A lot has been said and written of late about the best way forward for Irish football (soccer).
It is important to make a point in relation to elite development and senior international performance in the men’s game. This concerns the role of the senior domestic league. While the League of Ireland has a role to play in Irish football, the evidence would suggest it is remiss to consider it a place to systemically develop or draw talent from for our senior international team.
This point is premised on the models of competing European nations. Looking at our competitors, it is clear that very few current senior internationals stay-on to play in their domestic league. Our opponents Friday night (Denmark) only have 4 players contracted to Danish clubs, 3 of whom are uncapped. There are many more examples from other nations similar to Ireland that take the same develop-and-export approach. Iceland (2), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1), Sweden (3), Austria (5), Norway (3), Slovakia (4), Switzerland (5), Portugal (7) are just some other cases where a minority of the senior squad is drawn from the domestic ranks.
Ireland, like many of smaller nations, do not have the population or the national league strength to support a develop-and-retain model. Only the Big-5 nations and a handful of others with significantly larger populations such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey adopt this type of model.
The well-known Irish ‘problem’ is that players are drawn almost solely to British leagues. This is owing to a range of cultural and economic factors, and is partly due to the Republic sourcing English born talent. The solution to this problem is not to look inward but rather to break the tradition of exporting on mass to English clubs. My hunch is that player’s will receive greater developmental opportunities outside of British leagues. We can remedy the current mind-set of focusing on the UK. In turn, this will aid the development of future Irish talent.
Historically, we have failed to export to other European countries. Developing policies to achieve this diversification of talent is needed. Our international competitors mentioned above manage to do this. They export talent to a diverse range of leagues. For example, the Iceland squad is represented by 14 non-domestic leagues, Bosnia and Herzegovina by 13, Denmark by 6, Sweden by 11, Slovakia by 14. This list goes on. With the exception of Sean McDermott, who is contracted to Kristiansund BK, and James Talbot (Bohemians), all other members of the current squad play in the English leagues.
Of course, this is not a call to abandon the League of Ireland. We just need to taper our ambition for the developmental capacity of the senior game. Developing two or three clubs to the standard seen in other small European leagues would be a major achievement and should be a key goal. If developmental opportunities are on a par in two-three clubs to those in other small European leagues, the League of Ireland could be in a place to retain a minor amount of senior internationals. This is the structure for several European competitors and should be the aim for domestic football here.
Dominance in the LOI would likely bring about balance problems, but it may be a necessary trade-off to get some of the trappings of dominance (e.g. improved player development process and entry to elite European competitions). This is seen elsewhere. For example, 2 of the 4 Danish based players in the squad for Friday night play with F.C. Copenhagen – they have won 6 of last 10 Danish Superliga and have finished 2nd in 3 of the last 10. Similar outcomes exist in Austria. FC Red Bull Salzburg have 8 won out of last 10 Austrian Bundesliga, and were 2nd twice. 4 out of the five current Austrian national players are contracted to the club. These examples go on - Switzerland for instance is dominated by FC Basel and BSC Young Boys. The few Swiss based senior internationals are often contracted to these clubs.
Perhaps the Croatian approach is the best example to think about. They have a similar population to Ireland. At times they suffer from a ‘tramway’ league - like Ireland they have too many clubs based in the capital. Like us, they also suffer from low domestic attendances. While we have several similarities, our international fortunes have been very different since Croatia emerged as a major player at the World Cup in 1998. This is simplistic but the differences are interesting. In the tradition of other smaller European countries their current senior squad only sources 5 players from the domestic league but is represented by players playing in 11 other countries. Like the Austria, Denmark and the Swiss examples, they have historically dominant clubs in Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split that develop and export talent but are strong enough to retain a minority.
The take away message is that to improve senior international football, attention needs to be placed on developing our U13 to U19 divisions with the aim of continually exporting our best. The change however has to come in the form of players not solely being transferred to UK leagues. Developing the men’s senior league should be a secondary, long term objective to supporting a predominantly export based model. By assisting the emergence of dominants club(s) - which of course is far easier said than done – the Irish setup would develop a similar structure to other small European leagues.