Ireland finished Euro 2012 with statistically the worst record of any team ever in the Euro finals. Another feat achieved by this squad was that it was the only one to feature no players from its domestic league. Not that I’m suggesting that the addition of a striker from Cork City or a full-back from Bohemians would have made the difference. Far from it, the League of Ireland is in poor shape, and has been for years.
Most promising young footballers in Ireland join well regarded junior clubs. These junior clubs get visited by scouts from England on a regular basis. At the age of 14 or 15, the boys get brought over to the big clubs with good Irish connections. Traditionally this meant Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal and Celtic, but as everyone cuts their cloth to suit their purse, this now means sides like Sunderland, Aston Villa, Watford and Derby in England and Hibernian in Scotland.
There are approximately 100 professional Irish footballers in England, 25 in Scotland, and aside from random outposts in Moscow, Los Angeles, Sofia, Perth and Valkeakoski, (home of FC Haka of Finland, fact fans!) that’s the entire pool that Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni has to choose from.
Generally the assumption is that if you are over 20 and playing for a League of Ireland side, then your chance at the big time has gone, but there are exceptions to this. For example, last year Aston Villa signed 21 year old full back Enda Stevens from LOI champions Shamrock Rovers.
The big problem is that the biggest crowd you will get at a LOI game is about 5000 people. Probably three times this number travel to England and Scotland every weekend to watch games there. With small gates and no public interest (aside from the EPL, the LOI have to compete with Gaelic Football and Rugby for attention), the teams can’t run as a full time operation and can’t gain any traction in Europe.
Shamrock Rovers got to the group stages of the Europa League last season–losing every game once they got there (they did take the lead away to Tottenham though!), it was still the best performance ever by an Irish side in Europe. This season saw Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers going out cheaply to Lithuanian and Slovakian opposition, though St Patricks Athletic were unlucky to get Bundesliga side Hannover 96 in the final Europa League qualifying round and they too fell.
The Football Association of Ireland seem to be putting all their efforts and attention into getting more money and facilities for the national side, as evidenced by the effort and money expended in building the new national stadium at Landsdowne Road in Dublin. Their token nod to the Irish club sides was to set up a LOI XI versus Man Utd exhibition game. The site of 50,000 Irish football fans cheering on Man Utd as they destroyed a team with “Ireland” on their shirts was symptomatic of every that is wrong with football in Ireland.
What prompted me to write this article is the fact that Shamrock Rovers have just appointed English club manager Brian Laws as their director of football. As Laws was sacked by first Sheffield Wednesday and then Burnley within 6 months of each other in 2010 and hasn’t worked since, I’m left thinking that this appointment is a step down, but I’m not sure for whom.