Irish football needs more coaches, not laments about 'street players'
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Irish football needs more coaches, not laments about 'street players'

IT’S hard to imagine how I could have enjoyed this World Cup more.

Ireland might have been there I suppose, but that would have made the whole affair more emotionally fraught and, quite probably, upsetting.

As it was, we could immerse ourselves in the experience, serene in the knowledge that we would be thrilled but not traumatised. Instead it was Brazil who got to feel like we did after 2012, something none of us predicted.

The discussion on RTE after the Brazil game was interesting. Eamon Dunphy, as usual, tried to broaden the context. He suggested that Brazil had joined Ireland and Britain as first world nations and their diminished footballing prowess was a result of this.

Dunphy asserted that Scotland would never produce another Kenny Dalglish, Ireland another John Giles or England a Stanley Matthews. Football was a street game and, now that society has changed, the production line of extraordinarily skilful players has halted.

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It’s a seductive theory, albeit one that less than half right and far too pessimistic.

Previously, teams from this part of the world relied upon their natural advantage. That natural advantage was our inner-cities. The conditions were close to perfect for nurturing footballers.

Go back to the 1960s and beyond. You had comparatively few cars and loads of kids (with limited access to junk food, drugs, television and computer consoles) who had time on their hands to play.

The games took place on streets or small patches of land with tennis balls or small footballs. Tackles flew in early and often. If you weren’t nimble and tough to begin with, you soon would be. It’s a wonder these islands did not produce more great players when you think about it.

The majority of kids grow up now in a completely different environment. But to believe that we can forget about competing with the best teams on the planet as a result this is blind to one crucial fact: the best teams on the planet are not fielding teams of players who were schooled on dirt-tracks and concrete lanes.

Who handed Brazil their hoops? Germany – a first-world nation if ever there was one. They have McDonalds and X-Boxes. They are no different to us when it comes to what the GAA call "distractions". How they differ is they recognise a good crisis when they see one and they take action to make sure their problems are sorted out.

Germany were no better than us 12 years ago. It’s hard to credit that statement, but those of us of voting age remember Robbie Keane’s last-attack equalizer in 2002 and remember Ireland outplaying the three-time World Champions for much of the game.

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Even before that World Cup, when Germany somehow made it to the final to be easily beaten by Brazil, they realised how badly they were underachieving and were doing something about it.

After finishing bottom of their group in Euro 2000, The German FA undertook a radical overhaul of youth football. No longer would they have the complacency to rely on their natural advantage – “the German mentality” – to win tournaments.

The world had moved on and so had Germany. They would start at the bottom, developing academies across the top two divisions that would produce technically excellent and tactically literate players, comfortable on the ball, capable of adapting to different formations during games. We see the fluid and spectacular results today, as we have done since 2006 when the strategy began to bear fruit.

A fascinating article on this subject last year in the Guardian said, according to Uefa, Germany has 28,400 (England 1,759) coaches with the B licence, 5,500 (England 895) with the A licence and 1,070 (England 115) with the pro licence. These stats tell you a lot about why we are getting left behind in this part of the world.

Of course, coaching is another hobbyhorse of Dunphy and Giles. They believe there are too many egotistical bluffers in charge of young teams, promoting brute strength over artistry and beating kids into rigid systems, stifling their imaginations.

If you speak to anybody involved with youth soccer in Ireland or Britain, though, they will tell you that while that stereotype still exists to a degree, it is largely outdated.

In my limited experience this is true. A couple of years ago, on a week off, I did the level one coaching qualification with the London FA up in Walthamstow. There was about 35-45 of us in the class, most of them coaching teams already, and I couldn’t see any of these “route-one, get-facking-well-stuck-in” dinosaurs.

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There were people of all ages and all backgrounds, in common they had a simple desire to help youngsters enjoy the game and improve.

The overwhelming message of the week from the instructors was that aggressive coaches and parents are the number one reasons kids give up sport. It has to be fun. And for that to be the case kids needed encouragement and from their teachers and parents, not criticism.

The level of detail they got into in the space of a week was impressive. Every drill was broken down into how it could improve kids with regard to their technical, social, physical and mental skills.

You could argue that it is a bit happy-clappy or wishey-washey in places, but I liked it. I wish football was taught that way when I was a kid, but we had to deal with some head-the-balls with wholly unrealistic expectations.

Enough about the past. For nations like Ireland and England to reach their potential they need to invest more in coaches, not less, as the likes of Dunphy and Giles believe.

I realise that using a column to sound off about their view for TV is unoriginal. In my defence, it was frustrating to watch. When something is put out there on the national airwaves, a lot of people believe it. But there are thousands of coaches doing their best to make a positive difference and they are being shot down by people who were familiar with the grassroots of the game a long time ago, but are not today.

For them to suggest that we’re a beaten docket because we no longer have the tenement-steeped streets and grinding poverty for the majority of people is absurd.

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Football, like society, is not necessarily better or worse, just different.

The game now is about education to harnesses natural talent; not sending 10-year-olds onto full-size pitches to perform in front of a baying mob of family and nut-bar coaches like it was 25 years ago.

The game is about teaching players about technique, mentality, nutrition, tactics, formations, and so on. To say all this detrimental is like – as Simon Kuper put it – complaining that the problem with schools is there is far too much education going on in them.

The problem we face is, compared to the Germans, we are chronically under-educated.

The next problem is – as Garry Doyle wrote in last week's Irish Post – we’re more concerned with a stadium and expensive national team managers in Ireland than in establishing academies where the best kids train every day.

As football writer Miguel Delaney pointed out recently, it costs €2,250 to do your Uefa A licence in Ireland – double what it is in Germany, about quadruple Spain.

Until stats like this become as out of date as the notion that we are doomed without “street footballers”, we’ll be counting the cost of being a football backwater – a nation of thrilled watchers, not players.

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