By: Aidan Crowley
Times are changing for both the League of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland thanks to Stephen Kenny.
Last Friday night, 15 of the goals scored in the League of Ireland (LOI), came from Irish players, aged 21 and younger. There has been a sizable demographic shift in recent years and teenagers like Darragh Burns (St. Patrick’s Athletic), Dawson Devoy (Bohemians) and Aidemo Emakhu (Shamrock Rovers), are the new faces of our domestic game. As is now often remarked, the league is no longer one of seasoned pros, battling through winter football on patchy pitches. Summer football has lent itself to a progression-first product, which has also helped Irish sides European escapades. Bohs’ inspiring 2-1 win over PAOK at the Aviva Stadium and Dundalk’s high-tempo, attacking display against Vitesse Arnheim, demonstrated that “old-school” scraping and scrapping is now firmly in the rear-view mirror.
In recent seasons, the SSE Airtricity LOI typically boasts young teams, playing entertaining football, in front of increasingly young crowds. Those hardy stalwarts, who attend LOI games every week, will understand this. However, all successful football leagues must ensure an appeal to a broader audience and that, unfortunately, is what Irish football has consistently failed to do. Due to recent Brexit restrictions, the quality of the LOI is about to rocket higher than ever before. The potential to have a young, prosperous competition in tandem with the professional football played by Stephen Kenny’s senior side, is a perfect platform for creating a new era of optimism and excitement.
Enthusiasm for Irish football filters down from the national team and by securing consistently good results, over the next number of years, Kenny can, directly, provide a “shot in the arm” to the league that he cares so much about. The relationship between the national team and the LOI is fascinating. For a long time, the LOI felt like its own separate entity, removed and disconnected from the Irish national senior team. Traditionally, the senior men’s squad consisted of players produced by English academies, playing in the Premier League. Nowadays, home-produced talent is the back-bone of the senior Irish team (Seamus Coleman, James McClean, Gavin Bazunu, Enda Stevens and Jamie McGrath, to name but a few). With new crops of talent emerging in the league, every season, more can be anticipated, in the near future.
Due to recent Brexit restrictions, Irish players under the age of eighteen, are not legally allowed to play their football in Britain. Instead, they must ply their trade with LOI clubs or take the bold step of joining a European outfit. All of this means that the next generation of players like Troy Parrott or Adam Idah, will be playing their football in the LOI from ages sixteen until eighteen. Adding this new cohort of top Irish talent to the league is exemplary. Even more promisingly, some people in the game believe that young players will no longer be queuing-up to join English academies, as soon as they are of age.
Ireland Chief Scout, Stephen Rice, explained that “if English clubs are to sign young LOI players, they will now have to place professional contracts on the table.”
If the majority of Ireland’s best footballing talent, between the ages of fifteen and twenty are all playing in the LOI, the country’s football landscape will be flipped on its head. Many fans consider that Kenny’s job is to secure results, rather than resurrecting Irish football. However, the Irish manager has worked tirelessly to create harmony in the wider player development structure.
There is a belief within the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) that both continuity and consistency are key to every step of progression up the Irish footballing ladder, in order to nurture future international players. Kenny regularly holds monthly meetings at FAI HQ with all the underage managers, to track the progress of individual players and also to ensure that both their visions and demands are closely aligned. The manager’s passion and enthusiasm for the job are clearly evident in his media appearances and it is reflected by the full-time culture that he has instilled outside of international windows.
Kenny is determined to change the old perception of Irish football: “I want to build a team that really exhilarates Irish football people,” he enthused. Recent performances in both the World Cup Qualifiers and International Friendlies, against the likes of Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Qatar, suggest that he is on the right path to achieving that goal. With all of this, comes an optimistic perception of Irish soccer which hasn’t been enjoyed in a long time and a new version of the LOI, where every club can boast of having Ireland underage internationals on their books. This looks like being the bright future of Irish football, where a successful metamorphosis for “the Boys In Green” will merge seamlessly with a LOI revolution.