From top: Troy Parrott (second left), celebrates with, from left, Jason Knight, Cameron Ledwidge and Barry Coffey during the UEFA U17 Championship Finals group between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Republic of Ireland in Burton-upon-Trent, England last May; Luke Brennan
When I first saw Robbie Keane play football, I thought “I know a Robbie Keane when I see one, and that Robbie Keane, is a Robbie Keane”. The question on every football fan’s lips these days, is “Where will we find the next Robbie Keane?”.
The FAI now have one of the most useful tools available in unearthing another Robbie Keane. They have, Robbie Keane. The thinking is that it takes a Robbie Keane to catch a Robbie Keane.
As they revealed Keane to the press, they had only one question, but dared not ask it: as Robbie leant down to sign on the dotted line, winking at the cameras, humming “There’s only one Robbie Keane” to himself.
“Will you be ringing Declan Rice, Robbie?”
I will in me swiss, thought Robbie, humming quietly to himself. “Yeah”, he said, “Meself and Mick will get the boy sorted”, wondering why anyone with half a million followers on Instagram would ring anyone.
You see, we don’t need another Robbie Keane, nor do we need Declan Rice.
It doesn’t matter if you are making sausages or running the Irish football team, the recipe for success is a steady supply of good raw material.
When you get that part right, you don’t end up relying on one player being your only goal-every-second-game striker for 20 years. We were lucky to have him, but we’re even luckier to have moved on.
I haven’t watched Premiership football in 20 years. I still won’t watch it. Everything from the prawn sandwiches to the wall-to-wall betting slogans winds me up, never mind the harm it does the Irish game.
I was living and working in the UK when I turned my back on it. I was placing in the top 5 of a company-wide fantasy football competition and had a “moment of clarity”, thinking I’d be better off spending my time working out what makes the factories of the world work than wasting any intellectual real estate on the Premiership.
I’m slightly disgusted with myself for even writing about it in passing; but it’s a necessary part of the good news that I bring.
Ireland are on the up.
They have been steadily improving their underage performance, the U17s were ranked 24th in Europe back in 2015, they’ve moved to 12th this year (Irish players Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly winning the golden boot for most qualification goals in the 2017 and 2018 competitions along the way).
At very least, we’ve got a golden generation.
There are half a dozen Irish teenagers making the bench in the Premiership this season, one even got a goal (Michael Obafemi scored the first premiership goal of the season by an Irish forward, in December). There are as many Irish teenagers in the English second division making it onto the pitch.
But that is nothing compared to what they are doing in the second string and underage
teams. In English underage football, the Irish are providing 5% of the players, but 12% of the goals.
They are learning their craft, captaining their teams, scoring winning goals with a relish that implies a new confidence. Heroism is an art; leadership a learnt skill. The Irish captains of the future are lining out for their club’s FA Youth cup teams in far greater numbers.
Last week Southampton’s youth team was captained by Kameron Ledwidge, formally of St.Kevin’s boys, Dublin. They were beaten 2-1 by Watford, captained by scorer of both goals, Ryan Cassidy, another St. Kevin’s alumni.
In another fourth-round tie, Preston beat Norwich, captained by Adam O’Reilly, defeating his former Cork schoolboy team-mate (and Norwich leading underage goal-scorer) Adam Idah.
There are other young captains, such as Stoke City’s Nathan Collins and Bolton’s Luca Connell. There is Troy Parrot at Tottenham. James Jennings, Ethan Varian, Will Ferry and Jason Knight all average a goal every other game for their Premier league youth teams. Parrot averages a goal a game.
I saw Ryan Nolan from Limerick captaining Inter Milan’s U19 team. I saw Ryan Johansson come on for 20 minutes as centre forward for Bayern Munich’s U19 team against Barcelona U19. He was the best player on the pitch.
All these players should put in a good performance at this year’s U19 championship. The 2020 U19 championship is being held just up the road in Northern Ireland, we can expect a good result in what is almost a local tournament.
Ireland’s U21 team will be building towards the 2021 finals in Slovenia. The hope is that the 2023 finals, when this golden-age of Irish football comes good, will be an all-Ireland hosted event.
A good result in that, would mean an Irish team would qualify for the 2024 Olympics. Plenty of opportunity to practice heroics, make mistake, learn, grow, yielding a mature and practiced squad.
We should also ask another question. What if that is the new normal? What if the wealth, prosperity, new genetic input and solid sports management is giving that result as a constant?
What if we’ve got the product pipeline right? What if there is another generation to follow?
Truth is we would need it.
Again, It doesn’t matter if you are making sausages or building an international football team; you need a product pipeline. Unlike sausage recipes, players wear out. You need to have been producing consistently over time to have a shot.
Did someone say we have a chance at a World cup? The future is bright, but the future is ten years away. Roll on World Cup 2030.
Luke Brennan is an Ireland born, Portugal-based writer, entrepreneur and sports fan.
Top Pic: Malcolm Couzens/Sportsfile