FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
I have to confess that I’ve never really understood schoolboy football in Ireland. I played a bit in the Drogheda schoolboy league and it was a good place to toughen you up and get the odd moment of glory (I remember a Bonanza Cup win under manager Mick Byrne, who was also Drogheda chairman!). But the emphasis was on enjoying football. Sure, there were some great talents around but the clubs existed to serve the kids in the local community.
I remember as a kid asking my father who were all these teams like Cherry Orchard, Stella Maris, and Belvedere who seemed to be producing players who went direct to England. I couldn’t understand why these clubs who produced these great players were not in the League of Ireland. If they were so brilliant at unearthing this talent, then they should have been able to be the top teams in the country?
Playing football is a joy. Enabling children to enjoy football by providing coaches, facilities, and infrastructure is something which is remarkable. Volunteers who give their time, energy, and effort for no personal reward are the martyrs of the game. It is critical to the future of football in Ireland that children fall in love with football because it is the beautiful game, the love of which lasts a lifetime.
Only the tiniest percentage of kids will make it to play in the League of Ireland and even a smaller percentage will make it in the bigger European leagues. So, for 99.9% of participants, football is all about the joy of playing. That doesn’t mean that it’s not competitive or that it doesn’t mean something. Of course, it does! A kickabout in the street used to mean something. An over 50s walking football 5-a-side means something. Every match means something. But it isn’t a matter of life and death and when I hear stories of the abuse heaped on amateur referees or coaches or players in schoolboy/girl football, it depresses me. When did it all become so all-consuming and serious?
And so on to the rift between schoolboy football and the League of Ireland. I had never heard of the Kennedy Cup until I came back from London 6 years ago and got re-involved with Drogheda. I love the idea of tournament football for kids but it seems to me that this tournament exists as a shop window for getting players on the radar of UK clubs. I’ve read that many in schoolboy football are distraught that many of the best players who would have played at the Kennedy Cup are instead playing U14 with LOI clubs. But why should that stop the Kennedy Cup being a celebration of football? Why does it have to be about “the best talent” – what’s wrong with it being about enjoying football?
Why do we have to have all these titles associated with underage football – “Elite”, “Emerging Talent”, “Centre of Excellence”, “Premier”. This is like a drug to kids and parents who mistakenly believe that this marketing means that their child is destined to play for Barcelona. And the truth is that they won’t. We need kids to be the best that they can be…….not believe that it’s about being better than everyone else. Less pressure on kids, less pressure on the clubs, less pressure on the coaches and volunteers and less pressure on the referees. As we are in the middle of a mental health pandemic, surely it is incumbent on all of us involved in the game in Ireland to turn down the dial.
And inter-league competitions don’t help either at underage level. The result of this obsession with “the best” is that a substantial proportion of the focus of Schoolboy/girl Leagues goes on Emerging Talent Programmes and Representative squads. The focus should be on the individual leagues and helping them serve ALL kids in their communities and the fantastic volunteers who look after their needs.
League of Ireland clubs need to play catch-up to significantly develop our Academies (Shamrock Rovers being the notable exception) and many of us are working closely, and amicably, with schoolboy clubs to create a pathway into National League structures. Surely it is in the interests of everyone in football in Ireland to have a strong national league where our players can develop before potentially moving to bigger and better things? A system that tries to bypass the League of Ireland doesn’t really serve a purpose in my eyes.
But I’ve never been involved in Schoolboy or Schoolgirl football. I’ve never built a club from scratch with other volunteers and put in those hard yards. But what I do know is that the fundamental reason for being involved must be about creating a lifetime love of football for kids, not to generate big transfer fees or to get on the radar of UK clubs. When I think back to my old coach, Mick Byrne – he only did it for a love of football, he did it for his kids and for the fun and enjoyment. The rifts of the past can only be mended by finding the common ground that we share – we love football and we want our children to love it too.