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Dublin: 16 °C Sunday 12 July, 2020

Has Irish football suffered from a dearth of talent? Stephen Kenny is unconvinced

The Ireland U21 boss has explained how joined-up thinking across the age groups has benefited his side.

Stephen Kenny (file pic).
Stephen Kenny (file pic).
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

ON SATURDAY, AARON Connolly became the first Irish teenager to score twice in the Premier League in a single game since Robbie Keane did likewise in August 1999 during a clash between Coventry and Derby.

Notwithstanding his impressive brace against Spurs, the Galwegian teenager still has a long way to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Ireland’s record goalscorer.

Yet the moment still felt significant and symbolic of what is happening on a wider scale.

It is genuinely difficult to think of a time when a group of Irish youngsters garnered such excitement as the current crop — as indicated by the fact that Thursday’s clash with Italy at Tallaght Stadium is sold out, a rarity for an U21 game. You arguably have to go back to the days of Brian Kerr’s underage tenure when players of the calibre of Keane and Damien Duff were coming through to identify a similar feel-good factor.

Since then, there is a belief that the underage system has struggled to produce players of that calibre, though there is optimism that could be about to change as the latest group of youngsters begin to mature.

Kenny alluded to this issue in his press conference on Tuesday when speaking in the context of Connolly’s success in becoming one of the very few Irish teenagers in recent years to have both been given an opportunity at Premier League level and subsequently grasped it.

“It’s been a while. There’s been a big gap with really young players coming into the international team.

There is a lot of very good work being done at international level by the FAI at U15, 16, 17, 18 and 19 level. All the respective coaches have really played their part and I think we’re seeing the culmination of that with a lot of players moving up quickly to the U21s and getting an opportunity.

“The next step is to become senior internationals for them all.”

In the post Duff and Keane years, it has been argued that Ireland have simply suffered from a dearth of talent. Duff himself has theorised that the problem is down to Irish kids simply not devoting as many hours to football as they once did.

The period roughly encompassing Kerr’s departure from the underage set-up to more recent times has been viewed by some as a barren period. While a number of good solid pros like Seamus Coleman, Glenn Whelan and Shane Duffy have emerged during this period, the truly gifted flair players capable of competing at the highest level — the Duffs and Keanes — have been few and far between.

It has been hoped that the appointment of Ruud Dokter as High Performance Director back in 2013 would resolve some of these issues. The introduction of national underage leagues were one significant development under his watch, and there is a sense that there needs to be more joined-up thinking across various levels of Irish football

On a related note, Kenny is not so sure that the problems of years gone by have been simply due to a dearth of talent. Instead, he suggests the system was less than ideal, and the current model in which there is more of a link between all of Ireland’s underage teams, in addition to more of a coherent philosophy across the age groups, has had a positive impact.

“It’s a contentious point as to whether [the period] was lean or whether we utilised everything overall, the structure,” Kenny says.

“I think now there’s a link in period where the U15s, U16s U17s, U18s and U19s are working in unison with a similar vision — all the teams play in a similar way with a similar style.

There are regular meetings to communicate what’s happening, regular presentations everyone presents to each other all the time with the games and that’s in the senior team too with Mick McCarthy, he’s part of that and part of all of those meetings.

“I’m not so sure that was ever the case, to be honest, that it was so co-ordinated. That’s Ruud Dokter as technical director. He has formulated that concept. Say for example, there’s two trains of thought; one, there was a lack of talent, but on the other hand, a vibrant underage international set-up helps players excel in their club careers in a major way. That is often not recognised.

“For example, Aaron Connolly, case and point. He went to Luton last year and didn’t get a game because he’d been injured, he went there injured and they were winning the league. He went to Toulon [for the Ireland U21s] and David Weir, who is the loan manager at Brighton, esteemed former Scotland captain, came to watch him and Jayson Molumby and obviously Aaron made a goal after a minute against China and scored after six himself and had a great start to a very good tournament, so I’m sure he got glowing reports to the manager. I’m sure that influenced his decision not to be put out on loan.

Like Conor Masterson, his Toulon Tournament helped him get his move to QPR. Jonathan Afolabi had a very good U19s European Championships and had been out of contract but he ended up with a lot of offers that he may not have had if he wasn’t involved with the international team, so he ended up signing for Celtic.

“A vibrant international set-up absolutely helps players in their club career in a major way. That’s the reality and that’s the way I see it.”

In previous years though, this kind of unified approach was not so apparent across Irish footballing structures. Does Kenny believe players were lost or failed to fulfil their potential partially as a result of these issues? 

“The answer is difficult to say. I wasn’t involved and it’s subjective. All managers did a great job within their own rights, they’re all good people maybe working off different ways of playing.

“Not a co-ordinated approach and not linking in with the senior team, maybe it was just a series of individual teams being managed by managers in their own individual way, so that was the way of thinking about it.”

Eoin Toolan and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to give an in-depth breakdown of where Ireland’s play stacks up against the contenders in Japan, and look into why New Zealand and England are primed for World Cup success.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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