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Chasing the Dream

For decades youngsters have chased the dream of professional football success in Britain, but would it be better for them – and the development of Irish football – if there was greater regulation at home, Frankie Lally reports.

Every year many youths travel to Britain with hopes and dreams of making it as a professional footballer – very few actually do, and many are instead left without an education or a job.

There have been many success stories too. Big-name players like Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane did go across the Irish Sea at a relatively young age and make the grade in one of the toughest and most demanding leagues in the world.

But why were these players forced to go abroad so young? Surely it would beneficial to all – the player, his family and the FAI and IFA – if these top quality players stayed at home longer. They could develop an education and help to progress their domestic leagues at the same time, but sadly this isn’t the case.

Bohemians manager, Pat Fenlon, one of the most successful managers in Irish football history, has been managing for eight years in the League of Ireland and every year he faces a struggle to hold onto the young players who haven’t already packed up and left for Britain. Despite the lure of a professional contract in their home country and a decent wage, some players see it as a failure if they can’t make it in Britain.

“The problem here is that we don’t have anything to offer them for a full-time set-up in Ireland,” explained Fenlon. “We do have FÁS courses but I don’t think they’re the way forward. We have lost a fair few out of the game, if you look at John Paul Kelly for example [former Liverpool under-17 captain, Bohemians and Drogheda United player], he’s just gone out of the game.

“I think they [FAI] have to look at whether whatever money is being allocated to FÁS courses should be allocated to League of Ireland teams. I know we had it before and it was abused by the clubs, but that can’t be allowed happen again. I think there should be a structure put in place where the players are coached, and not just coached but where they can learn about life too.

The FAI can oversee that. I think that is the way forward.” Fenlon also believes the people in charge at the FAI are perhaps not the people who should be overseeing the decisions made on youth football. The 41-year-old thinks money allocated by the FAI should be geared towards players who are in the youth set-up at Irish clubs.

“The problem we’re having is that we’re losing players at the ages of15 and 16. I think it needs to be looked at. The problem I have with the people making these decisions is that they’re not football people; they probably work in an office. They need to involve football people in these decisions.

“You’re not going to stop them all but if you can stop the majority from going abroad then we’re going to make our own league better because we’ll have better players. Off the pitch and on the pitch it would help the players with their education and in growing up basically.”

Perhaps what is most startling about the exodus of young players to Britain is how this is seen as the norm. Rather than spending couple of years in Ireland, players feel they must pack up and leave home to make it as a professional. This was certainly the case for Karl Sheppard, who left his Portmarnock home at the age of 16 to linkup with Everton, but he soon found out life in England was not what he had expected it to be. Things like homesickness and pressures from the academy coaches all hampered the young Dubliner’s progress. The striker also found it difficult to settle in and to make friends with his peers – he felt the English players saw Irish and indeed other foreign players as competition for their places.

Sheppard is currently taking the League of Ireland by storm with his performances for Galway United this season, but like many others who went abroad at such a young age, he came close to quitting the game.“I didn’t really settle in well,” he admitted.

“I think 16 is too young to go over. I think there should be some sort of rules brought in where you have to be at least 17 or 18 because at 16 you’re still only a kid. When you’re 16 you haven’t fully developed yet both mentally and physically but when you’re 18 I think you know a bit more about life.

“I don’t think anything can prepare you for properly leaving home at that age. When you’re over there, there are a lot of things which don’t help you settle in. Even trying to make friends with the lads that had already been at the academy for years is hard, because they already have their cliques set in, and if you’re trying to come in and take their place I don’t think it really settles well with people. I think things like that can go against foreign people going over to England to play.

“A month or two before I came to Ireland I was looking at it going ‘there’s nothing going for me at the moment and I’m stuck over here – should I just pack it in altogether?’ Thankfully then the Irish season stared and Sean [Connor, the Galway United manager] got in contact with me so I came over here. There are a lot of people that come back and then you don’t really hear about them. They don’t have the love of the game any more and I was almost close to quitting myself.

“Failure over there is really a crushing thing because you think your whole world is over and unless a player is guaranteed to go over and go straight into a first-team, I think the people in charge should have a look at it. Players should be advised to stay in Ireland,” he said. The FAI have began to make moves to try and restructure the youth set-up but when the Chief Executive Officer of the association, John Delaney, concedes that the best players “will always go abroad”, it’s hard to see any real changes in the near future or a fight to hold onto these players. Our players will continue to be exported to Britain and the responsibly of developing these players for the international sides will simply be passed on.

Speaking at the launch of the League of Ireland season some eight months ago, Delaney had this to say on the matter of young Irish players continually going abroad: “I think the best players will always go abroad. The likes of Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Shay Given will always go and play for the bigger teams in England. That’s their natural habitat and that’s the way it’s always been.”

Delaney did give some hope for the future though, explaining how the Emerging Talent programme is being implemented across the country. The programme, which aims to provide players with the opportunity to train within their own area in a more structured environment as well as to provide a higher quantity and quality of players for domestic and international teams, could prove to be a major step en route to fixing youth football in this country but the results are yet to be seen.

The FAI boss explained, “What I would like is for players to stay for a longer period of time in Ireland and get a proper education. We have the Emerging Talent programme where we have development squads around the country, not only in the leagues but in the regions – the best playing against the best. We’re providing an underage structure and hopefully an under-19 league so the best players can stay playing with their League club and go then play in England or Scotland if that’s what they choose to do,” he explained.

The FAI also introduced a welfare officer in November 2008 to aid young Irish players playing in Britain. Former Stoke City and Republic of Ireland player Terry Conroy was handed the role. Still based in Stoke-on-Trent in England, Conroy spends his days visiting young Irish footballers around Britain. He has dealt with over 80 young players since his appointment in 2008, most of the players ranging from the ages of 16-18.

Conroy, who has over 300 appearances for Stoke also signalled homesickness as one of the major problems Irish players face when going abroad, but does insist clubs in the UK have recognised this and have made steps to try and rectify it, but he still insists that players are almost forced to move young if they wish to make it in England. “Well let’s say a young player said ‘I’m not going to go until I’m 18’ well then he may miss out on playing professionally. At 18 the club that was interested in him at 16 may not be interested any more. That stretch of water, the Irish Sea, between themselves and home is a huge barrier. Whereas you get kids over here who live down south and go to the very north of England and yet they don’t feel as isolated yet they’re probably living further away. “They make allowances for youngsters to go home. It could be every six weeks and at some clubs it could be every two months so there is an awareness there from the clubs. 95% of youngsters who go abroad will feel that pang of homesickness. It’s overcoming taking on training, a new culture, new accommodation – whether it be digs or hostel-type accommodation which some clubs have.”

Just like Sheppard, Conroy believes the best way forward would be if players did not leave until they were at least 18-years-old. “Ideally I would say and if I had my way and was a supremo heading youth football in Ireland, I would make sure they didn’t leave home until they were 18. They would be much more mature, developed and sensible,” he insisted.

However, despite the guidance players receive while in England, it seems very little is actually given to players still in Ireland who are pondering moves to British clubs.

Ray McCann, who manages one of Dublin’s most famous nursery sides, Belvedere, believes it is very hard to advise a seventeen-year old not to follow his dream and go abroad.

“Well over the last four years I’ve seen about one or to go over every year. I can’t really cross that line of telling a player not to go. I’d give them what advice I can but that decision really has to be between them and their parents.”

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