Analysis: developing talented young players is a complex process, especially in a country with such a diverse sporting culture

By Liam Sweeney and Áine MacNamara, DCU

As we enter another year with a FIFA World Cup tournament which Ireland won't be attending, it’s easy to feel pessimistic when reflecting on the state of Irish football. It is a fact that Ireland won’t be competing in Qatar this winter, but the future of Irish soccer isn’t necessarily bleak. For the first time, Irish football has the opportunity to take ownership of player development and shape its own future.

In the decade preceding Brexit, Ireland had the most players aged under 18 transferred to professional clubs abroad, most commonly to UK-based clubs. Traditionally, the Irish players with the most potential moved to UK football academies to continue their development after leaving Ireland.

However, once the UK formally left the EU after Brexit, the exemption that allows European clubs to sign European players aged under 18 no longer applied to UK-based clubs, shifting the responsibility for player development in football to Irish clubs. Since Irish football can no longer rely on UK-based clubs to nurture and develop the next generations of Irish players, the sector is faced with the massive challenge of developing players capable of competing against its international counterparts.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Sport, former players Graham Barrett and Greg Costello discuss youth development in Irish soccer off the back of the FAI announcement of a youth development fund of €250,000

The development of talented young players is a key strategic priority for all clubs and associations from a monetary, reputation and competitive perspective. However, the process of talent development is complex. One such area that continues to spark considerable debate in Ireland relates to how much time young academy players should spend playing football and how much time they should spend engaging in other sports and activities.

To those familiar with the youth sport and talent development literature, this may remind you of the "early specialisation vs. diversification" debate. Early specialisation is generally referred to as year-round intensive training in a single sport at the exclusion of all other sports, and diversification is an early diversity of athletic exposure across multiple sports with specialisation delayed until later in development.

In an Irish context, many children grow up participating in a diverse range of sports and activities alongside football, be that rugby, athletics or, most notably, Gaelic games. The latter are a unique but dominant part of Irish culture that go beyond sport and heavily influence sociocultural contexts. This makes our sporting culture one that is particularly unique and in stark contrast to that of dominant football nations such as England, Italy or France.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Alan Cawley, Paul Osam, Pete Mahon and Will Clarke discuss the development of youth soccer in Ireland

But is our sporting and cultural context in Ireland best suited for developing professional footballers? As we have noted elsewhere, there is a need to look beyond the prevalent "early specialisation vs. diversification" debate towards a consideration of an early engagement pathway when it comes to player development.

An early engagement pathway refers to young players experiencing large amounts of football-specific learning activities throughout youth development, but these experiences are provided in broad and diverse formats. For example, this may include playing football-specific traditional street pick-up games with friends, practice by yourself or with a parent in the garden or field, "jumpers for goalposts" matches at school or trying a bit of futsal, all alongside the academy schedule.

To be unequivocally clear, this is not at the exclusion of participation in other sports or activities. Rather, it is a prioritisation of football, consisting of large amounts of football activity, supplemented by the recreational participation in other sports and activities to provide a diverse range of experiences and benefits.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, former footballers Eamon Dunphy and Tony Cascarino on where we should be doing more to attract soccer players with Irish heritage to play for Ireland

The Football Association of Ireland has recently introduced underage National League academies to enhance the development of Ireland's highest potential young players by providing an environment where the best young players nationwide can experience a consistently higher quality of youth coaching and competition. Irish players can enter these academies from 13 years of age. Indeed, this requires young players to commit to increased football contact hours within the academy, with some academies training and playing matches four times a week.

However, if you are a young player in an Irish National League academy, that doesn’t mean you can’t play hurling with your friends at the weekend, play rugby for your school or go swimming with your family. Rather, these recreational activities simply fit in around the days you’re not with your academy. On non-academy days, some players may take the opportunity to engage in these other sporting activities, while others may use these days to take part for more football play and practice.

Given the onus now placed upon Irish soccer to develop "home-grown" talent, Irish academies must think carefully about the exposures and experiences they provide to young players. They must also recognise the importance of the Irish cultural context and the role of other sporting activities.

Is our sporting and cultural context in Ireland best suited for developing professional footballers?

Within the academy, young players should be provided with a broad and diverse football-specific experience that may include multiple playing formats, varied coaching and competition structures, and the addition of free play games and activities led by players and coaches. Alongside this, young players should be encouraged to participate in other sports and activities on their days outside of the academy to provide additional biological, psychological and social outlets in recreational settings.

The selection of Irish players into National League academies at the age of 13 may seem early to some. But it can have a positive outcome for Ireland’s future players if the experiences and exposures are developmentally appropriate.

Liam Sweeney is a PhD Candidate at DCU researching player development with the Football Association of Ireland. He is a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar funded by the Irish Research Council. Dr Áine MacNamara is an Associate Professor in Elite Performance in the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ