How has Brexit affected Irish youth football?

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By: Christopher Windrum

Christopher Windrum talks to Niall Cully, a Saint Patrick’s Athletic Under 19’s football coach about how Brexit has affected Irish youth football. 

In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This meant there was going to be a slew of changes coming Ireland’s way over the next few years. One aspect that nobody really talked about was how Irish youth football would be affected after Brexit finally came into play. 

Niall Cully, a Saint Patrick’s Athletic Under 19’s coach, spoke to about how Brexit has affected Irish youth football. “Brexit hasn’t changed the structure in the underage level of Irish football. What Brexit has changed is that the young players have to stay in Ireland until they are 18 if they want to play in the United Kingdom.”

“Players can sign in Europe when they are 16 years old. An example of this is Kevin Zefi of Shamrock Rovers transferring over to play in Italy with Inter Milan. We at Saint Patrick’s Athletic have had one player on trial with AS Roma and Bayer Leverkusen and also a player transferring to Stade Reims in France.”

“Brexit has broadened the scope for Irish players throughout Europe. Before Brexit, the success rate of Irish players succeeding in the UK was quite low. Brexit obviously forces them to stay here, and what that means for Irish clubs is that we have to get better. We can’t be losing out on top international standard players that are at first team level because we can’t provide the facilities for them to develop.” explained Cully. 

 The introduction of the underage League of Ireland has massively helped in improving youth players.

“With the introduction of the underage League of Ireland, I have seen a dramatic increase in the quality of players. The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have implemented five versus five games at the younger age groups, which develops players to play a pass and not just huffing the ball up the pitch.” 

“I can definitely see how players now are more comfortable on the ball.” Cully continued. “With the introduction of the national underage leagues it has improved the standard, the contact lines, the physical side and everything around it. It has improved a lot even since I played, which was only 10 years ago.”

When asked if Brexit will benefit young Irish players in the long term, Cully said: “I would like to think so. It’s tough to argue in terms of football. What I mean by that is on the pitch, the standard is different. The League of Ireland premier and first division is a better breeding ground for players, rather than playing in a youth academy system in the UK. Off the pitch is where we will see the biggest development.”

“A positive for players having to stay in Ireland is getting their Leaving Certificates and college degrees, so if they stop playing football in their early 20’s it gives them a better opportunity in life outside of football. I think this is the biggest positive that will benefit Irish players in the long term after Brexit.”

Investment is and will be crucial for Irish youth football. It is still unclear if Brexit has had an impact on the amount of investments made by clubs. 

“You can have clubs that invest a lot of money into youth football with not much return and then you can have clubs that don’t invest with a good return on youth football. From the business side you can pump money in it and get it wrong. Or not pump money into it and still get it wrong. I think it’s all to do with the people that are in your club,” said Cully.

“I can’t say for definite if clubs have been investing more into youth football because I’m unsure of the figures. But there is understanding that the clubs need to invest. We need to have our own training ground and we don’t need to be renting places. The pressure is on now to give these lads the best facilities that we can, so they don’t have to go over to Europe for them to improve as players.” 

“You can see now in this season with the three boys going into the first team and making a huge impact, they would have had options to go abroad and decided against it. Now they have Leaving Certs or they’re going to college. By staying in Ireland, they are now first team full time professional footballers.” 

“For me playing at Pats first team level is better than playing at any Under 23 level in the UK. Because it can be seen as a bit passive because you can’t replicate the pressure of first team football, when three points are on the line. People have mortgages to pay and are looking for their next contract.  You can’t really apply that win at all cost pressure in underage football.”

“We still have a long way to go but there seems to be more investment in it. All of this will hopefully make us see better footballers as a result.”

This is only the start of the post Brexit journey that Irish youth football has to face, and it will be up to FAI and young coaches like Niall to improve the Irish youth football system. 

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