EA Sports National Leagues launched as FAI Youth Development seeks to work smarter because the little things ‘make a big difference’

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ONE of the notable things about EA Sports’ National Leagues media launch this week was that no one was making the sale to it.

Barely two weeks after launching an FAI strategy with lofty tournament qualification goals and an announcement of wanting to hold one, it was just small steps.

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Craig Sexton, Head of Academy, Bohemians at the EA SPORTS National Minor Leagues 2022 Season Launch
Pictured at the launch are, left to right, Craig Sexton, Academy Manager, Bohemians, Liam Kearney, Academy Manager, Cork City, Mark Scanlon, League of Ireland Manager, Conor O' Grady, Academy Director, Sligo Rovers, and Isabelle Connolly, Bray Wanderers Under-17 Coach

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Pictured at the launch are, left to right, Craig Sexton, Academy Manager, Bohemians, Liam Kearney, Academy Manager, Cork City, Mark Scanlon, League of Ireland Manager, Conor O’ Grady, Academy Director, Sligo Rovers, and Isabelle Connolly, Bray Wanderers Under-17 Coach

FAI club academy director Will Clarke explained it as the pursuit of “low hanging fruit” at the moment – the little things that can make a big difference.

Clarke and the FAI have ambitions and opinions about what is needed to transform youth development in Ireland. But it costs money that they don’t have.

So for now, it’s all about working smarter.

Clarke talked about going through the available data and making changes based on that.

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He referred to how the stats suggest attacking players are getting first-team opportunities at a younger age, even more so in the Premier Division than in the First.

In the Premier Division, only 21% of players under 21 are defensive players. It is 41% in the first.

They have made changes to the league format, increasing the number of matches from a minimum of 19 to 30. This is still below the European average of 43, but a necessary step.

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Increasing Under-14 and Under-15 games from 80 minutes to 90 minutes will add up over the course of a season.

Likewise, leagues are split mid-term, so the better ones play better more often, while weaker teams will have competitive games to develop on rather than being beaten every week.

The FAI took a leaf out of England’s book and allowed a limited number of older players to play at different levels.

Given the improvement in the England squad in recent years, it’s worth exploring.

But there are bigger issues.

Clarke highlighted last year how, while England academy players receive 15 more hours of training a year than their Irish counterparts at under-14 level, this rises to 343 hours at under-17 level .

The gap is smaller now, but it is marginal. The big change requires full-time coaches. There are six in the LOI academies. By contrast, Azerbaijan employs 26 people per club.

Again, the changes are about data and working smarter, but at some point a big investment will be needed.

Clarke said: “Creating an industry is a key part of the strategy. It’s something we certainly want to do by sitting down with the key partners – not just the government, but the sponsors and the clubs themselves.

“We have to try to show that youth development pays off and encourage that.

“The strategy is to present our vision to the government and we need help and support for that.”

This is the big sell that football has to make.

As Clarke pointed out, “Time is not their friend. Even if we are progressing and moving in the right direction, we must accelerate this rate of progress.

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