News broke recently that Dundee United’s talented 18-year-old winger Ryan Gauld was leaving Tannadice for pastures new, talented young Scotsmen have been leaving their native clubs for well over a Century but Gauld has chosen a less well-trodden path.
He leaves Scotland’s east coast for the Portuguese Capital and the famous Sporting Clube de Portugal, perhaps better known as Sporting Lisbon. The comments from Gauld himself give the impression of a man with an old head on young shoulders, someone who had thought with great care and consideration about his future footballing prospects. Speaking to The Observer about his future last year, at a time when he was beginning to get rave reviews and was inevitably dubbed the “Scottish Messi” he said:
Abroad you see more players who are smaller in stature. In England, it’s more athletes. Me being a smaller guy, I need to think about what’s best for me and what’s best around me and I think being abroad is the best culture of football for me.
The 5’6” winger has similarly been praised for his intelligence and maturity by his manager, with the former Celtic player, Jackie McNamara stating:
His vision, his ability is just fantastic. Upstairs, his football brain is way beyond his years, way beyond anything I’ve seen.
Gauld’s comments about the English game, its focus on “athletes” perhaps versus aesthetes and his footballing preferences for “the Spanish leagues and prefer the style of that. Getting the ball down and being patient with the build-up play. In England, it’s maybe more direct.” suggests a young man exposed to but perhaps not completely seduced by the Greatest League in the World TM. If this World Cup has reminded us of anything it is of the breadth of talent that exists beyond Premier League and certainly English national team boundaries, and the ways in which this talent, can be brought together, harnessed and made greater in the cause of a common goal.
Gauld’s choice is slightly unusual for a young footballer in Britain or Ireland but it could prove instructive. While we must acknowledge the power, importance, entertainment and wealth of the Premier League, it is by no means the only game in town, but for many years it has remained the sole focus of young men from Glasgow, Manchester or, as is my focus, Dublin, who seek a football career.
Young footballers in Ireland have always traditionally moved to Britain, this has been the case as long as professionalism has existed and in all likelihood will not ever change. There are myriad benefits for all parties concerned in this relationship. Clubs in Britain have access to young players in Ireland who generally cost them a relative pittance, they speak English as a first language and have a very high degree of familiarity with British culture generally, and British football specifically. The routes, relationships, industry knowledge built up over generations, scouting networks, tours, academy partnerships mean that there are decades of personal and physical infrastructure in place to see that this export of young Irish players to Britain continues. But what if? What if more 18-year-old players like Ryan Gauld did something different, what if they went somewhere else?
The limitations of the Irish national team were apparent for all to see at Euro 2012, well beaten by superior Croatian, Spanish and Italian sides. The contrast with the highs of Euro 88 where Ireland were likewise cast in a group with both eventual finalists was instructive. The 2014 qualifying campaign that followed was clearly the death rattle of the Trappatoni era, the core of a generation fading away, Duff and Given retired, Richard Dunne fighting back from serious injury, a team still overly-reliant on the goals of a 33-year-old Robbie Keane.
No one could honestly claim we deserved to be in Brazil, and with the passing of that generation of players, many of whom formed the core of Brian Kerr’s esteemed and victorious under-age sides come a new generation. Some bright prospects; the Everton duo of Seamus Coleman once of Sligo Rovers, James McCarthy who like Ryan Gauld began his career young in the Scottish Leagues. Robbie Brady looks a player if he can come back well from injury, further along there is great hope for the teenage Jack Grealish and his mercurial talents, but there are causes for concern as well.
Looking at the youth in the Irish squad it is hard to find a Premier League player under the age of 25, Jeff Hendrick (22) of Derby County was unlucky to miss out on promotion from the Championship, while Everton’s Shane Duffy (22) spent most of his season at Yeovil Town who were eventually relegated from that same division. The Championship is certainly a strong and competitive league, but it is getting more and more diverse much like the Premier League above it. What is crucial to understand is that while the movement of players from Ireland to Britain will not cease, for the very reasons outlined above, the levels of penetration at the highest levels has already shrunk dramatically.
The globalised game means that players and places in club squads, whether senior or in youth sides are open to players from all over the World, the cultural, linguistic and geographical advantages that young Irish men possess will only take them so far. To put it simply Irish players moving to Britain now face greater competition from a much wider player catchment, and with recent restrictions on squad sizes this also means competition for fewer spaces.
What solutions are there to this threat of greater competition, well I posit that there are three. Two of these fall into more long-term strategies and could and should work symbiotically. Namely that greater investment is made in supporting our young players while they are here in Ireland, and that with this a functional pyramid that channels the best players through to League of Ireland level is run alongside such coaching and youth investment. The benefits of this are clear, as making sure that young players have access to the best coaching and preparation means that they have a better chance of competing technically with young players from other jurisdictions when they do move abroad.
Secondly it provides a progress route which identifies the League of Ireland as a destination, provides a well-coached player population to the League and means the sale of those players who do move abroad will generate a valuable income stream for both League of Ireland and junior sides. This is beginning to happen to some extent, the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme (ETP) works with young players and provides technical coaching as well as instruction on issues like diet, information on injury prevention and recovery, sports psychology etc. It does not however work with players in younger age groups and pre-supposes a certain level of coaching during crucial early developmental years. A functioning pyramid model that includes the ETP, junior clubs and the League of Ireland has yet to properly develop.
The third option is one that is perhaps more immediate. It is for young footballers to follow Ryan Gauld’s lead and look beyond the narrow confines of our island nations. All existing footballing infrastructure in Ireland, to a greater or lesser extent is developed for the purpose of exporting our young talent to Britain, more often motivated by financial gain (though certainly not always on the behalf of the young footballer), this needs to change somewhat and we need to look beyond the strictures of these processes.
To respond to the greater globalisation of the British game, where for too long Irish footballers enjoyed a position of privilege; the Irish footballer must become more global in outlook. To eschew the ease of linguistic and cultural assimilation and to challenge ourselves with new languages, cultures, and importantly new styles of football, to learn from other practitioners of the beautiful game on their home turf. The old-style career path from lower league football to the top flight in England has become far more difficult, as Gary Neville pointed out recently in his Daily Mail column, between 1982 and 1992 lower leagues accounted for 233 players who were sold directly into the top flight in England, or 24% of total transfers, but from 2002-2013 there were just 106 players from the lower divisions and non-League or just 6% of the total.
While players like Stephen Quinn or Damien Delaney may have carved out decent careers at League One and Championship level before making it to the Premier League they are the exception as upward mobility within the English domestic game becomes more restricted. It is also worth noting that having a vast majority of your (broadly) international level players operating in the one foreign jurisdiction and league system means that these players are more vulnerable to systematic shocks. One example being the impact of the ITV Digital collapse on the Football League in 2002 which had massive negative financial implications for the League clubs where dozens of Irish players were making their living.
For many years Ireland has sought to generate economic wealth by being a small, economically open, outward looking nation on the boundaries of Europe, Irish cities are host to the European headquarters of numerous tech giants and we have trumpeted the growing recognition of Dublin as a “European silicon valley”. Our modest economic growth of very recent years has been led in large part by our export sector, as we supply the world with everything from pharmaceuticals and computer parts to quality food and beverages. We have long looked beyond Britain as a sole trading partner both as an export market and as destination for Irish workers, could we perhaps see the beginnings of such an approach with football?
Such a change an attitude is perhaps not so far-fetched, Irish footballers have been forced to look beyond these islands before and may be beginning to do so again. Once English sides were banned from European competition after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 many prominent Irish players moved beyond Britain for their football. This also happened to coincide with the Irish national team’s first successful qualification campaigns, for Euro 88 and World Cup 90. It saw John Aldridge, Kevin Moran and Ashley Grimes plying their trade in Spain, Mick McCarthy and John Byrne in France, and Frank Stapleton in the Netherlands.
While these were all prominent internationals, other less well-known players, with lower profiles, and fewer caps were also moving directly from the League of Ireland to the Continent or to North America. Paul McGee’s impressive performances against Groningen in the UEFA Cup saw him move from Galway United to Haarlem in the Netherlands. Alan Campbell went from Shamrock Rovers straight to Racing Santander in La Liga in 1984, he would end his first season there as the club’s top scorer and would win all three of his Irish caps at the club before moving on to CD Logrones. This was after that most peripatetic of Irish footballers Liam Buckley had arrived in Santander as his replacement. Buckley, who had played with Campbell at Shamrock Rovers, had already played in the NASL and Belgium by the time he arrived in Spain, he would later pitch up in Switzerland before eventually returning to the League of Ireland.
Those players who left from the League of Ireland generally had the benefit of exposure to other European clubs due to their participation in UEFA club competitions, the same would happen some years later with Dominic Foley’s move from Bohemians to KAA Gent, the Belgians having been impressed by the big centre forward when drawn against Bohs in the UEFA Cup, while Keith Fahey’s impressive displays for St. Patrick’s Athletic were reported to have prompted a bid from their European rivals Hertha Berlin. Perhaps recent improved results in Europe will prompt the interest of prospective opponents in some of the League of Ireland’s stars?
What is encouraging is that this process of looking beyond Britain does seem to be gaining some momentum. Ireland’s financial problems of recent years have meant that domestic players unfortunately have limited opportunities to play as full-time pros in their own country. Out of contact players have played exhibition matches throughout Nordic nations in the hopes of getting contracts, which has worked for the likes of Shane McFaul who played for Haka and now KTP in the Finnish League. The Emerald Exiles website does a fine job of keeping track of Irish players like McFaul who are beginning to move beyond these islands.
Indeed, more senior internationals are looking further afield as well; Darren O’Dea’s transfer from Toronto FC to Ukraine’s Metalurh Donetsk may be one of the geographically biggest moves taken by an Irish footballer, although Damien Duff and Andy Keogh’s departures for Australia’s A-League may rival it. Few would argue that Aidan McGeady did not become a better player during his time at Spartak Moscow, while Robbie Keane has seemed rejuvenated to an extent since his move to LA Galaxy and after the difficulties he faced with his Spurs-Liverpool-Spurs saga.
As a small, open nation with an underfunded League the hopes of our National team for the development of elite level players will require those players to have access to regular competitive, high level football. While Britain will likely remain the destination for the bulk of these footballers, and they will have access to excellent facilities and a highly competitive environment there, we must look further afield and identify alternative routes for footballing progress as competition for finite space, in the English footballing pyramid especially, becomes more fierce. If Ireland truly wishes to remain a global force, our footballers must be prepared to look beyond the local.