The Developmental Impact of Tournament Football
"Tournament football can have an accelerative impact on the development of young talent".
Dead and Buried
On the evening of November 14th in 2014 when we had just been beaten and comprehensively outplayed by a vibrant Scottish team, the outlook for Martin O'Neill's Ireland looked bleak.
This was a new Scotland, having started the qualifying campaign in an extremely dynamic fashion.
They were a team that seemed to perfectly embody the personality (and previous playing style) of their manager Gordon Strachan - aggressive, intelligent, unrelenting and decisive. Watching Ireland that night, an outsider would have no inclination as to who the manager was. 16 months into his reign, this team had yet to stumble out of its Giovanni Trapattoni induced stupor.
Where was the O'Neill factor? The big performances on the big nights? The energy, the drive, the vigour.
How had we fallen so far that Scotland were now the superior team?
In March 2015 Scotland sat in 2nd place, Ireland back in 4th, having scraped injury time points in Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen.
Fast forward 6 months, when up stepped Valeri Qazaishvili to inflict a defeat on Scotland that would decisively alter the outcome of Group D.
Was Qazaishvili's goal the Gary Mackay (the 4 times capped Scottish midfielder Irish football is forever in debt to) moment for Martin O'Neill's Ireland?
Barring a capitulation, everything pointed to Scotland qualifying for Euro 2016. But as with their Independence Referendum, the Scots lost their nerve.
Euro 2016 had no shortage of those who found the expanded 24-team format objectionable.
This view sought to reduce the tournament to the status of an entertainment product, competing for viewership among the large TV audience across the globe. Of course, a la Euro 88, an 8 team tournament, would, by definition, be of a higher standard.
But what of the impact on the peoples of the participating nations and further, the development of the game, not least in peripheral Europe? The beauty of international football is that its influence ranges far beyond the sporting, it's social and cultural legacy can be so much deeper than the increasingly franchised culture of club football.
Up until 1970 Africa had to compete with Asia for one solitary spot at World Cups. This only changed after all African nations boycotted the 1966 edition. Even at 1990, they were only allowed two representatives. As the World Cup expanded and 5 African nations became the norm, the quality of their teams duly improved.
A restructuring of the South American qualification process, greatly increasing the exposure to more competitive football, has brought noticeable improvements to the performances of South American nations at recent World Cups. So much so that they outperformed European nations in the past two World Cups (with 100%+84% qualification rate from the group stages in 2010+2014 respectively, compared to 46% of European teams on both occasions).
Increased exposure to high level competitive football has provided African and (the smaller) South American nations with vastly improved cash flows, to spend on the development of the game, and has led to a great increase in the amount of players from these regions representing the top European clubs.
An expanded Euro's created a play-off spot for the 3rd place finish we achieved in the qualification campaign. 3rd place was about as much as we deserved.
But the progress made between June 2015 when we drew 1-1 with Scotland in Dublin and the end of our Euro's campaign in June 2016 is there for all to see. Perhaps we saw the first signs of O'Neill's stamp on this Irish team in the 2nd half performance in the drawn Polish game in March 2015 (17 months after his first match in charge). Both of these performances were followed by a laboured victory over Georgia.
O'Neill attempt to mould the team in his image started to bear fruit exactly around the time that the pressure was being ramped up on him and his team.
The famous victory over the world champions Germany infused a major shot of energy into O'Neill's Ireland, starting a momentum that has continued to gather pace.
It is a truism of sport, that high intensity competition is one of the greatest tools for development. Fight or Flight.
In a highly pressurised environment, Ireland stood tall in Euro 2016, both collectively and individually, when many feared a repeat of the meek exit from Euro 2012.
Stumbling Upon a New Team
None more so than our two players of the tournament Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady.
Over the course of 2 weeks, Martin O'Neill stumbled upon a new team. Only a manager who is fully assured of himself would drop the darling of the supporters and the two most senior players in the middle of a tournament but benching O'Shea, Whelan and Hoolahan was central to the progression of our team.
A new captain was borne and a midfield centred around St Kevin's Boy's finest, Brady and Hendrick, emerged.
Both had been gradually progressing over the previous 18 months but that night in Glasgow Hendrick was totally outplayed in midfield while Brady was a substitute. They then formed part of a midfield quartet that was so central to our victory over Germany. Their progress in a green jersey has been such that they are now arguably the two most pivotal players in our side.
Tournament football can have an accelerative impact on the development of young talent like these two guys.
So much so, that most observers of the Irish national team are astonished that they are playing with clubs like Norwich and Burnley. They grew up hugely this June, both superb athletes and represent a new breed of Irish midfield player that is more than comfortable receiving the ball when closely marked by an opposition player. This is in marked contrast to the sight of Glenn Whelan pointing to another passing option when a teammate looks to him to receive the ball.
Indeed, after years in the wilderness Wes Hoolahan's hour finally arrived with his memorable performance against Sweden. Yet he finished the tournament having been eclipsed by Brady and Hendrick and demoted back to the bench. Is Hoolahan no longer the central cog in O'Neill's midfield?
Where Are We Now?
Martin O'Neill has succeeded in instilling a sense of belief and calm among his players that appears to not be riddled with the sub-conscious insecurities that seemed to attract the calamitous mishaps that befell previous sojourns into the depths of Eastern Europe in campaigns gone by.
Despite their recent run of (reasonably) impressive friendly results by the time we face Serbia on Monday, we will have played 5 extra competitive games than them since the World Cup qualification draw was made.
From having only beaten 2 teams ranked above us between 2001 and 2015 (Slovakia 2007 and France 2009, in a play-off which we lost), we have now beaten 3 (Germany, Bosnia and Italy) in the past 12 months.
Rankings might well be a contentious metric for measuring quality but what is unquestionable is that the Ireland of June 2016 would comfortably beat the Ireland of June 2015.
Nations of comparable population, potential and footballing heritage to ours, Denmark and Sweden, have majorly eclipsed us in this regard, having played in 8 and 9 tournaments respectively since 1992, compared to our measly 4 occasions.
While the likelihood is that our €11m Euro 2016 bounty will be spent on servicing the associations debt, the impact of tournament participation can provide invaluable financing of grassroots structures (Iceland anyone?), inspire the future generations of Irish internationals but most importantly it gives the players themselves an opportunity for self development like no other.
Euro 88 and World Cup 90 is the only time we have qualified for back-to-back tournaments. This has had a debilitating impact on our longer term development. The lack of tournament football between 2002 and 2012 entrenched the stagnation we were experiencing. We have good players coming through, we can't afford another hiatus from the big stage.
In previous successful campaigns we have benefitted from early away victories.
Serbia's recent decline means they might be not considered part of the elite group of footballing nations today, but Belgrade will provide a great indication as to whether the progress of Euro 2016 and the last 12 months was more about the big match on the big stage or whether it has instilled a steel and maturity that equips O'Neill's Ireland with the ability to negotiate difficult away challenges such as that presented by the Serbs.
Many of us remember our first post 2002 World Cup match, where despite the Saipan hangover, positive vibes were abounding among fans and players alike. We got walloped 4-2 in Moscow.
We are up against it to qualify for Russia 2018 but a positive result in Belgrade would set us on a great path. Tús maith, leath na hoibre is how the proverb goes, but good starts don't seem to something we are naturally inclined to go for. Drama is the Irish way.
Fantastic illustration provided by @howayaprints, available to purchase at www.howaya.ie