What Irish football can learn from Iceland

What Irish football can learn from Iceland

Here’s a revelation that should come as little surprise to most people: Ireland and Iceland are two countries with quite a lot in common. Small island nations on the periphery of mainland Europe, they share strong agricultural and fishery industries as well as huge levels of emigration in recent years. According to Statistics Iceland, 10,612 people left Icelandic shores in 2010, double the number that arrived. Figures from the central statistics office painted a similar picture in Ireland, with up to 250 people a day emigrating as recently as 2013.

Both nations were, of course, embroiled in an economic crisis following the banking collapses of 2008. Years of negligible governance and reckless borrowing left both economies in ruins, eventually resulting in the International Monetary Fund assisting both countries financially. Both governments bailed out their respective leading banks, but while Ireland’s economy is only gradually turning a corner now, the Icelandic upturn saw its bright shoots in 2011. Whereas Ireland tried and persisted in propping up haemorrhaging institutions, Iceland downsized their banking system and set aside funds for housing and public services.

Iceland’s recovery took shape and has been hailed as one of the success stories of European financial regeneration. Unemployment decreased in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Moreover, the Icelandic judicial system prosecuted CEOs and high-profile bankers who contributed to an era of recklessness, as well as burning bondholders. Ireland, on the other hand, dealt with similar issues in a different manner. The government is still in the process of repaying the billions owed to the European Union and IMF, while an Oireachtas public inquiry into the dealings of banks just began this year. Only now are there signs of recovery.

While watching Ireland football team’s Euro 2016 qualifying hopes take a dent in a limp 1-1 draw with Scotland, I couldn’t help but notice that the aforementioned Iceland were solidifying top spot of their own group. A play-off victory against Croatia away from a place at last summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the islanders are close to punching their ticket for France next June following five victories out of six with the Netherlands, Turkey and Czech Republic left in wake. Barring a drastic turnaround, Iceland will reach their first ever major tournament.

Conversely, Ireland are fourth in Group D behind Poland, Germany and last Saturday’s opponents. They will most likely have to deal with the ignominy of failing to qualify for an expanded 24-team championship that FAI CEO John Delaney so ironically lobbied for under the pretence that the Republic would surely qualify. Ireland’s performance opened up further questions regarding Martin O’Neill’s suitability as Irish manager, but also a wider debate on the famine of talent produced in the country as a whole.

Most would agree that Ireland’s present best three players are James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan. McCarthy was born and reared through the Scottish system. Seamus Coleman was a Gaelic footballer who signed for Sligo Rovers at 18 after impressing for his local team in a friendly against the League of Ireland club. He was discovered by accident rather than design. Hoolahan has arguably been Ireland’s pivotal performer in recent matches, but he is 33, rarely a guaranteed starter for Norwich City and most certainly not the transformational genius RTÉ pundit Eamon Dunphy perceives him to be.

In his near two-year term as Irish manager, O’Neill has experimented and attempted to refresh the squad. Of the players called up by the former Celtic, Aston Villa and Leicester City boss, almost all are second or third generation Irish and only Jeff Hendrick came through the Irish schoolboy system. Ireland are so obviously lacking creativity and guile, a point gleefully highlighted by the Scottish media.

Writing in the Scottish Sun, Robert Grieve was unenthused by Ireland’s “uncompromising, bruising” approach. “James McCarthy rattled into Scott Brown, escaping a booking from Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli. Next Glenn Whelan clattered the Celtic skipper. It was clearly a ploy to get in about the Scotland captain. It was bully-boy tactics from O’Neill – two very deliberate, premeditated challenges.”

Andrew Smith of the Daily Record described Ireland as “rousing, but rarely adept”. Scotland were the side exuding confidence, clarity and a bit of craft through Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney. They are given a clear mandate to express themselves from Gordon Strachan, a coach who is fascinated by Spanish football and Andrés Iniesta.

Ireland, in contrast, resorted to the fruitless endeavour of firing aimless crosses and hefty long balls into the box. O’Neill’s antiquated and out-dated philosophy is doomed in comparison to Strachan, but the systematic problems at the grassroots level in Ireland have engendered this patent lack of talent who are comfortable and accomplished with the ball at their feet.

A line from Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant book Inverting the Pyramid comes to mind: “If something goes wrong for England it tends to be rooted in a mistrust of technique, and that was as true a century ago as it is today and at all points in between.” What is true of England can also be applied to Ireland. Irish kids on average get 14 fewer touches of the ball at underage level than their European counterparts according to one university study. The League of Ireland, the national division initially run by the member club, was brought under the umbrella of the FAI in 2006. The problem is there are no discernible link between LOI clubs and clubs across Europe or the national team.

That preferential treatment is reserved for clubs in the schoolboy leagues, particularly the North Dublin Schoolboy League (NDSL). Clubs such as Home Farm and St. Kevin’s have links with English clubs, who keep tabs on youngsters from an early age and sign them to academy deals between the age of 14 and 16. Those schoolboy clubs in turn poach players from smaller, local teams. It’s a vicious circle. In an ideal scenario, there would be a system in place in which young footballers could stay in Ireland during their formative years and complete their development with LOI clubs in a strong, healthy league.

That would require investment from the FAI, who have essentially washed their hands of the league. An example of the disparity in resources lies with the prize money awarded to LOI teams. Last year’s champions Dundalk received €100,000 for obtaining first position; Delaney earned within the region of €360,000 as an annual salary in 2014. There are no LOI players in the Irish squad, and the first team is still entirely reliant on the English system to foster emerging talent.

Meanwhile, Iceland are beginning to produce technically proficient footballers and have a plan in place to build a competitive side for the foreseeable future. A look at their current squad confirms that, led by Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurðsson and Ajax’s Kolbeinn Sigthórsson. Iceland’s upturn in fortunes owes much to Sigurdur Ragnar Eyjólfsson, the director of education at KSI, Iceland’s football association. He helped create a new system in which budding coaches would have to complete the KSI coaching levels before taking the UEFA pro-licence badges.

According to a piece on Icelandic blog Sportbloggid, 520 coaches have finished the KSI B/UEFA B licence course, while 165 more have completed the KSI A/UEFA A version. Ragnar Eyjolfsson also pointed out that in 2002 that there were only five artificial pitches and one indoor hall in the country, hardly conducive to nurturing talent in a climate that harsh during winter. Now they have seven large football halls, three smaller scale ones and 22 artificial pitches. Investment and concrete planning has delivered results for KSI. It’s quite the achievement for a country of 300,000 people to have a football team is punching above their weight in this fashion.

Another lesson to be learned from Iceland is the value of having players in different environments. A brief scan through the latest Icelandic squad shows players dotted around the map in Spain, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and China. Ireland needs to loosen the ties with English football. Far too many young Irish footballers are passed over and discarded in the Premier League academy system, and therefore feel their chance at a professional career is gone. Experiencing another culture and footballing style on the continent is far more beneficial than dropping to the lower echelons of the football league.

The FAI still owe tens of millions of Euros for their half of the Aviva Stadium, shared with the Irish Rugby Football Union. Ticket prices are extortionate and out of reach for a lot of Irish families. Thousands of empty seats have adorned the stadium at recent friendly matches, discounting the first meeting with England in Dublin for 20 years, which took place two weeks ago. Couple that with an unappealing team punters struggle to identify with as well as Delaney’s bipolar public persona and there is disconnect between the Irish public and its football team.

Perhaps this time Ireland should follow Iceland’s lead and rejuvenate a stagnant footballing nation.

By Conor Kelly. Follow @ConorPacKelly

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