As normality returns to the city of Lille on that warm summer’s night in June, thousands of young Irish boys close their eyes and imagine. They imagine that they are Belvedere FC’s own Wes Hoolahan, picking the ball up from the right-hand side, they lift their head and float a sumptuous cross into the Italian box. Or that they are one of St Kevin’s boys’ most famous sons, Robbie Brady, they dart into space between the Italian defenders and goalkeeper and nod the ball home, to score a goal that will forever be etched into the history of Irish football. It is a dream that so many have, but in reality so few can achieve.
Every year, around 50, 16-year old’s leave their homes and families back in Ireland to pursue their dream of a professional football career in England. Enamoured by the lure and mystique of the English academies they see this as the essential first step in an elite level footballing career. The reality however, is a lot different. Figures outlined in an Irish Times article from 2013 show that 94% of young Irish players who get deals with English academies never get as far as a second contract. They join the scrapheap of around 700 players that The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) of England estimates get released every summer. In July 2013, Longford town footballer and North County Dublin native, Dylan McGlade was just one of those 700 players.
After impressing for Shelbourne’s underage team, McGlade was snapped up by, then Championship side, Middlesbrough in 2011 and spent two years at their academy. “It was actually the final of the League Cup against Joeys (St Joseph’s of East Wall) where there were a lot of Ireland scouts and a lot of scouts from Premier League teams and stuff like that” McGlade explained “I just had a really good game and it kind of all kicked on from there, like there was a lot of managers coming to watch and Middlesbrough were one of them that were interested and they kind of brought me over, I think I’d been there maybe 3 days and they offered me a contract”.
However, after a couple of seasons at the Riverside, the young midfielder received the news so many dread. “It kind of came as a shock to everybody because it’s kind of common practice to say that if a player suffers a serious injury that has them out for a year, like I signed a two-year scholar and you can sign a third year scholar and that is basically what I did just to kind of not have to pay a player as much as a pro deal but still have them around to give them a chance, so as far as I was concerned I was going and getting a third year scholar like everyone on my team”
“It was more kind of anger than anything” said McGlade “I was more angry and I didn’t understand, I thought I would’ve been one of the better players in my age group. It was just very frustrating”
After his release, McGlade trained with Shelbourne U19s and was set to sign for Oxford United in the English League Two, but injury robbed him of the chance to rebuild his career in England. “I was due to go back over to Oxford and I broke my leg in an u19s cup game so that just kind of like scuppered everything that happened and I mean that injury kept me out for over a year. That kind of like ruined everything for a while. Just completely gutted”.
Like so many other Irish players he found himself back in the League of Ireland. According to ExtraTime.ie’s player database 73 out of 258 Premier Division players in the 2015/2016 season had previously either played for an English or Scottish club, or had been part of their youth system in some capacity. That means that roughly one in every four players in the league had been affiliated with an English or Scottish club at some stage in their careers.
Irish Times journalist Emmet Malone has been covering the League of Ireland for many years now and believes there’s a flaw in the system of English academies scouting young Irish players. “If I’m a 14-year-old kid and I’m the hottest property in Ireland then I’ll have United, Liverpool, Chelsea after me but the bottom line is there’s a 99.99% chance I’m going to get let go by that club I will never play for its first team you know so the whole system is fucking built in failure, it’s atrocious”. He thinks that looking abroad may help with youth development.
“I went to Germany a few years ago and talked to guys that were at one of the clubs over there and they were talking about their youth development and aiming lower you know, they aim to be a top 25 club in Germany and that gives them a chance of developing players” said Malone “Their line to me was that, if you’re Chelsea you’re trying to develop a player who is one of the best 100 players in the world, that’s essentially the target if they want to get into your team because otherwise you’re just going to buy one of the top 100 players in the world you know so that’s a virtually impossible target to meet”
Then, there are the other bracket. The players who fall out of professional football after their release. Of the aforementioned 94% of young players who do not get a second contract at an English club, 75% of them come home to either join a team with their friends or give up on their dream of a life as a professional footballer completely. With such a staggeringly high fall out rate, the education of footballers for a life after the game should be key, however many like Dylan McGlade feel it could hurt a player’s commitment.
“I know a lot of people say that you should have a backup plan and you should have something to fall back on but my kind of mind-set is, if I’m thinking of a backup plan like maybe ‘oh if this doesn’t work I need to do this’ I’m already setting myself up to fail. I’m not putting in 100% and believing what I do, you know what I mean?”
Emmet Malone feels that this “all or nothing”, “no safety net” approach to raising a young player is very dangerous. “Well like Jesus that’s fine for the 1% who make it but for the 99% who don’t you’re just sacrificing them in the hope of a better national team or a better club team or whatever and that’s outrageous, we shouldn’t be doing that”.
He went on to mention how, for a young player, “acknowledging that it might not work out is a healthy thing”. Something, football clubs do none too often.
Young Irish footballers will, and so they should, continue to dream of being a part of magical nights in Lille, but a change in methods and attitudes toward youth development in Ireland is undoubtedly required. For every one player who makes it, sadly, there are a thousand who don’t and that, for this majority, is a hard reality to face.