Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drogheda Independent, Living in Drogheda supplement: Schoolchildren's league goes from strength to strength

Schoolboy soccer in Drogheda has changed drastically since its inception over two decades ago.

Before the schoolboy league was set up, the only soccer children in Drogheda could play was in the summer leagues which had been running for the previous fifty years. If local children wanted to play soccer from September to May, like the heroes of the clubs they supported across the water, they would have to join one of the teams plying their trade in the Dublin leagues, Boyne Rovers or Drogheda Boys.

Not anymore.

The Drogheda Concentrates Schoolschildren's League (DCSL) in Drogheda now organises for 16 leagues, catering for 1,700 children spread across 22 clubs and 142 teams - not bad for a league that began with just six teams and one pitch based in Rathmullen.

And while in the beginning the first five or six clubs were based in Drogheda, the majority of the clubs today now come from outside the local area, from places as far away as Kells and Dundalk.

The league initially featured just 11-a-side football matches before becoming one of the first leagues to introduce a 7-a-side league a few years after its inception. And seven years ago, a girls league was introduced which incorporates both 7-a-side and 11-a-side games today.

In 2001, Liam Callan of Albion Rovers became chairman of the league at a time when it was very close to being disbanded due to an inability to elect a committee. He would remain chairman for six years, stepping down in 2007. 

Under Callan's stewardship - with the help of his secretary Aidon Tallon and original founding member Ralph Bull - the league went from strength-to-strength with 20 clubs participating by the end of Callan's tenure, expanding to 22 after his departure. But Callan believes the league only had a small part to play in that growth spurt.

"It wasn't down to the league really, the interest was always there - it just needed to be harnessed," said Callan. "Also, the FAI had become a lot more professional at grassroots level."

"There were Kick Start 1 and Kick Start 2 coaching badges and clubs were sending their coaches to get those, and there were Emerging Talent Programmes (ETPs) and academies for kids, so it improved the standard of football in the area."

Callan himself got involved because he felt some clubs had a disproportionate say in decisions made by the league and he is happy with some aspects of what he achieved.

"We were a winter sport so it doesn't clash with the Gaelic, so we provided weekly football in the community," said Callan. "We ended up with 20 clubs at under 8s, 9s, 10s, 11s, 12s, 13s, and some of those [age groups] had three divisions."

Former fixtures secretary Graham Campbell - who Callan convinced to get involved in the league - used to play his schoolboy football in Drogheda so he has witnessed how the league has grown since his own playing days.

"I used to play schoolboy football in Drogheda and if you had the talent and didn't play there, you'd be playing in Dublin with Boyne Rovers and Drogheda Boys," said Campbell. "Today, the chance of playing in Drogheda and of making opportunities for themselves [the children] is fantastic. If you went to see the clubs in Drogheda now, the change in ethos, facilities and standards is impeccable."

In terms of young talent coming through that has been nurtured in Drogheda, they include Drogheda United's talented young left-back Eoghan Osbourne, Patrick Mboyo - who is part of the FAI's regional development squad - and ladies soccer's up-and-coming stars Megan Campbell and Shauna Newman. This suggests that a bright future is attainable for talented young players plying their trade in Drogheda schoolboy soccer.

Current secretary Paddy Griffin believes schoolboy soccer in Drogheda is important to the community for a number of reasons.

"From a very basic level, it's very important for all ages and levels," Griffin states. "It caters for a lot of ability levels and ages and it cuts across a lot of boundaries. It provides an opportunity for children to be included and to keep them healthy as it's a good physical activity."

"It provides interactivity skills and social skills, not just with their own teams but with other teams too, and if they get involved with academies and Emerging Talent Programmes. And some of the ethos involved with soccer, such as respect, fair play, fun and inclusion are all passed across too," he added.

Callan's only worry about schoolboy soccer in Drogheda is the tendency of players and clubs to join the Dublin District Schoolboys League (DDSL) and the "
household" names playing there in search of greener pastures.

"A lot of clubs felt like they had to go to the Dublin leagues, and in my opinion the league in Drogheda would be a far superior league today if they hadn't," says Callan. From my point of view, I would've liked to have seen clubs stay in Drogheda until Kennedy Cup year [a tournament famous for producing talented players] to help make the league more successful."

"There was an opportunity for kids to be picked up by academies and to play in the Kennedy Cup but playing in a lower league in Dublin means they miss out on an opportunity that they could've gotten playing here."

This is a sentiment echoed by Campbell, who argues that the amount of Dublin based Drogheda players who have played in the Kennedy Cup "can be counted on one hand because they don't get looked at up there [in Dublin]."

"Though, don't get me wrong," Campbell adds, "the Dublin teams have done well, but it's a shame that there are [Drogheda] lads stuck playing in Division 5 or 6 [in Dublin] when they could be playing in Drogheda and getting the chance to play in competitions like the Kennedy Cup."

Both Callan's and Campbell's logic regarding players staying Drogheda comes down to the ETPs set up by the FAI four years ago that sees talented children in each age group brought into academies for extra training. Both men feel that there is a better chance for a young player to play in a tournament like the Kennedy Cup through an ETP in Drogheda than there is for a player attempting to fight their way into either representative side in Dublin.

Griffin admits players leaving Drogheda to play schoolboy football in Dublin is a concern but he also said that the issue extends beyond the borders of Drogheda.

"It's a national issue," Griffin insists. "Whether it's Cork, Kerry or wherever, losing players to the big names in Dublin is a concern. It's not just Drogheda. They [clubs in Dublin] lure players in no matter where they're from, but it is a national issue that needs to be addressed."

At the recent Schoolchildren's Football Association of Ireland (SFAI) AGM, a proposal made by Cork was passed which states that no child would be able to play for a team 50 miles outside the radius of where he/she goes to school. Griffin expects the Dublin clubs to appeal this decision.

"There are implications for Dublin clubs, not just in terms of what players they can get but financially too," said Griffin. "But it marks a shift of resistance to the idea that Dublin's where it's at. Clubs can still go to Dublin but we're looking to keep people locally because being in that higher competitive environment at a young age is questionable."

Griffin emphasised the importance of the FAI's ETPs and what they represent because he believes the DCSL stands for the same beliefs as these programmes are trying to instil, not only into the players but also into the adults involved.

"We run with a panel of 20 or 30 children every year and the targeted group would be the most talented players," says Griffin. "Our emphasis is that they get good skill and tactical development - the scoreline should be irrelevant."

"Our counterparts in Spain, France and Holland may not look at competitive football until under-14s, but we have it from day one. There's a culture there but there is a move to get back to skill development rather than have this over-competitive mentality."

This article appeared in the 'Living in Drogheda' section of the Drogheda Independent in the summer of 2010. A number of the facts about the Drogheda Concentrates Schoolchildren's League may now be outdated but there are interesting points raised by the interviewees regarding the development of grassroots football in Ireland. The point about the vacuum that is schoolboy football in Dublin remains as valid as it has been for decades.

A country's regional leagues need to be as strong its capital's as, ultimately, international players will be drawn from all over. At Euro 2012, the Republic of Ireland was the only international side to draw its entire 23-man squad from foreign leagues. And while it was good to see five ex-League of Ireland players in the squad (who really should have been joined by former Shelbourne midfielder Wes Hoolahan), this influx has come about only in the last decade or so.

The domestic game here has the capacity to improve but before it does, grassroots football needs to improve too as this is where many of today's schoolchildren will be playing their football in the future. Bray Wanderers midfielder Gary Dempsey wrote an impassioned post on the League of Ireland Blog about the subject in which he highlights the archaic traits of some grassroots coaches - it made for interesting reading.

This country can produce quality players that can form a quality top-flight. These players also have the quality to play at the highest level in England or anywhere they choose, but the examples of Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey (who, of course, returned from Aston Villa as a teenager) and James McClean - not to mention the slow-ripening Hoolahan - has shown that maybe it is better for players to play regularly in the League of Ireland for a few years before testing their mettle elsewhere. 

This philosophy is mutually beneficial in that it helps both player and league to grow together before the inevitable parting of ways, if indeed it really needs to be inevitable.

Ultimately, a player making a transfer across the water from a League of Ireland club should be the expectancy rather than the exception - and not because it is the only way that player can get into the Ireland squad.

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