No player welfare means no future players - Underage leagues need addressing

Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS.

 The Enda McGuill cup is the blue ribbon event of underage LOI football. 

The Enda McGuill cup is the blue ribbon event of underage LOI football. 

Earlier this week I wrote a piece for the excellent Pogmogol.com on Brian Kerr's recent comments regarding the future of youth football in this country and how the FAI were now responsible for bringing about elitism to developmental football and the negative impact it was having on the junior ranks in Ireland. Given Kerr's strong League of Ireland connections I was one of many who were shocked and in strong disagreement with the former St.Pat's managers views, leading me to write the piece for PogMoGol on why the League of Ireland's underage leagues were without a doubt the best way forward for young players in Ireland. 

However, having taken in a number of LOI youth team matches across all three age brackets (under 15, under 17 & under 19) I now have major concerns regarding the operation of these leagues. And while I still stand by my views that the FAI's newly established leagues are the best opportunity for us to develop the nations next generation, that simply will not happen if a number of issues are not addressed imminently by the powers that be in Abottstown. 

Just this weekend I arrived at the City Calling Stadium in Longford for an exciting match-up between "De Town's" under 15's side and UCD AFC. Having committed to publish live match updates on the day, I soon found myself dashing into the ground to make the 1pm kick-off time. At the gate I was met by the coaching staff of both teams. They informed me they were waiting on the match officials, who had failed to turn up for duty. Frantic phone-calls to the league director were made and eventually, thirty-five minutes after kick-off was scheduled for, a referee and a lineman arrived at the ground. Sooner after a second assistant referee made his way into the CCS changing rooms and we were informed a 2pm kick-off would mow take place. This left both sets of management having to redo their warm up procedures in order to ensure no muscle injuries would occur to their young stars. When you consider this is the league being championed as the elite of Irish football at under 15 level, the lack of professionalism from everyone but the players and coaching staff on the day was simply unforgivable. Sadly, this is far from an isolated incident since the LOI underage leagues began a few seasons ago, while the Women's National League has also faced the exact same issue as the females game continues to fight for respect of its own.  

From speaking to parents, players, coaches and from observing plenty of games personally, the standard, or total lack of standards, in terms of refereeing appears to be the biggest issue surrounding those involved with underage LOI at present. There seems to be a policy of using local referees to officiate matches and while this makes sense in terms of cutting costs, it certainly doesn't make any sense in terms of professionalism in a league that is designed to produce the professional players of the future. Many of these local referees are of the older generation and appear unable to keep up with the pace of play in these elite level youth matches, most would certainly not pass the rigorous fitness tests if they were to try their hand at senior LOI level, not to mention the most important aspect of officiating, getting decisions right. Many of the underage LOI games I have taken in have often become heated affairs with bust-ups emerging both on and off the pitch due to officials not taking control of events and allowing some serious tackles to go unpunished. As a result, the poor level of officiating has not only become a footballing issue but one of player safety and that can not be allowed continue by those charged with the running of these leagues. 

In a separate issue but one that must also be noted, the lack of up and coming talent in the world of refereeing is something being cited by governing bodies all across the globe, however, the underage LOI divisions persist in allowing local referees to collect a handy few euros despite not meeting a standard that should be demanded at an elite level. Any coach worth his grain will tell you results are the very last thing they look for in terms of youth team football, it is all about player development and how many youngsters you can get promoted to the next age bracket. In that sense, why can the FAI not look at the underage leagues in the exact same sense and use it as a breeding ground for the next generation of match officials, which seem to be non existent at present. If the answer is that there are not enough young referees coming through then it is up to the FAI to take a serious look at their referee education programme and why it is not yielding results but in the meanwhile, referee's assessors are going to have to be brought in at this youth level, even at sporadic games, to ensure match officials who simply aren't up to scratch are kept away at a crucial stage in young players developmental process. 

 Dundalk's young stars play their underage games on the exact same pitch as Stephen Kenny's Lilywhite heros.

Dundalk's young stars play their underage games on the exact same pitch as Stephen Kenny's Lilywhite heros.

When the underage LOI set-up began, there seemed to be an impetus on playing out matches on the main pitch at each of the clubs grounds. This not only gave the youngsters a taste of the big stage so to speak, but it usually ensured a decent playing surface bar the odd exception. However, with the introduction of more age brackets over the past twenty-four-months or so, clubs have begun to opt for secondary pitches in order to save the playing surface for their senior sides. While this is totally understandable, it has left some undesirable conditions for young players to try and play their game on. There has been huge debate recently on the role of 4G playing surfaces at the senior level of domestic football, but surely it is time we invested in artificial surfaces for our youth teams, who for the majority are been coached to play the game the right way. 

Finally, as stated in my article for Pogmogol.com, the lack of a bridging league between the final step of youth team football (under-19) and the senior game is far too big. While LOI football is quickly becoming a young man’s league, with very few players over the age of thirty playing regularly, the physical adjustment seems unrealistic in such a short time frame. What is needed is a bridging league, let it be a reserve league, where fringe first-team players would play alongside the clubs most promising underage talent and players who are too old for 19’s football but just needing more time before making the senior step up, or an under-23’s league, a solution needs to be found to avoid losing vast quantities of talent at the rate we currently are.