For the past decade or two, Ireland’s national football team has struggled.
Recently, the team has been drawing at home against countries such as Azerbaijan.
As I write this, Ireland are second last in Group A of the World Cup qualifiers. After four games, we have one draw and three losses.
That is one point in four games.
When did it all go wrong?
Our football team did not become “bad” overnight.
Truth be told, Ireland has been on a slow and steady decline for the past twenty years.
In 2002, the squad that traveled to South Korea had big name players such as Roy Keane, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane.
These were players in their prime who were playing for top Premier League clubs.
Sadly, our current squad consists of players who are nowhere near that level.
Why is Ireland bad at football?
To make a long story short, Ireland does not produce enough homegrown talent.
This is because we do not really have a youth development system.
Instead, we have underage teams who battle it out for underage leagues and cups.
In an attempt to paper over the cracks, the national team will sometimes try to recruit British players by using the “Granny Rule”.
In other words, they will attempt to sign British players who have Irish grandparents.
More often than not, these are English players who are not quite good enough for the England national team but still “good enough” for us.
Ireland’s youth system places too much emphasis on winning.
In the Irish youth system, there is a huge emphasis on winning.
It does not matter if you are 10 or 16, the objective is to achieve a good result.
Your manager, your parents, and your teammates’ parents all want the team to win trophies.
In many cases, your personal development as an individual player is a secondary concern.
If you attend a youth soccer game in Ireland, you will often see parents shouting from the sidelines. Furthermore, mistakes by young players will be met by angry groans from the crowd and irate gestures from the manager.
As a result, a lot of younger players will attempt to play it safe.
Instead of playing to improve themselves on an individual level, they will play for “the result”.
This kind of shortsightedness is one of the main reasons why most Irish players never develop into world class talent.
During this time in their development, a young player should be focusing on improving their skills and learning how to “play the right way”. Even if that means losing.
Instead, they are focusing on grinding out wins in some insignificant under 12s division.
“When in doubt, kick it out.”
Between the ages of 9 and 14, I played as a defender.
If the ball came to your feet while the opposition team were pressing you in your own half, the shout from the sideline was always the same.
“Get it out!”
In other words, kick the ball out of play or hoof it back up the pitch.
Instead of trying to keep possession and improve your skills on the ball, you were forced to treat it like a ticking time bomb.
Playing it out from the back or passing it back to the goalkeeper was “too risky” because the opposition side might capitalize on a mistake and score.
Similarly, all of our coaches would encourage us to use long ball tactics in attack. This is because a lot of 12-year-olds do not have the technical ability or the footballing knowledge to play possession-based football and still achieve a good result.
These risk-averse tactics can help the team win. However, they leave little room for a player’s individual development.
It is not just the manager’s fault.
The manager has two choices here.
- He can tell the team to play the right way regardless of the result. Or…
- He can instruct them to avoid risks and use “negative” tactics in order to try and win the game.
If he chooses Option 1, the team may perform badly against other underage sides who are playing with the sole intention of winning.
This can demoralize the players and displease their parents. It can also lead to a situation where kids are leaving the team and the manager’s coaching abilities are being called into question.
This is because youth football in Ireland is competitive. It is all about winning.
When a child returns home after a football game, their parents’ first question will usually be “Did you win?” If a team continues to lose games, their schoolmates and their rivals will begin to taunt them about it.
They do not care if the manager’s tactics will eventually lead to little Johnny becoming a better player down the line. They do not care if the current style of play allows Johnny to grow and become a better passer who is confident on the ball.
This is because the short-term success of the team is more important than the long-term development of the player.
Youth players in Ireland will often go through multiple managers.
The youth “system” in Ireland is not really built for long-term development. We do not have the “academy system” that other countries have.
Instead, we have local clubs who compete with each other for league titles.
In many clubs, each age group will have a separate manager. And these managers will volunteer their time, free of charge.
Patrick will coach the under 10s, Sarah will manage the under 12s and Michael will oversee the under 14s.
When Patrick gets a new squad of young players, he knows that he will only be managing them for about a year or two. After that, they will join the under 12s and Sarah will take over.
In other words, he will probably never see them again.
As a result, there isn’t enough time for Patrick to embark on a long-term project. Although he would probably love the chance to try and turn his current batch of 9-year-olds into the next La Masia, he knows that such a long-term project isn’t realistic.
Long-term development will always win out in the end.
Long-term development will always win out in the end.
For example, let’s say that there are two managers and that each of these managers will be taking over a team of 10-year-olds for the next four years.
- Team A focuses on playing the “right way”. The manager encourages his players to pass and become confident on the ball. Furthermore, he emphasizes that they need to play this way, regardless of the scoreline.
- Meanwhile, the manager of Team B focuses on winning. He knows that his squad of 10-year-olds do not possess the technical ability to play possession football. As a result, he tells his players to keep it simple, avoid risks and use long-ball tactics. In his mind, this will guarantee better results.
When these two teams go up against each other in the first year, Team B will probably win. In fact, they might even thrash Team A. This is because the players on Team A are still learning. They still do not have the skills or the experience to execute the manager’s tactics.
Team A starts to get better.
In the second year, the game between these two sides is a little tighter because the players on Team A are starting to become more technically adept. Week in and week out, they have continued to play “the right way”, regardless of the results.
However, Team B, with their cynical tactics and their risk-adverse attitude, still manage to grind out a 2-1 win.
In the third year, Team A win. Their players are now much more skillful and experienced and they can hold onto the ball for longer periods of time. However, it is still pretty close.
In the fourth and final year, Team A will probably begin to run rings around Team B. Their midfield will dominate the game so much that Team B will struggle to hold onto the ball. At this stage, Team B’s only hope is to sit back, defend and hope to get lucky with a counter attack.
Conclusion: Why is Ireland is bad at football?
Ireland is bad at football because our youth system isn’t really a “system”. Instead, it’s just underage teams competing against each other for underage leagues and cups.
This culture of competitiveness in youth clubs prevents Irish footballers from reaching their full potential.
Instead of coaching them to become world class players who are confident and skilled on the ball, clubs will stagnate their players’ development in order to win some pointless under-16 cup.
In other words, many clubs and managers do not see their young players as future prospects who need room to grow. They see them as “tools” that can help them to win right now.