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The pros and cons of talent development in Irish football

Laura Finnegan chats to The42 about the issue.

Updated at 11.41

LAURA FINNEGAN IS a sport lecturer in Waterford IT, a PhD candidate on talent development at Liverpool John Moores University and writes a blog — talentdevelopmentinirishfootball.com.

With player pathways to senior football much discussed amid a turbulent few months for Irish football off the field, The42 recently caught up with Finnegan to discuss what she has learned from many years studying talent development

So what made you decide to undertake a PhD in talent development?

I lecture in Waterford IT. So it was the next step in my academic career.

I did look around for a while to see what I was going to be interested in. I have a young family, so it was going to be a part-time thing. It was going to be something that was going to take up a lot of my time, so it had to be something I’m passionate about.

I’ve played football at a younger age, coached a little bit, but I’m really interested in player development.

Coming out of the [2012] Euros in Poznan many moons ago, it was a disappointing result over there. I thought: ‘I’m not going to be able to dedicate my time in terms of coaching, maybe there’s some small thing I can do to make a difference. Maybe academics is what I can offer.’

Did you ever play football at a high level?

Many moons ago, there wasn’t any structured national leagues. Bellurgan United just outside Dundalk [were my team]. I suppose the reality was, like a lot of women’s football, we couldn’t get coaches. The generous parent coaches run out after a while. But hopefully it’s a different environment now for girls getting involved in football.

Has there been much research done on talent development in an Irish context, or is it an area that’s under-investigated?

Under-investigated, I think, is fair to say. There are a lot of people that are really enthused about development. Looking at it from a completely objective point of view probably hadn’t been done before — now I hope that’s changed. I have met and discussed the idea of a centralised research centre housed within the Football Association of Ireland. I discussed that with [FAI High Performance Director] Ruud Dokter. I just think to be able to base decisions off actual research makes sense.

We’ve even looked at some of the ‘where you were born’ analysis that I’ve done and where the ETP [Emerging Talent Programme] centres are based. You’d hear a lot of criticism that there were two up in Dublin. But if we look at the statistics and the actual playing populations, it probably merits three.

I think it gives policy makers structural decisions on how we’re going to organise youth football on evidence. Obviously, it would have to be tempered with contextual knowledge and knowledge at grassroots level for sure, but I think it’s an added extra that I feel has been lacking. There are some good academics in the area of football in Ireland. Seamus Kelly and Eileen Gleeson up in UCD to name just two. But probably in the area of talent development, there hasn’t been a lot done.

Ruud Dokter with Stephen Kenny FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter with Republic of Ireland U21 Manager Stephen Kenny. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Would it be fair to say there has been a general increase in interest in the area of talent development in Irish football over the years and there’s now less of a tendency to identify a scapegoat, such as a manager, for failures on the pitch, and instead critics tend to look deeper at structures etc?

I agree. And we’re talking about looking elsewhere to fix our problems and now we can realise that the UK isn’t always going to be that line or that channel to go and be developed to a higher standard. I think there is a greater sense of responsibility from the FAI about that, and individual clubs as well.

What are some of the things to encourage and avoid when it comes to developing players?

Number one definitely has to be coherent structures and everyone on the same page and working together. That hasn’t always been the case here, which has held us back. There’s been a history of animosity between different groups and different leagues and all of that. It hasn’t served us well in terms of our development.

I remember reading about one FAI AGM a few years ago, where someone was trying to bring in or suggest sensible player development strategies about non-competitive football at U8s or U9s. People were talking about getting rid of that at the time. People got the sense that it was voted down because of who was suggesting it, rather than looking coherently at the whole structure and basing it on evidence and research to see how that might be a good or bad thing.

Structure is key. You can’t do anything without everyone being on the same page. Does that mean everyone has to agree on everything? Absolutely not. Definitely have the forum for all those voices to be heard, because that’s probably been an issue in the past as well.

A view of FAI HQ in Abbotstown A view of FAI HQ in Abbotstown. Source: ©INPHO

One of the old complaints was the lack of a coherent pathway from schoolboy to senior level, but do you get the sense that that’s changing with the introduction of the underage national leagues in recent years?

The schoolboy leagues in general have been a positive step. I’m not particularly keen on the U13 [league] for a number of reasons, but lots of people have raised the same queries. If we’re talking about coherency and structures, where do players go after every second season? How many 13-year-olds will be able to fit into an U15s squad? I would suggest very few. The ones that might progress are the early maturers, the ones that are physically mature and can dominate. The rest will go back to clubs, probably into a Kennedy Cup at U14.

And again, there are issues with the Kennedy Cup. I’m not alone in voicing those. There are definitely positives to the competition, but there are issues with it as well. We were talking to someone before who reflected on his time as a coach in the Kennedy Cup. He said that if he was going again, he wouldn’t bring any boys born past April, because his smaller technical players really struggled against the level of physicality. There was an emphasis on physicality and physical dominance down there as well. Can we look at our pathway and suggest that maybe our later maturing players will survive in that [at U13 level], particularly with the two-year gap between League of Ireland [age groups]? I’m just not sure.

I’m trying to look at evidence-based research and apply it in an academic way. There’s no research to suggest that this early streaming has any positive benefits on adult success. In fact, there’s a German football study done that suggests the opposite. Those that specialised later actually went on to have greater success at adult level. We’re very much going down the road of early specialisation.

Some of that is something that individual cultures will push. Others will suggest from a welfare point of view: ‘Look, these kids can’t manage to stay in their sport.’ If that’s the approach your club is taking, I think it’s incumbent on you to try to embed other sports, other movements, other activities into sessions as well at the club. That focus on early specialisation has been shown to have negative consequences. Psychologically, physically, injuries, there are lot of issues there.

I think football has to ensure the pathway is permeable as well. If there’s a chance you didn’t get on at U13, you can still enter the pathway at U17 or U19, and be viable to play there. To do that, we have to ensure the second tier isn’t forgotten and that we do still talk about resources for schoolboy clubs for these players that aren’t selected by a League of Ireland team at U13.

Less than 300 players will start an U13 game at the weekend, yet we know the early success is not at all correlated with adult success. So how do we widen the pathway as much as possible and keep as many boys and girls playing for as long as we can? That has to be absolutely key.

Lewis Baker and Evan Ferguson Chelsea's Lewis Baker and Evan Ferguson of the Bohemians. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Bohemians recently played a 14-year-old, Evan Ferguson, albeit only in a friendly against Chelsea. There was some debate over whether that was advisable even in a relatively low-key game. What do you think?

I think it’s important to bring it back to that point that all of these are individuals. What might work for this 14-year-old absolutely wouldn’t work for another 14-year-old. I always talk about: would the league structures support his progression?

So we’ve a 14-year-old making a senior debut in a friendly and he goes back to play U15s. [Should we have] a flexible system where later maturing boys could play up in individual circumstances? Not always, because that’s just the physical side of things. There is the technical, tactical, social and cognitive side to this as well.

So I think that individualised approach is key and to be sure that the leagues do support that within the academy system of the UK. They do have the flexibility to play boys up and down, which can be really beneficial.

I know John Stones was played down during his academy time. But that has to be done really sensitively on an individual basis. They worked very hard with his parents. And the same with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as well. That can happen when you come through there. They understood that it wasn’t a slight on their development but actually, it was a positive thing. They had so much hope for the player that they were giving him so much space and scope to physically develop.

To me, that’s just a question of league support. That type of progression is really important. Even then, it raises a lot of questions. You’d ask: ‘Okay, how are we challenging him now?’

So Bohs obviously felt senior football is the next challenge [for Evan]. Do I think 14 is a bit too young? Yeah, probably. But if we do take that wider question of how to challenge him, the boys that are early maturers in terms of physicality, it often happens that their technical and tactical development suffers, because they can rely on their physicality within their own age groups. There are a couple of really good examples of clubs that do a good job of actually challenging that player. We often hear about the smaller, later maturing boy and can we get him into the pathway. What’s actually sometimes forgotten is the physically bigger boys. 

Matthijs de Ligt was huge. There are a couple of really good academy photos of him. But Ajax played him up. And even though he was a centre-back, they played him on the wing, just to hone those technical skills that he probably wasn’t developing to his strengths as a centre-back.

To me, that goes back to the danger of an U13 league, where despite any of the rhetoric about it being development, there are coaches and clubs that are going all out to win it. Does that leave scope for something like Ajax did with Matthijs de Ligt, in terms of taking your best centre-back and leaving them on the wing? I’d hope so. But perhaps it wouldn’t.

Imago 20190606 Matthijs de Ligt (file pic). Source: Imago/PA Images

One frequent complaint I’ve heard is the lack of an U21 or U23 league in Ireland. Is that a big problem?

For sure, that dropoff at U19 is still a concern. How that’s fixed, I don’t know. I can see from the club’s perspective why they’re reluctant to fund [another league]. From a business perspective, if they’re talking about compensation fees and boys are going away to the UK at 16, then the [Irish] clubs starting earlier makes more sense.

But it comes back to how we measure the success of the underage leagues. That’s not a question I’ve heard asked or answered. How do we know if these new structures work. Is it the amount of players that get through to the League of Ireland senior league? A lot of them would come through Irish pathways anyway. So how are we measuring success? To me, that’s really important. How well we’ve done along the way and what needs to be changed to identify what worked really well. Definitely, measuring the success is something that’s been lacking.

The cost of running the underage teams is extortionate in comparison to a lot of League of Ireland clubs. Perhaps the FAI could do a better job there in making sure Uefa solidarity funding is actually being spent on underage development and not being sidelined onto senior teams.

You’ve written before about relative age effect. How big an impact is it having on Irish underage football and underage football in general?

I’ve run the Irish stats from the ETP from down the years. I think it’s almost 40% [of players born] in quarter one versus 12% in quarter four.

The DDSL [Dublin District Schoolboys League] I think was 44% in quarter one — January, February, March — and 9% in quarter four. That ties in with the conversation we had about that sense of physicality at the Kennedy Cup. This is what coaches are tending to look for. And not only to look for, but perhaps what people are looking at as well. If that cohort are more physically developed.

And it’s not just physicality. It’s cognitive maturity. Even social maturity. Guys born in quarter one are much more likely to be capped, so there’s a whole package of advantages that come with this. But it’s definitely hampering [Irish football], because it relates to the conversation about how can we get these later maturing boys on to the pathway.

Really interesting research is starting to come out about reversal of the relative age effect. Actually, if you can get a quarter four to U19s, he’s more likely to convert than a quarter one. That all comes back down to that level of challenge, so that quarter four has to be in general really dogged.

Obviously, you’ll get the quarter fours that are more physically mature and so it’s not always that the quarter fours that are smaller. But in a lot of cases, that is the way. But you find that the quarter fours, because they’ve had to fight for their place, they’ve had to develop their technical and tactical skills. Perhaps when the size component levels out, they have a much greater advantage.

So the key has to be how do we challenge early maturing boys and how do we define a pathway to give space for these later maturing boys to get back on and not be overly disadvantaged.

Damien Duff Former Shamrock Rovers underage coach Damien Duff. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Another hugely important factor you’ve written about in a player’s development is the behaviour of the parents. How influential in a positive and negative sense can they be?

It was prompted by Damien Duff. He said the difficulty of coaching underage football was ‘pushy’ parents. It came from external research, but also the experiences of part of my PhD, which was a longitudinal study.

A few years ago, with the help of the FAI, I started a study. It was five boys on the U15s Ireland and they agreed to participate in the research, so for four or five years. It finished just last year — I’ve been talking to them twice a year and following their journeys and luckily for me, they’ve gone every which way. I had a player that decided to choose GAA instead of soccer, when it came to picking between League of Ireland and playing minor. Then there was a player who had a traditional route — captain of the DDSL and Kennedy Cup, over to the UK, all of those different journeys. But the role of parents was vital for all of them.

We all see the stories and issues with parents on the sideline. Parents are absolutely key stakeholders in talent development, and it’s important that coaches engage with them too. You’ll see clubs and leagues that do a good job on that — they might bring parents in at the start of the season. It’s probably something that shouldn’t be just a one-off and is done with continual engagement.

Even talking with parents on how to provide tangible support and what is appropriate feedback. If we picture the drive home from the game, what are the appropriate things to say, how to be empathetic with your child and how to manage expectations.

Stephen Finn, a former FAI employee, is looking to put together a conference specifically for parents of youth footballers, going through the development pathway for all of these things — just to talk to their kids and what to say.

It’s really interesting talking to the boys for the longitudinal study. The parents have a key role in swaying the boy one way or the other when it comes to specialising in their sport. So if we completely alienate parents, we’re not doing our chances of the boy or girl staying in the sport any good. 

Parents are vital for travel, financial support. Parents interpret the experience for kids as well. Until the age of about 14 or 15, kids really struggle to interpret success and failure. For a young kid, [they think] ‘if we win, we were brilliant, if we lost, we were really poor,’ there’s no nuance in it at all.

The parents do a really good job providing the message about the value of the activity, providing feedback, that kind of thing. Even as a conversation, fathers traditionally provide the support, but mothers have that emotional support. We interpret a father son-relationship — in some cases, it’s the only means they have of spending time together. They might talk about the football. They might not talk about anything else. And there might not be another chance in the week that they’re on the same level with one another. So parents are so important.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

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