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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 21 August, 2019
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Ireland in good health for the Euros, but future beyond that a cause for serious concern

Martin O’Neill has been among those to express concern at the lack of underage talent coming through.

Jack Byrne is one of Irish football's brightest prospects.
Jack Byrne is one of Irish football's brightest prospects.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IRISH FOOTBALL IS in a state of unusual optimism.

Over the past year, the Boys in Green have beaten some top sides in the form of Germany and Bosnia.

Last week, Martin O’Neill’s men also managed to overcome Switzerland, the 12th ranked side in the world, while earning a creditable draw with Slovakia — a team that beat Spain on their way to qualifying for Euro 2016.

It was not all good news, as recent injuries to Robbie Keane, Jon Walters and Rob Elliot emphasised, but on the basis of recent performances, the Irish team appear to be in good health and seem to have every chance of qualifying from Group E, particularly with some of their rivals struggling badly of late.

Yet there is one major cause for concern that appears to have been overlooked amid the positivity emanating from recent successes — the increasingly poor displays of Irish underage sides.

The international week began with Jack Byrne — one of Ireland’s brightest young prospects — being called up to train with the senior side and boldly declaring: “If I’ve impressed then hopefully I’ll have a chance like everybody else has a chance. I understand that there’s the players who got them there at the moment and have done an unbelievable job. But I feel like I can affect the game at every level and at the highest level. I believe in my ability and I’ll keep working hard to hopefully push my way into people’s thoughts. It’s nice that people are talking about me in that way.”

In response, O’Neill suggested Byrne should be “less cocky” and added: “I’ll have a wee word with Glenn Whelan about that. So if you see (Byrne) being carted off tomorrow, you know that the boys have read the online stuff.”

O’Neill’s obvious insinuation was that Byrne was getting carried away with himself and believing the current hype that surrounds him. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with a player expressing confidence, it’s vital that he can back up his words through action.

Byrne, unfortunately, did not live up to the heady expectations he had set while on U21 duty. The Man City midfielder, currently on loan at Dutch side Cambuur in the Eredivisie, was as ineffectual as the rest of his teammates as they were convincingly beaten 4-1 by Italy. So disappointing was the display that the headline might as well have been ‘Crash and Byrne’.

It was a similar story a couple of days later, as Slovenia were too good for Byrne and co, defeating them 3-1, and virtually ending the Irish team’s qualification hopes in the process.

The Italian encounter, in particular, felt like a mismatch from the outset. The visitors’ side included several players with regular Serie A playing experience, including highly-rated 17-year-old Milan stopper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Meanwhile, Ireland’s most impressive player on the day, Callum O’Dowda, plays with Oxford in League Two.

As a result, Noel King’s side are consequently unlikely to progress from the Uefa Championships Qualifying Round in what is the latest in a series of sub-par results at underage level.

Tom Mohan’s U17 side were also recently beaten 2-0 by Serbia in the Uefa Championships Elite Qualifying Round, while Paul Doolin’s U18 team were outclassed by England in a recent friendly, losing 4-1.

Perhaps it is unfair to focus on these games in isolation, but the bigger picture hardly looks more encouraging.

A dejected Darragh Lenihan Ireland were recently well beaten by Italy in a UEFA U21 Championship Qualifying match. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Ireland are expected to travel to the Euros with one of the oldest squads in the tournament. Whereas the England side are understood to have an average age of 25.6 — the youngest in Europe according to a recent study — Ireland have just one player under the age of 24 (23-year-old Cyrus Christie).

Moreover, several of the players who could start in June — Shay Given, John O’Shea, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, Jon Walters, Robbie Keane, Daryl Murphy and Kevin Doyle — are already into their 30s. In the searing heat of a French summer, this lack of youth in the team certainly won’t help matters.

But what’s of greater concern is the lack of homegrown players coming through. Of the U21 team that lost to Italy recently, just four of the starting XI were actually born in Ireland — a damning indictment on the team’s reliance on players that were tellingly raised in other footballing cultures. It’s been a similar story with the senior side, as the British-born likes of Jon Walters, Richard Keogh, Ciaran Clark, Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy were all key players at various points of qualification.

And while there are a few players for whom high hopes have been reserved, such as Byrne, Shane Duffy and Darragh Lenihan, for the most part, there appears to be a dearth of talent coming through the current system.

When Martin O’Neill neglected to call up anyone despite Ireland’s recent striker injury crisis, it was a telling indication of the increasing lack of top-class attackers at Ireland’s disposal. 29-year-old Shane Long was the youngest forward in Ireland’s recently announced 33-man squad, and there is a worrying lack of alternatives in that department. To find younger players capable of filling the void such as Paddy Madden or Aiden O’Brien, you often have to look as far down as League One.

People will also get the sense that O’Neill is well aware of the current problems with player development. After watching the U21s get outplayed by Italy, the Ireland manager issued a stark warning to the players in question: ”It is very important we start to build for the future, not just the Euros,” he said, following the senior side’s defeat of Switzerland.

“Players like Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark are the future. But I went down to the U21 game on Friday and the side has a lot to do, individually and collectively.

“They have to make an impression. Overall, it is the quality of the individual performances I’m looking at in the U21s — but they have some work to do,” he added.

It certainly seems a long way from the golden age of the late 90s, when Brian Kerr-managed youth sides would frequently challenge the elite teams at tournaments.

And perhaps the issue is with coaching. In a recent Irish Times article, former Ireland youth international Graham Barrett wrote: “Brian Kerr. One of the most successful and decorated men in underage international football and a man who created history but finds himself outside the ‘circle of trust’.

“Brian’s omission from any sort of input on how best to improve our youth structure does not make any sense whatsoever.

“His absence cannot be in the best interests of Irish football. This man could have a huge part to play and so many young coaches could learn so much off him. I just cannot understand why he is not being utilised.”

Ask anyone currently operating within the set-up and they will likely insist that Ruud Dokter is doing some fantastic work and point to the introduction of the U17 and U19 leagues as well as the increasing links between schoolboy and professional teams as evidence that progress is being made.

However, for all the talk, there remains a lack of genuine evidence currently to back up these assertions. At 24, Robbie Brady is the youngest Irish footballer currently getting regular Premier League game time — and he may not be for much longer if Norwich are relegated.

The lack of players following Brady suggests the problem is getting bigger rather than smaller, while many Irish stars over the years have been alarmingly late developers — Jon Walters and Wes Hoolahan, both of whom weren’t playing regular top-level football until their late 20s — are two prime examples.

Perhaps patience is required and a flurry of top prospects will suddenly emerge, like they did in 1997, but recent results do not inspire much hope.

Ireland fans should therefore savour the Euros — with Keane, O’Shea, Hoolahan, Walters, Murphy, Whelan and Given among the potential retirees once it ends, the Irish side’s options are likely to be further diminish sooner rather than later. Consequently, with viable replacements conspicuous by their absence, this summer might be the team’s last participation in a major tournament for quite some time.

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Paul Fennessy

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