Is Europe the best place to develop Irish talent?

The previous international break was disappointing for the Republic of Ireland team. The Boys In Green lost comprehensively in Athens, before beating Gibraltar in an unconvincing manner. Stephen Kenny has bled through the next generation of the Irish senior team; however, a constant complaint has been the lack of elite ability from these players, with only Evan Ferguson, Seamus Coleman, and Gavin Bazunu starting regularly in the Premier League last season.

The majority of the Irish squad will either sit on the bench in the Premier League or play regularly in the Championship and League 1. This lack of exposure to the elite level may be hindering the progress of this Irish squad, and this summer has been viewed as an important period for many of these players as they look to secure transfers to clubs in the Premier League or other clubs in England to secure regular first team football. Yet this may not be the best path for Irish players to experience top-level European football.

On both sides of the Irish Sea, the majority of players seem to disregard mainland Europe as an option to progress their careers. The Premier League is arguably the most enticing league in Europe for elite-level footballers – but it is certainly not the only major league; La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga are all behemoths within the world of football.

As Irish players struggle to succeed within the Premier League, more should look to Europe to play in a major league and develop their careers. The players could use this pathway to help secure a future move back to the Premier League if desired by demonstrating their ability against European giants in these leagues. Many young Irish players have started using this as an alternative pathway into elite professional football, with Serie A being a driving force for developing Irish talent.

Serie A clubs have started scouting in Ireland and the League of Ireland to discover players they can develop for their team, or sell on for a profit. James Abankwah, Fetsy Ebosele, and John Ryan have all taken the journey to Italy. The players have all made positive strides since their moves to Italy, with both Abankwah and Ebosele playing for Udinese, and Ryan has gone on to make sixteen appearances for Sassuolo U19s this season.

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The reason for this focus on scouting young talent within Ireland has come about due to the financial situation for many Italian sides following the loss of Sky as the broadcast partner and the nearing expiration of the DAZN partnership. Italian clubs have had to manage their finances more meticulously and look for alternative ways in which to maximise their profits, with one answer being the scouting of talented young players from the smaller leagues throughout Europe to replace their current bankable stars – or to develop these players to make a profit by selling them in the future.

Serie A is only one major league that they could join, but the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga, Eredivisie, and Primeira Liga are all in the same boat. The power of Premier League clubs makes it difficult for the majority of clubs to compete financially, unless they are elite clubs in these leagues. Across Europe, clubs in these smaller leagues must look to fund their clubs through player sales and scout future talent to replace first-team talent or to sell on. They will provide opportunities to young players in order to develop them for first-team football or to help increase their transfer value, and this pathway would provide first-team football to young Irish players if they worked hard and demonstrated the ability that they have already shown to get scouted for these sides.

Josh Cullen took the risk of joining Anderlecht in 2020 after many years in the West Ham academy and numerous loan spells in the lower leagues of England. Following his move to the Belgian giants, Cullen became a vital piece of Vincent Kompany’s setup – earning him a move to Burnley where he continued as a key component for Kompany as they worked their way back to the Premier League. Cullen now looks set to shine in England’s top flight, having exposed himself to the first-team European football in Belgium.

Playing academy football is important for the development of young players, but the need to expose these players to elite men’s football is necessary to continue their growth within the game. More Irish players should use the example set by Cullen to ignite their careers.

However, there seems to be three major issues stopping many Irish players from taking this step to further their careers. The first is the obvious worry of moving to a less financially robust league, meaning that they will not receive the same level of pay they would receive playing in England. This is an understandable concern as it is their profession, and the livelihood of a player is important as it is a short career and they need to ensure they can support their responsibilities. Yet, the possibility of playing more football to potentially secure a move for more money in the future should be a driving force to entice them. The second concern is the language – learning another language can be difficult for many individuals; however, the majority of people in European nations and particularly top clubs
will be able to speak some English or provide you with somewhere to learn the local language. The third concern may be homesickness and the change of culture. This change in routine and movement away from friends and family can always be difficult, but for many players, clubs will look to rectify this as best as possible and accommodate solutions to this problem.

The career for the majority of Irish players has been relatively similar: either the player will be scouted young to an academy in England and develop to either play for that club or move around clubs in the UK and Ireland throughout his career; or the player will develop in the League of Ireland and secure a move to England having impressed for his Irish club.

Having said that, these pathways look ever more difficult as Premier League clubs require immediate success and can acquire the best talent in the world, meaning that there are fewer opportunities for young Irish players. The top European leagues should be viewed as a way for young Irish players to develop and play elite-level football, but many established Irish players should also look to utilise these leagues to reignite their careers while playing against world-class clubs.

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