'We're Ireland - let's show people what we can do. It's not just about rolling our sleeves up - we can play.' - U16 coach Paul Osam
“The train of thought that is going around at the minute - that many commentators have said that it is in our DNA to play high up the pitch and to play a more direct style because that suits our psyche, our level of skill - or rather, our supposed lack of it. I just can’t agree with that. I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that.
“But that’s the narrative. And people believe that. And they are conditioned to believe it. And then we go back and blame how kids are coached at U10 or something. It is about having the ability to pass the ball, the ability to believe in yourself, to fulfil your potential as players and as a team and seeing where that takes you.” – Stephen Kenny
UPON his unveiling as Republic of Ireland international manager back in November 2013, Martin O’Neill had the assembled media eating out of his hand. A smooth deliverer of the one-liners, O’Neill had mentioned that the-then FAI chief John Delaney revealed to him that there was some great talent coming through the underage ranks.
‘A fat lot of good that will do me,’ O’Neill said.
Media and friends alike roared with laughter. Surveying the underbelly of talent coming through wasn’t what O’Neill was employed to do.
O’Neill’s singular objective was to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals which he duly managed. During both stints as Ireland manager Mick McCarthy interacted with the underage teams but generally there has been a cultural disconnect between the senior team and the feeder teams.
At times over the years you could question how effective the youth system was in Ireland and indeed many other countries who felt their senior team was under-performing. When Germany hit a wall late 90s they went back to basics. Likewise, Spain – and both reaped what they sowed at underage level by becoming world champions a generation later - in 2010 and 2014, respectively.
Not only was there never a culture of creating a meaningful vision for Irish football, apart from the defiantly patriotic up-and-at-them and you’ll-never-beat-the-Irish mantra, it never amounted to much.
What compounded Ireland’s woes was the game had moved on and become more about possession and high presses.
Ireland’s football under Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill, in particular, not only made for painful viewing, it was outmoded and largely ineffective. FIFA and UEFA making qualification much easier to qualify for major tournaments might have given a false impression that the Irish were going places but more often than not they were running on sand.
That trend may well continue under new senior boss Stephen Kenny – but it won’t be for the lack of trying to go in a different direction and to modernise Irish football.
Even before he officially took over from Mick McCarthy, Stephen Kenny was already articulating his vision for Irish football and wanted a defined style of play to pervade all teams at national level.
Former League of Ireland legend Paul Osam has been working with the Republic of Ireland’s U16 team since 2015 and is buoyed by the appointment of Kenny and how he wants to “connect” the youth teams with the senior team.
“I firmly believe there has to be a connection between the senior team and the underage teams all the way down,” said Osam, who enjoyed a medal-laden career with St Patrick’s Athletic before joining the FAI as a development officer in 2012 and becoming immersed in the Emerging Talent Programme.
“The senior international team is the pinnacle. It’s like practising law for six or seven years; you don’t go and do a bit of gardening, and then a bit of bricklaying – you’ve gone through the process, it’s about being able to do something at a certain time.
“It makes complete sense if I have an U16 player that he’s going to be educated through that year that will help him when he goes to the 17s, 18s up the 21s, that it’s a continuous pathway.
“And if he goes into the senior team and Stephen is asking him to do certain things it’s not going to be that alien to him because they will be through a similar style, similar philosophy and belief system with us through the underage teams. There’s no point in us doing one thing and the senior team doing something different."
Osam added: “I’m not privy to what went on before my time but certainly with Stephen – and you only have to look at our 21s – all those players came through a system of play. Now, of course, there are little tweaks and nuances along the way but they’re not being asked to do something that they’ve never done before.
“I totally agree with Stephen: just because you’re Irish doesn’t mean you can’t play a certain way. We’ve enough ability, we’ve enough knowledge and smartness about us to come up with the way of playing.”
Already in the role as senior manager Kenny has shown he’s not a prisoner to one formation over another. In his opening two games in charge he played a 4-3-3 before moving to a 4-2-3-1 which gave the back four more protection.
What didn’t change was the team’s desire to play out from the back and press the opposition higher up the field.
“I’m five years as U16 coach and from the start Ruud [Dokter, High Performance Director] would have been driving this high performance culture, playing through the thirds, playing preferably a 4-3-3 system – or some variation of that,” Osam explained.
“It’s not set in stone but the preferred philosophy and style of play is possession-based and we try to play through the thirds. That would be our preference and to enhance that, the best system to do that would be a 4-3-3.”
Osam (U16), Colin O’Brien (U17), Andy Reid (U18), Tom Mohan (U19) and Jim Crawford (U21) are all in regular contact with the senior manager probably to a degree that has never been seen before.
“We’ve got a really good group of managers now in the underage scene in the last number of years,” said Osam. “We all have the same beliefs, we all speak regularly, we’ve managers’ meetings once a month where Stephen is there. Stephen has been a breath of fresh air.
“I think his appointment was thoroughly deserved as he’s proven himself at club level in European competition against top nations. He built a fantastic team at Dundalk. I think it made perfect sense.
“We don’t need to go outside the country. I know Trapattoni had relative success but it wasn’t very attractive, let’s be honest about it. There was no real identity. You went to the Aviva and you didn’t really know what you were going to get; you weren’t on the edge of your seat. I thought Mick did a really, really good job; he was so humble and helpful to us [underage coaches].”
Given the unique nature of McCarthy’s contract, he didn’t have time – or perhaps the inclination - to lay foundations for the future with younger players as his and the FAI’s objective was simply to qualify for Euro 2020 before Covid struck.
And in any case, some of the U21s probably needed more time at their own grade before stepping up, even though Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly were given game-time under McCarthy, with some feeling both strikers warranted more time on the pitch.
Since Kenny has come in former U21s Jayson Molumby, Adam Idah, Josh Cullen and Jason Knight have been road-tested already at senior level.
“When Stephen was being spoken about for the senior job, I thought: why not? He’s passionate about the game. He has a love of the game. He sees the value in the Irish players and he knows we’re better than that Braveheart, get-up-and-get-at-them.
“He knows we can play and he saw that with his players at Dundalk. He has that belief in himself and the players that we can put it up to anybody – we’re Ireland: let’s show people what we can do. It’s not just about rolling our sleeves up - we can play.
“It’s not in Stephen to play conservative - he wants players to take chances, express themselves. He’s not the type to go in walking on eggshells. He’s fearless, absolutely fearless and that’s one of his greatest traits that I admire in him.”
Of course, all of Ireland’s underage teams have ceased due to Covid and the suspension will remain in place into 2021.
A technically gifted player in his day, Osam played most of his football when 4-4-2 was king.
It was only in the latter stages of his career, Liam Buckley opted to play a more enterprising 3-5-2. But the football, in general, was quite rugged and direct.
“There was none of this playing up from the back and second balls… It’s a different game now to when I started playing in the late 80s and early 90s. There is a lot more emphasis on tactics now and your centre backs need to be able to play – they can’t just be 6ft 4in fellas that can win headers and block balls; they need to be able to play, they need to be athletic, your goalkeeper needs to be able to play.”
But he doesn’t rule out teams going back to a more direct style of football, if only to overcome the high press that is all the rage in the modern game.
“In 20 years it could revert back the other way – 4-4-2, play direct, don’t be trying to play, get it forward, get corner-kicks and free-kicks. You never know, because you see a lot of teams press very aggressively and press very high so I’ve no problem going over the press because it’s not just playing hopeful, long balls.
“You might want the ball in an area where you may have a numerical advantage because the opposition has committed too many players forward. That’s part of a player’s education, to be aware of that and to go over the press with a longer ball… It fascinates me every time we play, the lessons you get and the little nuances of things and how opposition countries play.”
Last Wednesday night, the Republic of Ireland left Helsinki after losing 1-0 to Finland in the Nations League. That’s five games without a win under Stephen Kenny with no goals scored from open play.
Covid, more than anything, put paid to better results in some of those games. But the Irish revolution is taking shape. On all fronts…