Commitment To The Cause
It is interesting to observe the ways in which the importance of representing one's national team is interpreted in different parts of the world. How often (perhaps Carlos Tevez aside) do you hear of a South American player complain about the hardship associated with representing their country (and the significant travel requirements and $$$ motivated friendly matches that comes with it) or even an early retirement that doesn't involve a high profile bust-up with the management?
Certainly the players of Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina (despite how they are perceived in their home countries) seem to possess an enthusiasm for representing their country that appears boundless.
The comparison with the attitude of other national team's players have, is marked. This may very well have a deep connection to the differing footballing histories of countries and the historical strength of club football and regional loyalties in these countries.
Great importance is placed on underage international football in countries like Uruguay and Argentina. Tim Vickery, an expert on South American football, often speaks of the approach adopted by the two nations.
As net exporters of talent, their top prospects are usually whisked away by European clubs in their late teens/early twenties. Knowing that in order for their national teams to remain competitive globally, this is an unfortunate, yet necessary, reality.
Cogniscent of this, they see their underage international set-up as the last chance for them to embed within these young players a deep understanding of a playing identity that runs from senior team down through each age group and so too, develop a sense of value and love of playing for their national team.
International tournaments seem to have a accelerative impact on the development of this hot-housed young talent
Club v Country
This passage from Jamie Carragher's autobiography, describing the feeling of exiting another tournament prematurely is oft-quoted:
"I confess: defeats wearing an England shirt never hurt me in the same way as losing with my club. I wasn't uncaring or indifferent, I simply didn't put England's fortunes at the top of my priority list. Losing felt like a disappointment rather than a calamity. I was never in love with playing for England in the first place. By the time I stopped I felt a huge weight lifting".
You get the sense that Carragher (a very well regarded pro) was not in anyway alone in harbouring such sentiments.
An Irish Problem?
It is often stated that the commitment of Irish players is without question, and to do so is a serious slight on their professionalism. However, can it be that this commitment sometimes fluctuates and is subject to other environmental factors?
Post Saipan, there was a creeping sense that some players were possibly considering international football as a attractive bonus to their career but perhaps not an essential part of it.
Certainly it seemed that some younger players may have taken Roy Keane's assumed acceptance of his international retirement (post rationalisation of his circumstances many would argue) as some kind of 'realisation' of a diminishing importance of representing the national team.
Stephen Carr's early retirement at 29 to concentrate on his Newcastle career seemed to typify this.
Clearly the success the team is enjoying and the quality of the manager at the helm can impact on this.
This reached a nadir in May 2011, when a number of young players (including McCarthy, Gibson, Wilson and Stokes) declared themselves unavailable for the end of season Nations Cup competition.
Despite their various explanations, their absence drew considerable ire from captain Robbie Keane:
“It is unacceptable – they can’t all be injured. This is their country. This is their national team. To play for your country is a great honour - it should be the greatest honour.
I still have the same enthusiasm going into Saturday’s match as I had the day I got my first cap. Nothing has changed for me so why has it changed for them?
If anyone has a right not to play it is Shay Given, who has a hundred plus caps. If anyone should pick and choose his games it is Damien Duff yet he has been busting a gut to get fit for this game and is devastated that it looks like he is going to miss it.
And then you have these people who just don’t want to play. Well, if you don’t want to play for Ireland then don’t declare for us. There are no excuses. These players have let themselves down and they have put our manager in a bad situation now.
In the future he has to decide between the players who have turned up this week and those who just want to pick and choose their games."
Although he denied it was as a punishment, Giovanni Trapattoni excluded Stokes, McCarthy and Wilson from the squad for the next qualification match 3 months later. However, the message was loud and clear. The issue of dubious player withdrawals has not reared its head since.
A Formative Impact
Given, O Shea, Duff, Dunne and Keane could easily be identified as the key players and leaders in the Irish squad over the past ten years. They are also the players with probably the most successful club careers in that period and have all played Champions League football (with the exception of Dunne), yet you can imagine they would be utterly appalled at the suggestion of early retirement on their parts.
Given obviously once did, and quickly regretted his decision.
The goalkeeper aside, the other four have one very strong factor in common. They were central figures in the most successful period in underage Irish soccer history, under the guidance of Brian Kerr.
The formative and career shaping impact of their participation in the successes of the teams that won the European U-16 Championship (O'Shea), U-18 European Championship (Dunne and Keane) and 3rd place U-20 World Cup finish (Duff) under Brian Kerr, has rarely been acknowledged.
Enjoying such international success at such a tender age also served to entrench within these players a sense of importance and priority in wearing their national colours, as well as receiving a thorough education on the complexities of international football.
To cite Stephen Ireland as an example of a situation that could potentially have been avoided had things operated differently within our underage structures at the time is probably unfair on those who managed him at underage level.
In terms of the esteem we held underage international football, Brian Kerr faced huge opposition from English club managers at times when seeking player release for underage tournaments. In the build-up to the U-20 World Cup in 1999, David O'Leary as manager of Leeds accused Kerr of "trying to make a name for himself" and had sought to deny Ireland (one of only 6 European qualifiers) use of 3 of his players, one of whom, Paul Donnelly had been told he would not have his contract renewed when it expired two months later and had never made a first team appearance for Leeds.
Eamon Dunphy, weighed in, stating that Robbie Keane, then of Wolves, would be far better off learning his trade against the hardened pro's of the then First Division than playing in an U-20 World Cup.
Exposure to tournament life at an early age could very well be at the heart of much of the claims of 'boredom' that often appear in the English media post tournament collapse (and so too during Ireland's 2012 campaign).
It is very easy to say that there is something in the cultural DNA of Spanish, Italian, German, Brazilian and Argentine players that they somehow can survive the atrocious 'ordeal' of being in camp for long periods of time. Could it be that these players do not find it such a taxing process because it is something that they associate as normal practice when playing international football?
Go through the squads of these international teams and you will find players vastly experienced in international underage tournament football. Contrastingly, England (a country on which we mirror most of our approach to, and reliance on, player development) regularly sent 3rd or 4th choice players to these tournaments, instead relying on their clubs to develop players ready for the international stage.
The reasons for their continued underperformance at international tournament level is obviously multi-layered but player morale, tactical savviness and a clear sense of purpose and identity in their style of play have rarely been characteristics they tend to display during these competitions.
An Irish Solution?
The importance in which we hold international underage football seems to have diminished in the time since Brian Kerr was an employee of the FAI. This may well have much to do with the austerity with which the Association's budgets have had to operate within. Recent underage managerial appointments appear to reflect this.
However, it can be argued that the distance we have slid in international standings at underage level is central to the paucity of young players we have had entering the senior squad in recent years. This needs to be rectified as a priority, perhaps with the improvement in revenues that the European Championships may provide.
There has been a reduction in the demand from English clubs for young Irish players, partly due to the scouting market for young talent becoming more global. There has also been a significant increase in the amount of current internationals who have started their senior careers at League of Ireland clubs. Despite these facts, our best young players are still likely to leave our shores at the 15/16 age.
There is an opportunity now, with the new FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown to establish an educative infrastructure where our young players receive a thorough schooling in an Irish playing identity that is consistent through each group and where the value and importance of representing the national team is impressed upon them throughout the process.
With a limited playing pool, we need to do more to ensure that those who do make it through to senior international level are able to collectively achieve optimum performances and fully relish the responsibility they have been given.
Fantastic illustration provided by @howayaprints, available to purchase at www.howaya.ie