Schools soccer strikes back
Irish Times Newspaper, Tue, May 13, 2008
Soccer has not always been welcome in schools. But a new grassroots initiative by the FAI is starting to make a difference, writes GRÁINNE FALLER.
'THE NATION holds its breath." That evening in June was softly sunny, but Irish streets were deserted. Silence as we could scarcely bear to hope, and then roars of joy as David O'Leary's penalty slipped past the Romanian goalkeeper. It was the summer of Italia '90: People cheered, old men cried and children dashed out to stage their own penalty shoot-outs. No matter who knew what about soccer, we played more that summer than we ever had before.
The expectation was that Ireland's success would continue, that a whole generation inspired by the Charlton era would grow up both with skills and a passion for the game.
But, despite some underage success, the expected harvest never materialised. Enthusiasm was not matched by resources at grassroots level and, without players coming through, things slipped back.
"I don't think the FAI was ready for Italia '90," says Liam McGroarty, Grassroots Manager with the FAI. "There was no strategic thinking in that era."
While the FAI has organised schools football since 1968, there has always been a significant lack of money, facilities and even proper coaching in schools. When John Delaney became chief executive, he brought with him a commitment to develop the game from the bottom up. Resources and a schools strategic plan have been put in place and a significant change is already being seen. An emphasis on improving participation, competition, education and administration is beginning to pay off.
Already, soccer is becoming more of a feature of the school landscape. The FAI has put in place development officers who work to promote soccer in communities and schools. Back in 2002, each development officer looked after approximately three counties. Now there is an officer in almost every county, with 30 in the Dublin area alone.
Of course, the sport has not always been welcome in schools, especially those that traditionally play rugby or Gaelic games. However, the fact that, nowadays, a number of Ireland's international schoolboy players come from the Dublin "rugby schools" (see panel) may signal changed times.
Curiously, primary schools often present more of a challenge than secondary schools. Denis Hyland, an FAI development officer in the Fingal area of Dublin, elaborates: "Sometimes you'll have a principal who is mad into the Gaelic or the hurling who isn't gone on the idea of soccer."
The primary-school focus on Gaelic games has much to do with the fact that trainee teachers have received coaching education from the GAA in the colleges of education for years. Now the FAI is making inroads into the training colleges, providing coaching courses for student teachers as well as training for qualified teachers in schools.
"It makes sense for children to play all sports until they are about 12 or 13," says McGroarty. "While you are always going to have the odd principal who is more aligned to a particular sport, I think there is more of an understanding of the need for variety now. The grassroots development is all about participation. That's music to teachers' ears."
Interestingly, the biggest growth in the game has been in women's football. Pobalscoil Neasáin in Baldoyle, Dublin, for example, is holding a 10-team under-18 girls' futsal tournament. The introduction of futsal, a fast-moving game with rules that prevent time-wasting, has proved hugely popular with girls. "There was no pathway in the sport for girls before," says development officer Sharon Boyle. "Now there are teams, tournaments and scholarships for them once they leave school."
Robbie Fennell, a teacher in St Mary's Secondary School, Baldoyle, has observed the growth. "It's not just about the sport. The girls do coaching courses; they had to run a tournament themselves. The futsal is great. There are girls who never played camogie or basketball who love it. There wasn't much in Baldoyle in the way of girls' soccer till now," says Fennell.
"Three or four years ago there wouldn't have been an under-18s soccer tournament for girls," says Ian Carey, the National Development Officer for Schools. "This year we even had an under-18s B tournament which was just fantastic."
The investment is paying off in participation terms at least. The EA Sports Primary Five-A-Side tournament, for example, will have 16,000 players participating this year,- up from about 12,000 last year.
"Schools are absolutely integral to the future of football in Ireland," says McGroarty. "Teachers who do the Buntús coaching programme, for example, can deliver soccer coaching to children as young as four or five. It's all fun at that stage but they are still developing the skills they need."
"It's just growing so fast," says Gerard Dunne, National Co-ordinator for Schools, Colleges and Universities. "It's hard to quantify right now, but I would estimate that about 2,000 kids are being reached each week by the various activities that are going on around the country."
Teams at second level have had some significant international success this year which bodes well for the future. "I think in six or seven years, we will really see the rewards of this effort," says McGroarty. "Players will be better from an international perspective, and that, eventually, is what it's all about."
A kick-start in life
"I went to St Vincent's Glasnevin, which was a big Gaelic school. It wasn't until about third or fourth year that we actually managed to get a soccer team together. There were a number of lads who played with Home Farm at the time.
"Two of our teachers, Jim Ryan and John Horan, would have helped coach the team to begin with. They would have had roots in Gaelic and hurling rather than soccer, but in our first or second year, we actually made it to the Leinster final in Tolka Park and we won. There wasn't anything like the grassroots organisation in those days. It may have been different in other areas but we really kick-started the whole process ourselves. I played soccer with Home Farm and a bit of Gaelic with Na Fianna. It became difficult to marry the two, though, and deep down I just had more of a passion for soccer. That said, I did actually get to play for the Dublin Minors before I left Ireland. That was a one-time, never-to-be-repeated experience because we got knocked out, but it was great to do.
"What's happening now is great.
Getting the right coaching is important, and the earlier you get it the better. It probably wasn't really until I went over to England that I had a proper structured experience of coaching. I was 18 by that stage, which is really too late. Now, you have the opportunity to involve young kids and breed good habits, so that by the time they're 14 or 15, they have the foundation. The FAI is investing money and personnel into this and targeting the kids at a young age.
"The fact that there are more opportunities at home and that there is a clearer path for young players to follow can only be a good thing. It's not a black-and-white thing but predominantly I felt that as an 18-year-old I was in a better position to deal with everything on and off the pitch than maybe the 15-year-olds. It can be a very big move no matter how talented you are."
Former Republic of Ireland captain Kenny Cunningham in conversation with Gráinne Faller.
Centenary Shield: Irish U-18 winning team
This year, the FAI 's Republic of Ireland international schools team won the Centenary Shield. The under-18 panel listed below beat England, Wales and Northern Ireland and drew with Scotland en route to victory.
Shane Clarke CBS Sexton Street, Limerick and Wembley Rovers; Oisin McMenamin St Eunan's, Letterkenny and Finn Harps; Jake Kelly St Laurence College, Loughlinstown and St Joseph's Boys; John Mulroy Moyle Park College, Clondalkin and Bray Wanderers; David Webster Templeogue College and Bray Wanderers; Declan Edwards Blackrock College and St Joseph's Boys; Gary Murphy Oatlands College, Stillorgan and St Joseph's Boys; Jack Flynn Belvedere College and St Patrick's Athletic; Sean Houston St Eunan's, Letterkenny and Fanad Utd; Gerard Cheevers St Mary's College, Galway and Salthill Devon; Brian Collopy CBS Sexton Street, Limerick and Wembley Rovers; Jason Hughes CBS Sexton Street, Limerick and Lourdes Celtic; Kevin Barry CBS Sexton Street, Limerick and Wembley Rovers; Mark McGinley Falcarragh, Letterkenny and Fanad Utd; Mark O'Reilly Chanel College, Dublin and WFTA; Paddy Madden Chanel College, Dublin and WFTA; Peter Acheson Rockwell College, Co Tipperary and Clonmel Town FC; Philip Hand Chanel College, Dublin and WFTA; Robbie Creevy Salesian College, Celbridge and Shamrock Rovers; Philip Knight Clonkeen College, Blackrock and St Joseph's Boys.