The first time I met Wim Koevermans we spoke about how I had played football as a child. I recalled chasing a ball around on a muddy sloping field in driving rain near Ballyheigue, Co.Kerry. He smiled and told me he had similar stories and that he thought much of the technique he developed came from street games rather than early formal training. It was his opportunity to explain why 11-a-side games for kids are detrimental and the country had to look at small sided games where kids got more touches during a match, developing technique and having more fun doing so. His explanation was detailed, sensible and passionate. I was on board.
When it was announced Koevermans had been appointed as head coach of the Indian national team my immediate reaction was disappointment. We’d lost a vital figurehead in the moves to improve football through all levels in the country. It’s a great opportunity for him in a country where football is genuinely undergoing a rapid growth and transformation, even if India’s world ranking is in the 160s, but it may stunt the good work which has been undertaken by Koevermans and the FAI in recent years.
We’ve seen the introduction of a strong emerging talent programme and a gradual move to small sided games in schoolboy football. The women’s game has developed hugely in the last number of years, both in quality and promotion and perhaps most importantly, we have had a national underage league launched at U19 level with an U17 League in development. All these are hugely positive steps though Koevermans has been criticised too for not achieving more in the role and for the capping of foreign-born players over domestically trained youngsters at underage level.
The criticism of achievement is an unfair one. The Head of High Performance has possibly the most difficult brief in all of the FAI, largely because of the fractured nature of the game in the country. Many look at the senior international squad and assume there is a clear hierarchy within the game in the country, which is simply not the case. It’s worth pointing out that it took two years of negotiating across the different sports bodies to introduce the U19 National League.
In Ireland we do not have the luxury of the FAI being in a position to issue mandates to which all levels and organisations within the game will adhere, their hands are tied in many respects. Over the coming year, two of the three district schoolboys’ leagues in Dublin will adopt the small sided games model, which is a huge step forward. One of the Dublin schoolboys’ leagues, as I write, will not. That there can be such disparity across a single county at schoolboy level is a clear barrier to development of a consistent player pathway.
The transition to small sided games is an important one, but will only work if complemented by coaches who look beyond a warm-up and a kick around as training and this is something Koevermans understood. He consistently rolled out sessions to improve the lot of coaching in the country, though the prices do need to be reviewed in terms for courses above Youth Cert level to make them accessible.
There are fantastic people involved in coaching across every schoolboy association across the country but there is still not a coherent unified approach, nor are there genuine minimum standards of coaching. We talk a lot in this country about player pathway, but we have to include a coaching pathway alongside it.
The Emerging talent programme which Koevermans led has been a hugely positive step and academy structures are starting to develop around the country, but overall still fall short of providing the estimated 10,000 hours of quality coaching that is looked on as the standard to produce a top quality player. Work remains to be completed.
We should be starting to see the benefits of the system but consistency across the standards of coaching is important, especially in terms of adapting to differing styles of play. I watched many teams in the recent Kennedy Cup in UL, almost all playing 4-4-2. We are far behind other countries in the use of Futsal to develop players and skills, now a recognised and vital tool in skills development.
We are at a critical point in the development of the game here, in the wake of the losses at Euro 2012 there has been an understandable demand for change and review. The FAI and Koevermans have taken important steps but the appointment to replace Koevermans is key. The national U17 league has to come on line so that Airtricity league clubs, where there are strictly defined coaching standards, can bring graduates of the programme directly into clubs and continue their development. There has to be movement to the small sided game across all schoolboy associations.
Importantly, there has to be a structure developed within this country so that we can nurture talent at home rather than export it to UK clubs, which themselves are facing their own crises of player development. There has to be a clear pathway for any promising eight or nine year-old in this country that shows consistent coaching and development right the way to the international senior side, incorporating schoolboy football, the Emerging talent programme, colleges and universities and the FAI coaching set-up, all working together.
The move away from the long ball game is a long game in itself, Koevermans had taken key first steps on a lengthy journey to change the outlook of football in the country, it’s vital that the FAI’s next Head of High Performance continues on the same path.
John O'Sullivan is current Chief Executive Officer of Athlone Town. He is a former Chairman of Cork City FC.