path to regular and competitive first-team football. Dokter is aware of this, and compared the structures to Ajax in his native Holland:
Yes, in the Netherlands, that's the difference, you can go to a club when you are 5 and you know you could stick with them until you are 65. That's a community club, all the way from a young age to a first team to a committee or whatever. That's the same with most clubs - not necessarily at professional level although Ajax would have. The others have academies starting at age 13. But what you would say is that there's a pathway from a young age to the first team and that is important.
That pathway to first-team football and big money is offered by clubs in England, hence the eagerness of young players to cross the Irish Sea. While some Irish players have become huge successes by going down this route, the figures show that Irish players benefit from a longer development period in Ireland. Gary Reilly of this website has crunched the numbers in relation to this, going through all of the players capped by Ireland since Jack Charlton took over in 1986, comparing the country in which they spent their formative years with the country in which they played when they made their Irish debut:
Given the surplus of Irish players going to England over those staying, the gap between the top two figures would be much larger were the development among English clubs a success. For every Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady - who left St Kevin's at the age of 16 for Derby County and Manchester United respectively - there is Conor Clifford. Clifford left Crumlin United for Chelsea at the age of just 15, and despite captaining the Youth cup winning team of 2010, failed to make a breakthrough and has slid down the leagues, now plying his trade for non-league Boreham Wood. It is a cautionary tale: Clifford played a total of 45 times for Ireland at Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 level for Ireland, yet has never made a senior appearance.
Of the Irish-born players who played against France, only Hendrick, Brady and Darren Randolph left for England at the age of 16. Shane Long made the move at 18, Shane Duffy joined Everton at 17, Seamus Coleman moved to the same club at 20, while Stephen Ward and James McClean did not leave the League of Ireland until they were 21.
The stats show that players are more likely to make their debuts for Ireland having spent their formative years in Ireland, before playing at a higher standard in England.
Dokter and the FAI realise this, and so are endeavouring to put unified structures in place which will encourage players to stay in Ireland until their late teens. The plan for this the implementation of national under-19 and under-17 leagues, as Dokter told the Independent:
That's why we set up a national U17 league and said to the schoolboy clubs...we have to create a pathway. I know the schoolboy clubs do fantastic work but we need to collabarate with each other, that's the keyword.
This will bring with it pain for the schoolboy clubs, as elucidated by St Kevin's Boys chairman Michael O'Callaghan to the Sunday Independent last March. The weekend saw Kevin's U-13s beat Barcelona in an Easter tournament, but the competition faces the axe under the FAI's new directives:
In their dubious wisdom, the FAI have decided to enforce a rule that the under 19, the under 17, and eventually the under 15 and under 13 national leagues will be the exclusive preserve of League of Ireland clubs.
By enforcing this, we and most schoolboy clubs will lose our best players and coaches. In fact, it may transpire that we lose so many of our teams and volunteers that our very existence is threatened.
The FAI have denied that they are explicitly favouring League of Ireland sides, and instead are demanding a standard of coaching and infrastructure that every club must meet. The FAI have plans to allow academy clubs like Belvedere and Home Farm, along with Kevin's Boys to retain Academy status over the next five years, but the future is uncertain beyond that.
Watching Hendrick and Brady combine for Ireland at the Euros as they did in Dublin from the age of six was edifying, and the contribution that academy clubs have made to Irish football must not be ignored or underestimated. But a closer relationship with the senior clubs is a must. Their expertise and commitment must be recognised by the FAI, and included in the larger, more unified structure.
Should it happen, the future will be brighter still.