Young Irish players just don't have the same options now
AS the final whistle blew on Ireland’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Scotland last weekend, it was not just our hopes of making it to Euro 2016 that concerned me – as I had fears for the future of our international team.
It was easy to criticise manager Martin O’Neill for his tactics and team selection in the 1-1 draw against Scotland that, in my view, all but ended our hopes of making it through to next summer’s European championship finals in France.
Yet I ask what more can he do?
Okay, I would have picked Shane Long ahead of Daryl Murphy to start and it would have been even better if we could have had Robbie Keane up front from the off, but let’s not try to disguise the reality that there is not a lot of top quality players to pick from in the current Ireland squad.
There is also a lack of quality coming through the junior ranks to take the place of the likes of Keane, Shay Given and John O’Shea – and this is why I have real concerns about what lies ahead of the game in our country.
You look at Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Darron Gibson and say there is a bit of quality there, but I don’t see how Ireland can compete with the world’s top teams when you look at the way the game is going in England.
Having worked with agents for many a year now, Ireland is not even on the radar of top clubs when they go looking for big signings.
Chelsea, the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Liverpool are all looking to sign ready-made players and they have enough money to go and get whoever they want.
That means a young kid from Ireland is hardly likely to be top priority.
It is still possible for a young man from Ireland to get to a club like Manchester United, but making a leap into their first team is now a million times harder than ever before.
There are plenty of Irish kids on the books at the top Premier League clubs, but do I see them battering down the door and becoming first-team starters any time soon? The answer to that question is no.
It leads to the question of what the future is for the Ireland team?
When we were on the way to the World Cup quarter-finals in Italy 25 years ago, the team I was a part of was loaded with top-class performers playing for the biggest teams in England.
Now we’re pinning our hopes on lads from Ipswich, Norwich and Stoke and some of the guys who are getting starts for Ireland are not even first-team regulars at their clubs.
With our FIFA ranking falling, the draws we will get for major championships are not going to get any easier and, on recent form, if Robbie Keane doesn’t score a goal, I wonder who will.
Robbie has been magnificent, but he is 34 now and plying his trade in Major League Soccer, so we need the next Keane to emerge from somewhere and that is not going to happen unless English clubs change their transfer policy.
I don’t want to be a prophet of doom here, but that is not going to happen.
The mentality of Premier League clubs has changed dramatically in the last quarter of a century, from the point where Irish players were considered to be part of the ‘local’ pool of players and welcomed with open arms.
Now, it doesn’t matter whether you hail the furthest corner of Africa or the most remote village in South America – if you have proved your worth at a top club, the big guns in the Premier League will try to sign you.
This is not just an Irish problem. England come up short every time they play in a major tournament and, while the Premier League is a wonderful spectacle, it has clearly damaged the flow of British and Irish players.
How we reverse this trend is an issue that has been discussed long and hard, and I fear that there is no solution to it.
Irish soccer does not have a top league for players to prove their worth and therefore English clubs don’t look at them any more.
I hope I’m wrong, but we may have to get used to coming up short at international level.