He points out that for many young footballers there is no incentive to remain in Ireland at the expense of an apprenticeship with a big English club. This of course depends on whether the young player is only focused on football as a career. Of course it is very difficult for a young player to turn down such an opportunity, but that is exactly what Niall Quinn is suggesting. The proximity of England to Ireland and the tradition of young players going over to sign at a young age with English clubs means that this is a difficult problem to surmount. It has an implication for Irish football generally because these young players are lost to the Irish game and in the increasingly fierce competition for progression from youth to senior players, many talented Irish footballers do not make the grade. Niall Quinn suggests that it would be better for the future of the Irish game and the international team if players were not subject to the traditional approach of packing their bags for an English academy at 15 or 16.
The current situation is a function of the imbalance of power between English clubs and Irish footballers and their clubs. English clubs have realised that Ireland is a cheap source of talent. There are several players in the Premier League who were signed from Irish football for very deflated fees. For example, Seamus Coleman was signed by Everton from Sligo Rovers at 21 years of age for €60,000 in 2009. This year he is the clubs player of the year and was selected on the Premier League's team of the season. It is reported that the record transfer fee between the League of Ireland and an English club is the €500,000 paid by Sunderland to Cork City for Roy O'Donovan in 2009 when he was 22 years old. This is a very low record in the context of English transfer fees.
For most Irish footballers a move to an English club is their objective. The domestic league is seen as a very poor alternative. So is there a way to change the incentive structures or to create a scheme would retain top talent in the Irish game. One of the key problems is of course how to determine which players are the best ones. It may be possible to turn the English clubs' scouting behaviour into a tool for identifying players and their desire to identify low cost football talent into a bonus for Irish domestic football and the players themselves. These clubs have the scouting knowledge and are close to the "market" to know which player is most likely to be successful.
We can look to the US, and American Football in particular, for inspiration. Each year the top College players are drafted to the professional teams. The order of the draft is generally determined by the finishing position of the team in the previous season, so that the lowest place team chooses first and so on up to the last choice for the best placed team. This is designed to encourage competitive balance in the league. In advance of the draft (that took place last week) there is a Combine at which college players are put through their paces in front of NFL scouts and managers. A similar event could be organised in Ireland for our footballers.
The Irish Football Draft scheme I am proposing could look as follows.
- Organise a Combine of talented young players in Ireland. These could be 16 or 17 year old players from clubs around the country. This will complement English clubs' ongoing scouting.
- Nominate 12 interested English clubs to select 2 young players each as the top prospects for drafting.
- These players will be available to the League of Ireland Premier League clubs to select in the format of a draft. The lowest club (or newly promoted club) chooses first and so on up to the league winners. Then there is a second round in the same order.
- These players will be given three year contracts with the clubs that drafted them co-funded by the FAI and the English club that nominated them.
- During the Irish close season (which corresponds to the English league season) the players will be taken to work in the Academy of their English club.
- At the end of the three year the English club will have first option to sign that player on a professional contract. The transfer fee would be set at the start of the three year contract and the fee would be shared between the FAI and the Irish club. If the English club doesn't exercise its option any of the other clubs may sign the player on the same terms.
- If the player is not signed his contract lapses and he is free to sign with any other club in Ireland or elsewhere.
It is likely of course that English clubs will want to sign the absolutely top young footballers to their academies without going through a scheme such as this. But for the players at a step just below that this could be an attractive proposition for those clubs with low risk and low cost.
The benefit to the English club is that they, at a low cost, get the option to sign a mature player who has gained experience of playing at a reasonably high level and has experience of their Academy. The player benefits from a contract and opportunity to play in Ireland and perhaps get a contract in the England at the end while completing their studies. Irish clubs benefit from having talented players as part of their squads for the three years of the contract and a potential transfer fee at the end of the contract. They have an incentive to develop the player as much as possible to ensure they can realise the transfer fee.
I am sure there are unintended consequences and there may be a lot to work though in such a scheme. There may also be objections that the Irish clubs and leagues are seen to be serving the English clubs. However, the clubs and FAI can continue to complain about the drain of talent or they can do something radical to address it. Maybe new types of thinking is needed.