Following the Republic of Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland in June the 42.ie published an article written by John O’Sullivan that discussed the difficulties Irish international footballers faced in light of globalised world football. The story is not inherently new to football fans in this country, and while not doubting its complexity, goes something along these lines – there are now fewer opportunities for Irish players to develop their skills with elite English clubs and given the relative weakness of our own domestic league, we are failing to develop footballers to compete as successfully at a senior international level as we have done in the past.
John’s analysis and the comments section are thought-provoking. The usual candidates for explaining our failure to develop talent are discussed. Poor underage footballing infrastructure, outdated or narrow coaching methods, weather conditions, the disconnect between domestic footballing institutions and a weak League of Ireland are all mooted in one form or another. There is merit in many of John’s points and also from the Irish fans who have responded, several of whom clearly have experience working at a grassroots level.
Here are some numbers on the issue of talent development and the progression to the Republic of Ireland senior team. I concentrate on our U-21 level as it is a common place from which succession to the senior team occurs.
From the 18th of May 2006, when the Irish U-21s defeated Azerbaijan until the 10th of September 2012, when Ireland beat Italy 4-2, the Irish U-21s have played 45 times. I could access data for the squad for 40 of these matches (4 of the 5 missing matches were also non-competitive). The data was collected from a range of sources including FAI archives, UEFA archives, RTE reports, Sky Sports reports and Irish Times reports. Any player that played on the senior team before playing U-21 was not included in the analysis – there was only one player to my knowledge that this was true for, Aiden McGeady.
Here’s the scoop.
1. Over these 40 games considered between 2006 and 2012 the Republic of Ireland U-21s called up 137 players.
2. 29 (21%) of these U-21s were later capped at a senior international level for the Republic of Ireland.
3. 12 (9%) of these U-21’s have recorded 10 or more senior international caps – 7 were born in Dublin, 3 were born outside of the capital and 2 were born outside of the Republic.
4. Of these 12 players (that we could assume have ‘made it’ at a senior level given that they have 10 caps) the average and median number of U-21 caps they recorded was 9.
5. The players capped the most at an U-21 level were Joseph Mason (21 caps), Shane Redmond (21 caps), Shane Duffy (20 caps) and Owen Garvan (16 caps). Only Shane Duffy, who switched allegiance from Northern Ireland, has recorded a senior international cap.
While it's unrealistic to expect every U-21 international to progress to a senior level, my intuition tells me that other countries have higher progression rates. These numbers also raise further questions. In particular, whether or not Ireland should cut their losses on an U-21 player if they are not ready to progress after collecting a dozen or so U-21 caps?