Irish footballers were once regarded as some of the best in the world as they had a significant presence at the top clubs in English football. Now, it is hard to pick out one international that could be classed as a ‘Top 6’ player. From the national team to the national league down to grassroots, there has been a clear and evident decline for almost two decades. Where did it all go wrong?
The standards in Irish football have dropped sharply throughout the years. This has not only been seen on the international stage but right here at home in our local clubs. The League of Ireland is currently in crisis and has been for quite some time now. The clubs involved have been scraping by for years due to minimal cash influx into the league, something that they are crying out for. We have seen several clubs go under and out of existence due to having a lack of funding and inability to pay players and staff, but are they helped? No. This has been perhaps the biggest issue in Irish football for the last 20 years. There is no support from the FAI or the Government in place to help their league.
The problem in the league lies not so much on the pitch, although that is still an issue, but off it. Clubs in Ireland are in dire need of investment to help fund the likes of stadiums and better facilities to influence the overall appeal of Irish football. The appeal of the league has declined in recent years due to no progress being made on and off the pitch. The same facilities and the same way of playing football have barely evolved when compared to other leagues. Attendances have been one of the critical standouts from this as clubs have seen figures go from the thousands weekly to the hundreds in just a couple for years. Friday Night Football used to be something that locals in the community would look forward to as they would go to support their hometown club. Now, for a large portion of people, it is much more appealing to sit at home and watch better quality football from the English leagues.
The FAI’s lack of involvement in the league plays a major part in this decline. Every other league gets the backing that they need each season to support them year long with whatever they need. Clubs in Ireland rely heavily on getting into Europe to make any real money as the prize money for winning the league itself isn’t worth much. Public funding is another key factor that many clubs rely on, which really shouldn’t be happening for the country’s national league. In 2016, the FAI dished out just €100,000 amongst the 20 clubs involved, working out at €5,000 for each club. This was to help them with their five-year strategic plan. It is crazy to think that the governing body over Irish football thought that this was enough to help clubs over five years. To put this into perspective, former CEO John Delaney at the time was earning over €400,000 annually. Disgraceful.
In 2019, we saw the true colours of the FAI and Delaney come out when they were thrown into turmoil. It was revealed that the organisation had net liabilities of €55 million. They are only being kept afloat by the financial support from UEFA. There is so much uncertainty as to where this money had gone with little evidence to support it. Delaney himself received a severance package totalling €462,000, with additional payments added. This is a perfect example of how badly the body has used the funds over football in Ireland. More money has gone elsewhere into unknown transactions than into the league itself. There is a hugely important role played by League of Ireland clubs in their communities, and if there is no support financially, then it could have disastrous effects. Especially with the league restarting following Covid-19, there is more need for help now than ever to keep not just the teams afloat, but the league running.
The support for grassroots football has been just as underfunded which we have seen due to a lack of young talent coming through in Irish colours in recent years. The FAI receives €2.9 million in state funding annually to spread amongst grassroots football in the country. This was suspended last year due to Irish soccer’s governing body being mired in controversy. The government would eventually channel €2 million into grassroots football due to a lack of trust in the FAI. Clubs and leagues in Ireland need this to function as soccer is the most played sport in Ireland which receives almost half a million children each year taking part. Grassroots football is so essential for the production of youths that it simply can’t afford to be left underfunded. Sadly, it isn’t just the funding that is affecting underage football and the development of players; there is so much more to it.
Ireland has been suffering from a lack of young talent being produced on home soil. If we ever aspire to have a national team that is capable of being more than just a snatch and grab, hoof and hope kind of team, then we need the League of Ireland to thrive. The standard of football in Ireland has rarely changed in the past 30 years with the same methods in place while other countries progress with the times. It has been painful to watch the national team play for far too long now with the same old style of play with nothing to excite the fans, no matter the manager in place. The philosophy in Irish football remains that of a team from the 1980s, and some of them could play football better. Our defensive players are our best-attacking threats in most games these days so there you can see the problems already. If our national team is like this, then what do our league and underage teams have to go off?
Ireland down through the years have been renowned for always having world-class players with the likes of Robbie Keane, Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan, the list goes on. The national team has always had a number of these high-level players in their squad ay any given point, except for the last number of years. You think back to the major tournaments that we were in; Euro ‘88, Italia ‘90, USA ‘94, World Cup 2002, all lasting memories in Irish hearts. Irish teams have always given their all no matter the opposition they faced, which is one of the reasons why they overachieved in certain positions. For a small nation, we have pulled off some massive feats down through the years. Some of the most recent in mind include beating World Champions Germany in 2015 and getting out of the group stage in Euro 2016. Sadly, these were just some great flashes in an otherwise dismal decade that had more bad moments than good.
The standard of football in Ireland has been progressively getting worse with no sign of it slowing down. The League of Ireland has suffered severely due to underfunding and a lack of talent and flair in the league. Once there is anyone showing signs of promise, they are quickly snapped up by an English club for a small fee. The domestic league has been very one-sided for many years with Dundalk coming out on top in all competitions as well as spells from Cork City. We have seen once-great clubs like Drogheda United and Shelbourne fall into the First Division after years of success. Most of the money made by clubs come through the gates, and the decline in attendances has been felt at the clubs. There has been a severe lack of league coverage on television which is a disgrace if you ask me. RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, show maybe one game per month, this is a reason why the league is failing. We need to be showing support for our league and if our broadcasters won’t do that then what hope is there for the league.
Irish football fans are a very dedicated fan base who are passionate about their local clubs and get behind the league as much as they can. It is the fans in the community who keep the clubs running after all, and have come to the aid of their clubs on numerous occasions in troubled times. If the matches are televised, they will be watched, but it is no use only showing the odd game here and there, it needs to be consistent. It is also only the top teams who get the coverage which is something that needs to change. The First Divison alone is wholly ignored and receives no coverage at all. If the league is to be taken seriously and supported, there needs to be public support in more ways than one, with more media coverage and more finances pumped into the league.
Domestic footballers in Ireland have been ignored for years by the national team. It is only in the last five years that we have slowly started to see some being brought into the squad. Over 30 years had passed before a League of Ireland player finally put on an Irish jersey again. It was 40 years since a League of Ireland player scored a goal for Ireland when Graham Burke netted in 2016. The ignorance towards the league isn’t surprising as the standards have not been at the level of what would be expected on the international stage. It showed just how bad the development of players in Ireland has been for years. When you look at other European countries like Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, they dedicated their resources into their local leagues and grassroots to play a new, exciting style of football. These nations have been producing some of the best footballers seen in the past 20/30 years and show no sign of stopping with a new generation of superstars coming through.
Ireland has failed in implementing a fresh new way of playing football in kids from young ages. Almost every other country is ahead of us in terms of footballing academies and producing talent that has the potential to make it big. Children from the ages of five and upwards are learning to pass the ball the same way that the national team play across Europe. The blame all falls to the FAI who has been in charge of overseeing this change as well as providing the best resources and facilities to attain this, which they have not. The failings in our development methods have set Irish football back almost 20 years which we are truly paying for now. We have not yet seen the likes of a Damien Duff or a Robbie Keane come through the system and go on to be a star for the national team at that level. Two of the best players that we have seen come through at Ireland underage level in Jack Grealish and Declan Rice are now England internationals. Even our underage players don’t want to represent their country, and that is when you know there is something seriously wrong.
There is a lot that needs to be done to fix the current state of Irish football. For starters, the FAI needs to be scrapped with a fresh start and replaced with people who know what they are doing. Support both financially and physically for the domestic league needs to be a significant priority for the next governing body. Clubs simply can’t go on scraping by each season any longer. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before the league is scrapped. Grassroots needs to be top of that list also as this is the foundation blocks for everything that we will see over the next number of years. The current way of playing football that academies across Europe have implemented with children needs to be copied. The national team will never progress unless there is a massive influx of promising talent coming through and genuine competition in the domestic league. Nothing will change in Irish football until the League of Ireland is developed. Irish football simply hasn’t kept pace with changes elsewhere due to using the same old methods that have been used by each generation. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.
With so much negativity around Irish football, there is some light at the turn of the decade. With the introduction of Stephen Kenny as manager of Ireland, he is known for his exciting style of play and ability to bring through young players. He has worked with the underage national setup and done a great job there, so hopefully, he will have the same influence on the national team. We have also seen some young Irish players feature in the Premier League this season with the likes of Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott impressing. Other Irish players across the league are having a great season also with Matt Doherty, John Egan, Enda Stevens and Jeff Hendrick playing their part in their club’s good form this year. It is not all doom and gloom, for now anyway, touch wood.
We will be seeing a transition period for Irish football this century with a lot of expectations for change to happen sooner rather than later. Irish football needs the domestic league. It’s time to stop the decline of Irish football and make it a sport that we are proud of in our country again. Slán go fóill.