Stronger link needed between League of Ireland and the national team

The Republic of Ireland head into tonight’s World Cup Qualifier against the Faroe Islands as firm favourites; they sit eight points clear of the North Sea islanders in Group C and Ireland’s starting XI contains some proven Premier League quality.

One thing the Faroes can hold over Giovanni Trapattoni’s men though is the number of home-based players they have in their squad; at least four are expected to start tonight’s game in the Aviva. Ireland’s recent good form – taking Euro 2012 into account – has somewhat glossed over the fact that there is a notable lack of players involved in the Irish squad that either play or have played in the League of Ireland.

Many people will argue the points that the League of Ireland is a semi-professional competition and that many Irish youngsters get snapped up by English academies, but the figures don’t lie: only three of Ireland’s starters tonight – David Forde, Séamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan – have ever featured in the League of Ireland during their careers. The fact that no player in the current Irish squad plays in the domestic league highlights the diminishing standards of the game in Ireland.

When asked the question of “Who do you support?” in Ireland, the majority of responses will be the name of an English club and amazingly, there is usually no backlash or no patriotic call to support your local team.

From an early age, I and the rest of my generation have grown up immersed in the world of the English Premiership; in the newspapers, on the television and even now through Fantasy Football online. Described as the best league in the world, contentious decisions or incidents across the Irish Sea are often the subject of conversations amongst sports fans in Ireland. In the meantime, the League of Ireland – which does receive a relatively good following for its size – is left on the sidelines or even left alone altogether.

I admittedly have attended more League of Ireland games than Premiership matches in my life, but that is not out of choice; it is simply down to locality and convenience. Airtricity League teams do have loyal fan bases, but matches under the Friday night lights have small attendances compared to their European counterparts.

We have seen in recent times – thanks to the hard work of Shamrock Rovers in 2011 – that Irish football clubs have the potential to feature on the European stage, but these occasions come around all too rarely.

Séamus Coleman has made a smooth transition from League of Ireland to the national side

Séamus Coleman has made a smooth transition from League of Ireland to the national side

The accessibility that English and Scottish clubs have to our youth development clubs in Ireland is certainly having a detrimental factor on the League of Ireland. The top players coming through the ranks in clubs like Home Farm and St. Joseph’s Boys can be easily scouted by clubs in the UK and the lure of working in a state-of-the-art academy is too hard for the teenagers to turn down. This process deprives the Irish clubs of budding talent and consequently has a negative knock-on effect on the league.

Both Séamus Coleman and James McClean are proof that potential international talent can be developed at Irish clubs, and the league needs more of these success stories in order to put forward a strong case to encourage young Irish players to stay on home soil.

Too often, players are released from English academies aged 17 or 18 and are left at a crossroads of what to do with their careers. If the FAI were to work with Irish clubs to establish an academy system to rival or at least challenge English clubs, this issue could be addressed.

When the Irish team line up tonight to sing Amhrán na BhFiann, the players wearing the green jersey will be familiar to the fans watching. However, the inability to watch Irish internationals play on a weekly basis is an issue that could lead to the further demise of the League of Ireland.

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