How a Dutchman plans to revamp grassroots soccer in Ireland

How a Dutchman plans to revamp grassroots soccer in Ireland

When we first heard Ruud Dokter’s name, we assumed he was a character in a Carry On film, not the man tasked with restructuring Irish football.

Little was known of him before he got the gig as the FAI’s high performance director, and little is known about him now, given the FAI’s ‘silence is the best policy’ view to public relations.

Of course, this stance is periodically broken when John Delaney, the CEO, has some self-serving purpose to talk about, most recently in response to a controversy of his own making. Once Delaney was a man fired with enthusiasm. Now, we would all be better off if he got fired with enthusiasm.

Dokter, on the other hand, could have a medicinal effect on Irish football’s ills.

Last Saturday, at the FAI’s AGM, the Dutchman presented his National Player Development Plan, his vision for the game’s future on this side of the pond. And he nailed it.

Coming from a country that mastered the transformation from mediocrity to excellence (Netherlands lost to Luxembourg a decade before they reached the 1974 World Cup final), Dokter had a useful grounding in what was needed to upgrade existing structures.

Netherlands reached the World Cup final in 1974 and have been an elite nation ever since Netherlands reached the World Cup final in 1974 and have been an elite nation ever since

So for Holland in the 1960s, read Ireland in 2015.

He wants change. He wants an end to the long-ball syndrome that is still so prevalent in the Irish game. He also wants 4-3-3 to become the universal tactical philosophy, which is nonsense, given how the best sides in the world are flexible in their thought processes.

But aside from this discrepancy, the bulk of his plan makes sense, a removal of league tables for teams up to Under 12s, thereby removing the cult of the manager from kids’ soccer, and encouraging coaches to educate their players instead.

A range of bright initiatives – from small-sided games up to Under 13 level, through to allowing girls to play on boys’ teams up to Under 16 level (currently they are excluded from 12 to 16), from insisting on players being given a minimum amount of game-time, thereby removing the disgusting practice where managers ignore less talented children from getting to play matches because it may negatively affect results, and by extension, their egos, tick all the appropriate boxes.

But best of all is his implementation of John Devine’s Guided Discovery programme, a scheme devised to keep parents at arm’s length from their kids while matches are ongoing, freeing the players to play, not to listen to demented parents scream ‘advice’ to their sons and daughters.

It all makes sense yet it may not work. Guidelines are all well and good but how will they be policed? From experience I know it won’t be easy. Once, I stood on a sideline and watched an underage match where a team went 4-0 ahead.

Strolling to victory, it was suggested, gently, to the winning manager that they should make a change and allow the subs on for the final minutes. An argument ensued. The players did get a run but only when the manager believed the result was safe.

Against this backdrop, Dokter’s plan faces a serious test. All across the country, there are coaches in charge of teams who are there because their sons or daughters are on the teams, not because they have Irish football’s future at heart.

Their concern is personal. To convince parents to sacrifice results for an improvement in technique and best practice will take some doing, a lot more than a Dokter’s prescription to cure that particular ill.