'Division, in-fighting, backstabbing - soccer in Ireland is absolutely plagued by that'

St Kevin’s Boys Director of Football Ken Donohoe on the obstacles hindering Irish football.

Ken Donohoe is Football Director at St Kevin's Boys Boys.
Ken Donohoe is Football Director at St Kevin's Boys Boys.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated at 14.07

EVERY TIME a major tournament that Ireland are not involved in rolls around, the same question gets asked.

Usually, in the said tournament, there is at least one team with a relatively small population that are overperforming. Irish fans and critics focus on this nation and wonder: ‘Why can’t we be like them?’

At Euro 2020, Wales and Croatia are two examples of teams with smaller populations than Ireland who managed to get out of the group stages and secure spots in the round of 16 while playing relatively attractive football. The Croats even got as far as the final of the last World Cup, while the Welsh reached the semi-finals of the 2016 Euros. Their relative success shows it is not impossible to flourish in international football without massive numbers to choose from.

One of the common complaints in Ireland is that the country simply does not produce enough top-quality players anymore.

There is certainly a degree of truth to that assertion. If you look back to Euro ’88 and the start of the Jack Charlton era, Ireland, with several players at top British sides, defeated England 1-0. Such a scenario seems unthinkable now. The current English team has many players that could be considered among the best in Europe whereas Ireland have none.

Exactly why that is the case is a complicated question to answer, but one man better placed than most to address the issue is Ken Donohoe.

The Dubliner has been involved with one of the country’s most prestigious underage clubs, St Kevin’s Boys, for five decades now and has been their Director of Football for the past 21 years.

“I played against them but I never played for Kevin’s,” Donohoe tells The42.

“My son was playing in the road leagues, a 7-a-side tournament we used to run.

“This friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for years was involved and asked me what I was doing. He asked me to get involved. That was in about 1986 and I’m still here. I started managing a team, coaching and it just grew from there.”

He continues: “We could have 70 or 80 teams here in terms of the demand that’s placed on us and numbers that turn up for trials because kids want to play for St Kevin’s — they come from not just Dublin 9, but everywhere.

“What stops that is a shortage of manpower — we don’t have enough managers or coaches.”

The club have, for decades, produced many of the top Irish players, including Liam Brady, Damien Duff, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick. More recent graduates include Jack Byrne, Dan Mandroiu, Evan Ferguson and Dawson Devoy.

robert-brady Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Donohoe has witnessed “huge changes” in Irish football since he first became involved with Kevin’s. One of the biggest has been the introduction of national underage leagues.

“I had a conversation with [former FAI CEO] John Delaney going back 10 or 11 years ago,” he recalls. “I said: ‘If you want the best to play with the best, they have to be the best. Not just: ‘We’ll gather 40 of the best.’ Sometimes there might not be 40 of the best at the level in the whole country.

“My suggestion was that there should be five centres of excellence set up and funded fully by the FAI or the government, obviously in the four provinces. And another one in Dublin. And the players selected would be schooled and coached there Monday to Friday. Friday evening, they would leave to go back and play for their club. I felt there were enough boarding schools in the country that were closing down that could have been used.

“The players would be assessed after their Junior Cert, both in their schooling and their football. It’s a decision made at Junior Cert time whether they will continue to their Leaving Cert based on their football progression. So you’ve got six years in the stream if they’re good enough. And the international teams [at underage level] would be selected from the players within that system.

“But the clubs wouldn’t suffer, because the kids would still be playing for them at the weekend.

“Instead, they decided: ‘We want the best players.’ So they let the Airtricity clubs take the best players to play in an underage league. Straight away, you’re walking into a problem. Most of the Airtricity teams haven’t got the money to facilitate the coaching or development of these players.

“You need buses, you have to feed players. But the clubs were put into such a difficult situation that they had no real choice in the matter. It was dictated down.”

He continues: “We applied and got admission to compete in the first U15 league and before we kicked a ball as St Kevin’s, we were told we wouldn’t be in it the next season because the League of Ireland clubs objected.

“We had more things in place, financial-wise, facility-wise, coaching-wise than the vast majority of those clubs, and we still have. And there are lots of other schoolboy clubs that would be in the same position as us. And all of a sudden, we’re shoved aside, but they want our players. So we were left with a sink-or-swim-type situation and League of Ireland clubs who have no history of developing players beyond their first team were on the lookout for partnerships with schoolboy clubs.

“We spoke to most of the clubs and eventually, we found a partnership with Bohs, which has worked very well for both and hopefully it will continue to do so because you can see in fairness to Keith Long, he’s not afraid to play youngsters in his first team.

“Lots of players have gone through the Bohs system now — eight from our U17s last year have signed professional contracts. So there is a pathway there. I’m sure there are people at Bohs that think: ‘We should be able to do this on our own.’

“I’m sure there are people at Kevin’s who think: ‘Why should we be involved with Bohs?’ But the landscape is changing all the time, and there is a need for partnerships like that.”

keith-long-celebrates St Kevin's Boys have an official partnership with Keith Long's Bohs. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Bohs certainly appear to have benefited from the scheme. The Gypsies are currently fourth in the Premier Division and have been among the most impressive teams to watch in the league this season, with many of their standout players St Kevin’s Boys graduates.

But Donohoe believes the new structure in Irish underage football remains flawed.

“There should be a way top schoolboy clubs can operate within that system,” he says.

“There should be a Premiership, a Championship and somewhere in the Championship, the top schoolboy clubs should be given a chance to participate. And if they’re good enough, promote them. If they’re not good enough to stay there, demote them. 

“I know at least two or three prominent schoolboy clubs won’t have any teams competing in the DDSL next year at U16s. So where do all the players go? Okay, the good ones play Airtricity U17s and 19s. But the other guys? They just left because the team has broken up. There’s huge damage in schoolboy football on account of the elitism that has been created.

“Everybody still has to try to be as closely involved in that elite as they can. Otherwise, you’ll be totally left alone. Whereas the elite will be strong, underneath it is weaker.”


I have one final question for Donohoe, but it is admittedly quite a big one, as indicated by the fact that we are still discussing it half an hour later.

Anytime Ireland suffer a particularly demoralising result at international level, there tends to be a lengthy and impassioned post-mortem in the days thereafter.

It usually focuses on player development and where Irish football is going wrong.

The 1-0 defeat at home to Luxembourg was the most recent example of an outcome that prompted significant national self-reflection.

Detractors usually bemoan Ireland’s lack of ‘creative’ and ‘technical’ players, though there remains some hope that the abundance of promising youngsters coming through under Stephen Kenny can fulfil their potential and change the situation for the better.

stephen-kenny-reacts Source: Attila Trenka/INPHO

Several current Irish players cited as the most technically gifted, including Byrne and Mandroiu, spent their formative years at Kevin’s, so does Donohoe feel optimistic about the future?

“I find when Ireland have a couple of good results, we’re great, and when we have a few bad results, as in the last while, everything is doom and gloom. And I don’t think it’s either of them. I think we’re always in the middle and I don’t think we’re ever as good as we’re painted to be. The success at World Cups in the ’90s was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Ireland has always produced good players. In the last 10-12 years, there has been a fall-off in the technical player, and that’s down to a lot of things.

“France have a place called Clairefontaine where all their best players [at underage level] are coached and then go back to their clubs.

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“They’re talking now about the Belgian model, how they reinvented the wheel after the 2002 World Cup, but Belgium had an industry, a full-time professional league, professional clubs, a pyramid system all the way down. The only soccer industry here is the FAI — people are working there full-time. League of Ireland clubs are not full-time, so the whole infrastructure is not conducive to putting these plans in place.

“A couple of years ago, we had the Emerging Talent Programme. Now it’s ‘the best players are going to play in the Airtricity League, they’re going to stay in Ireland, the League of Ireland is going to raise itself and be stronger,’ I hope it is. But the record doesn’t suggest that it will be. 

“If some kid came to me and he was good enough to play in England, Spain, or wherever, I’d encourage him to go. Why wouldn’t you? You’re going to a full-time club, training five days a week, sometimes twice a day with the best coaches, facilities, sports science, strength and conditioning. So until that type of environment is replicated over here, we are not going to have what everybody thinks we should have.

“You’re talking now about a [financially stricken] organisation running that. So what chance have got? You’re dependent on this organisation to put things in place that cost money.

“Division, in-fighting, backstabbing — soccer in Ireland is absolutely plagued by that. One league trying to outdo another league. One association trying to outdo another. Individuals within them looking to get one over on somebody.

“You’ve got to have the best players in the country all coming to one place, seven days a week. If they’re kids, they have to be educated at that base. To me, that’s where you progress.

“You look at a club that can take Airticity underage kids three or four days a week and at the same level in the same league, you’ve got a team training two days a week. The good players there are going to fall behind elsewhere, who are doing twice as much as them.

“[It will improve] if you get the best players in one place — it might be pie in the sky stuff because straight away, you’ve got too many vested interests saying: ‘You can’t do this.’

“But I do think somewhere along the way, there has to be someone in this country to stand up and say: ‘This is the way it should be done.’ That person should be given four years to go and do it. But I don’t think the will is there.

“People will say Brexit means that all the players are going to stay here until they’re 18. Parents have approached me — and they wouldn’t be pushy parents by any means — they’ve heard there’s an English club interested, the parent would say ‘my son’s granny was born in England, I have an English passport,’ they’re gone, that’s a way around it. ‘My husband works for an English company, he can get transferred tomorrow.’

“Another parent has said to me he’ll get his son to sign for a team over the border. He’d be the same player, but he can go from a Northern Ireland club.

“If they’re depending on Brexit, and thinking it’ll keep players here and everything will be rosy in the garden, no chance.”

brian-kerr Donohoe believes Brian Kerr could be the best man to lead an Irish footballing revolution. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Donohoe cites Brian Kerr as the type of person equipped to lead the footballing revolution he feels is needed at underage level but stresses that it would also require the level of resources that are scarcely available at present.

“As long as they don’t have a successful senior team, the FAI are not going to be generating money.

“So all of these things are conspiring to stop that happening. And even if they did have a certain amount of money, they might say: ‘There are different ways of spending it.’”

“The FAI in some ways are caught. They need instant results with the senior team. They certainly don’t have the money for long-term investment but that is what is required.”

There is one last point that Donohoe wants to make and it is a telling one.

“When decisions like these are being made at FAI and league level, it’s very seldom that football people are asked for their opinion.

“I’m not saying I’d have all the answers, but I worked with Alan Caffrey very closely for 12 years and at no time did anyone apart from reporters come to us and say: ‘You are doing something right at St Kevin’s, what do you think we should do?’ And I think that sums it up.

“There are people in Cherry Orchard, Belvedere, Home Farm, Joeys who would have experience and loads of ideas, but nobody ever asks them. You might have a conversation, run into John Delaney and he’d ask: ‘How are things going?’ But that would be it, you’d never hear from them again.

“There have been a lot of changes and it’s up to the people in control now, as to whether they’ll really change or not. And of course, you would like to see them succeed. I would hope for some things to be put in place and that the players are the ones that are most important because the vested interests have dominated soccer for too long. Players dictate the future, how successful your club is going to be, so how to develop and polish the diamonds is what the FAI need to get a grip on.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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