It is fair to say that the elevation of James McLean to the Sunderland first team has been one of the most uplifting aspects of the remarkable way Martin O’Neill has revitalized the club since succeeding Steve Bruce as manager. The boldness of O’Neill’s decision to throw the Derry-born 22 year old into the side as soon as he took over was as admirable as the way McLean has acquitted himself ever since getting his chance against Blackburn Rovers in December. The comfort level he’s enjoyed in the Premier League is a tribute to the player and also to the League of Ireland from which he was sprung just last summer.
Of course, no sooner had McLean started a game than the speculation began about whether he should be going to the Euros with Ireland this summer. The jury remains out on whether he’s up to making that jump this early in his development even if the story has legs mostly because he used to play for Northern Ireland. In any case, all previous evidence regarding Trapattoni’s rather conservative approach to squad selection suggests this debate seems to be moot. Does anybody really see the Italian catapulting somebody onto the plane after half a season starting in England?
That said, there is something troubling about McLean’s emergence. It’s not that his raw talent doesn’t bode well for the future. Or that he looks like he may become the type of player who could be pivotal to the Republic’s campaigns over the next decade. It’s about his background. Here is a player whose development as a footballer had very little if anything to do with the FAI. They may well give him an FAI blazer this summer but it won’t change the fact he was born and bred under the auspices of the IFA.
Think about it. McLean grew up in the Creggan in Derry city. Indeed, it’s uplifting to read locals up there talk about seeing this player put in so much extra work over the years to try to make it in the game. But he played all of his soccer in his formative years with Trojans, a club that play in the Derry and District League, a competition which ultimately is overseen by the IFA. Like any promising kid in Northern Ireland, he saw action in the Milk Cup, the annual festival of international football that takes place there. He played for Northern Ireland in that event.
My point here is that McLean’s arrival on the scene looks like being a boon for the Irish team going forward. However, the FAI can take no credit for the emergence of what looks like being our newest creative threat. The only time the FAI ever had any input into McLean’s career was when he played for Derry City in the League of Ireland. Other than that admittedly crucial stage in his development, everything else that went into making this guy the player he is was down to the structures and coaching available in Northern Ireland.
Why is this important? It’s important because qualifying for the European Championships this summer is going to gloss over a lot of what is wrong with the game in Ireland. The country will wring so much fun out of the fortnight in Poland that it will seem churlish to point out the conveyor belt of Irish talent isn’t exactly overworked of late. And hasn’t been for some time. The FAI can take credit for McLean switching allegiances but they made no contribution to his growth as a player and that is, unfortunately, part of a disturbing pattern.
By any objective estimate, Spartak Moscow’s Aiden McGeady and Wigan Athletic’s James McCarthy are two of the brighter, young Irish talents. Again, the FAI had nothing to do with them emerging as quality players. They were born and, as footballers at least, made in Scotland. The SFA’s structures and competitions are what helped them become the exciting prospects they are today. The FAI did well to get them to come on board but, again, that’s all they did. The same story applies to Shane Duffy.
Over the past couple of weeks, Duffy has starred for an injury-hit Everton, playing like a veteran central defender despite the fact he’s just 20. Already, there’s a sense around Goodison Park that this guy could turn into a true stalwart. This will benefit Ireland hugely but he’s a Northern Ireland product. Aside from learning his trade with Foyle Harps in Derry, Duffy played alongside McLean for the Northern Ireland U-19s in the 2008 Milk Cup. Indeed, that was where and when Everton spotted his ability and started to go after his signature.
Against this background, it’s easy to see why Northern Ireland and Scotland are getting annoyed. They invest hugely in their coaching structures and in their competitions in order to afford their players the opportunity to learn and grow. Then they watch the Republic of Ireland swoop in and take advantage of all the work they put in. Essentially, the FAI are the magpies of underage football, waiting and watching before prowling. Yes, we know it’s legal and players can pick and choose their national allegiances within the rules but there’s something even more worrying here.
Why aren’t there more players born in the Republic of Ireland coming through to star for Premier League clubs and to knock on the doors of the international squad? How come a tiny place like Northern Ireland can produce McLean and Duffy (and even Darron Gibson now that he looks like becoming a player again!) in such a short spell? What are the Scots doing so right than they end up bringing forth the likes of McGeady and McCarthy? Aside from Seamus Coleman, where are the Irish equivalents? Where are the Roy Keanes, the Damien Duffs and the Robbie Keanes of this generation? Are they there at all or do we have to wait for Northern Ireland to put in more work so the FAI can pick the low-hanging fruit?