Irish author Paul Breen shares thoughts inspired by a book that should serve as a call to arms for everyone involved in The Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
Paperback: 224 Pages
Publisher: Pitch Publishing Limited (16 October, 2017)
Kevin O’Neill’s recent publication ‘Where Have All the Irish Gone’ couldn’t have come under my radar at a better time. Like a literary equivalent of Robbie Keane, it popped up on my reading list at exactly the right moment – perfectly poised between the dark winter of failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and spring’s promise of Saint Patrick’s Day just around the corner.
If I could go back in time, I’d send a barrow load of copies as Christmas gifts for the sixty-odd members of the FAI Council. Running at 224 pages, bolstered by excellent stories, interviews and pictures along the way, this is a bit of a bargain at £12.99. Mind you, the cost of sixty plus copies could still be quite steep – regardless of how much good it would do my native country!
Still, going back in time, the benefit of knowing December’s winning numbers might finance such a move. Or maybe I’d just put a bet on the unlikely scenario of Denmark beating Ireland 5-1 at the Aviva Stadium on that depressing November night of the European play-offs for World Cup qualification. It seemed a long time then since a similar scoreline in August 2007, when Robbie Keane and Shane Long struck two goals apiece as the Republic thumped Denmark 4-0 in a Euro qualifier warm up in Aarhus.
Even then, the side that played that night seemed a shadow of some of the line-ups that had featured on Irish team sheets in the past. Once upon a time, Irish players, just like the Scots, provided a staple diet for the success of English football’s top teams.
Liverpool had Steve Heighway, ‘Milk Cup Kid’ Ronnie Whelan, Jim Beglin and Steve Staunton at different times alongside a Scottish spine of Hansen, Souness and Dalglish. Manchester United, who always had a team with strong Irish links, developed the diverse skills of Paul McGrath, Denis Irwin and Roy Keane. Arsenal had Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary and the majestic Liam Brady who then went on to grace the finest European league of that era by signing for Juventus. Others such as Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City played their part, as did Celtic up in Scotland.
That golden generation of players won League titles, FA Cups, European Cups, Milk Cups, Charity Shields, and personal silverware of all descriptions. They created solid links between Irish supporters and the big English clubs. We weren’t just supporting Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and United because they won things in the eighties. We were following our national heroes in their club jerseys whether that was Ronnie Whelan, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath or Chris Hughton; one of the first English born players to appear in an Irish jersey.
Many others like Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, the descendants of Ireland’s legions of post-war emigrants, then came along to bolster the skills of these Irish-born lads at an international level. Jack Charlton used the combination of native sons and prodigal children to take Ireland to the heights of the World stage, coming within a whisker of the EURO 88 semi-finals and then two consecutive World Cups, where they even got to meet the Pope. Sadly, today’s generation of Irish kids following English football rarely see an Irish name on the teamsheets of the Premier League giants. A consequence of that is not seeing them in this summer’s World Cup either. Sure, we have a few stars on the margins such as half a dozen players Irish born or with Irish ancestry playing for Burnley, sometimes dubbed as the most British of Premier League clubs despite their mix of nearly ten nationalities. There, they might also meet a Pope who plays in goal but not the more famous one!
Gone are the days, it seems, when somebody like Jim Beglin might get signed from the League of Ireland and developed by Liverpool’s boot room into a double winning international left back. These days, the likes of Jim Beglin might never get the chance to make the grade at the highest level in England. Not because there are no Jim Beglins anymore or no Ronnie Whelans. The 1950s-80s was not some fluke golden era when the mammies of Ireland got as lucky as Brendan O’Carroll with Mrs. Brown’s Boys. There are particular reasons as to why the kids of that period grew up to grace Old Trafford and Anfield whilst those of today seem destined to end up somewhere between Turf Moor and Plainmoor.
Aside from those born with the natural genius of Liam Brady, I have always believed that most footballers are a product of gradual development like Jim Beglin at Liverpool. Thanks to this timely publication, I now have evidence to support that belief. Kevin O’Neill, in his fine analysis of the reason for the decline in visibility of Irish footballers in England’s top division, presents a story that is sad in some ways and uplifting in others, but always honest. That honesty comes from the author himself and the great number of young Irish footballers that he interviewed about their experiences of striving for a breakthrough in the British game. Some had fleeting moments of success while others experienced heartbreak, slow decline or abandonment of the game altogether.
The players whose stories he tells might not be as instantly recognisable as Liam Brady, Roy Keane or Paul McGrath but they are the names we would and should have known in an alternate Sliding Doors set of circumstances in the British and Irish leagues. There might well be a future Jim Beglin or Ronnie Whelan ready to board another Flight of Earls at Dublin airport, but their careers are never going to be given a chance to get off the runway.
These young men leaving Ireland behind to start a new life in England need more than a lighted candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, the Irish President’s house. Throughout the stories told in this book, in the voices of the young players themselves, there’s a haunting sense of today’s Jim Beglins and Ronnie Whelans being totally unprepared for the demands of a modern English game driven by agents, money and limited opportunities for youth. Many of them like Mark Connolly and David Mooney have their moment in the sun of bigger clubs such as Wolves and Reading but then drift down the leagues. Others such as Shane Supple abandon the English game, think about abandoning football altogether, and then return to playing in the League of Ireland.
This is where the FAI has to play a greater part because throughout this work, there’s a sense of disconnect between what could have been, and what is in Irish football. In my opinion, to many people in Ireland the game’s governing body comes across like the self-interested shopkeepers Yeats once wrote about. They have no vision for the League of Ireland and few ideas on how to develop talent in an age when they can’t just ship their boys across the water and hope the English will do the job for them. And yet in Kevin O’Neill’s book so many obvious solutions are offered.
I won’t spoil the story by going into too many details but this is the stuff of sense that will have your pulses racing if you’re interested in seeing a better future for Irish football. It’s literally an understated call to arms to avoid further relegation into the margins of football in the British Isles and beyond. Hence, my suggestion that I’d send a barrow load of books to FAI headquarters. A glittering generation of talent has been wasted and a great deal of money and potential squandered within the Irish game. Take a look at the experiences of the players in this book and you will see that there’s more than enough scope to develop the League of Ireland into a thriving base for the national football team. There is more than enough scope too, according to the author, for the authorities to follow the strategies employed by Belgium, Iceland and other small countries in providing appropriate sporting facilities to develop talent at a grassroots level. But there always seems to be an excuse for not doing so and people with knowledge fit to implement these plans are not being utilised.
Prime amongst such people, Kevin argues, is the great Brian Kerr who built a reputation out of making Ireland’s underage sides the Burnley of international youth football, punching well beyond their weight and resources. Others have said that Brian Kerr’s current lack of involvement in Irish football is nothing short of a crime and Kevin O’Neill’s measured argument in this book adds to the clarion call for the FAI to start acting much more in the national interest.
But this is just one angle of a fantastic book that covers so much ground it could be all my favourite Irish midfielders rolled into one – Alan McLoughlin, Mark Kinsella, Matt Holland and Kevin Sheedy. The way that the author dissects so many of the issues at the heart of the Irish disappearance from English football’s top table would be impossible to condense into a 1500-word review.
The one area though that I would have liked Kevin O’Neill to have explored further is the question of how these issues might be addressed at an All-Ireland level. Some of this was discussed in a previous work that I reviewed here at The Football Pink and it is my personal belief that there is a need for an island wide Irish football league to create the right conditions for Irish footballers to succeed domestically and internationally. By having such a league, players might have the chance to equip themselves with the right skills before boarding the plane for England, and might also be able to go there knowing that if it doesn’t work out they can come home to a competitive league in their own country instead of dropping down through the divisions in a series of bit parts on the bench at the Madejski Stadium and loan moves to Macclesfield.
However, just as no single footballer can cover every blade of grass on the field despite the popular cliché, no author could deal with every aspect and permutation of Irish football’s affairs. Kevin O’Neill though has made a fine attempt to get to the heart of a major issue for the Irish game and one that isn’t going to be solved by wishing it away or hoping for another Liam Brady to magically rise up from a Dublin boys’ club to The Emirates or San Siro.
This is a work not just grounded in authentic voices and passionate opinions but also in a pragmatic reality. I would recommend this as a book for everyone interested in the fortunes of Irish football, Irish footballers and the future of the Irish game. And though they certainly don’t need any charity, I would suggest donating a few copies to our friends at the FAI. Maybe they’ll get a chance to read it on their first class flights and change the direction of the Irish game for the good of the young players in this book.
But on a final note it’s not just fans of Irish football that will have an interest in the ideas herein. Those in charge of the Scottish game could learn as much even though their domestic league remains about ten times better than the neighbour a similar population. Indeed, so could some in the English milieu because as the Premier League shifts ever closer to games played overseas and greater dependency on foreign TV rights, we could find ourselves paraphrasing Kevin O’Neill a generation from now and asking ‘Where have all the English Gone?’