Football: Ireland's fountain of youth

Steve Tongue sees plenty to cheer Mick McCarthy in narrow defeat
IRISH EYES were drooping with fatigue and disappointment at 4am on Thursday morning, after the belated arrival back in Dublin that followed an unlucky European Championship defeat by Yugoslavia. Mick McCarthy's still lit up when conversation with the Republic of Ireland's coach turned to the young men who, he says, could form the basis of the national team for the next 10 years.

"They'll all get better," he said, "Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, David Connolly, Mark Kinsella - it'll be nice if he gets even better, the way he's playing - Gary Breen, Shay Given, they'll all get more experienced." Few international managers anywhere in the world are allowed the luxury of long-term thinking. Writing off even one qualifying tournament as a transitional period can suddenly necessitate finding alternative employment. What McCarthy and the Irish have going for them is that an extraordinarily successful development system is already producing players capable of making an impact at the highest level; and that in a country where Gaelic football remains a serious rival.

Duff, Blackburn's attacking midfielder, and Robbie Keane, the exciting Wolves striker, are the first graduates from a youth team that completed the unprecedented double by winning the European Under-18 championship last summer, after their juniors had captured the Under-16 competition. Of the older side, Duff, Richard Dunne (Everton), Stephen McPhail (Leeds), Alan Quinn (Sheffield Wednesday) and Barry Quinn (Coventry) have all subsequently appeared for Premiership clubs. Twelve months earlier, Duff, slight and blond, but vigorously effective, had been an important member of the Irish side that out-performed Michael Owen's England to finish third in the World Youth Cup in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, on the same day last week that "Duffer" impressed McCarthy with his "best performance yet for us" in Belgrade, several of his contemporaries, now at U21 level, were helping to achieve a 1-1 draw away to Yugoslavia after the team were reduced to nine men. At home, the U19s were winning 2-0 against Denmark with the core of the side who will compete in the World Youth Cup in five months' time, under Brian Kerr, who for two years has overseen the development of Ireland's youth football.

Never a professional himself - Shelbourne Reserves marked the zenith of his playing career - Kerr puts the success down to having a proper structure in place throughout the country, with greater coaching opportunities available outside the big towns, and a co-ordinated approach from schoolboy to senior level. He believes it could and should have happened sooner. "We reached a European semi-final in 1984, but a lot of the work being done then was dismantled after that: they didn't seem to realise that you had to have it. In the past, too, almost all the players seemed to come from Dublin, but now more are coming from Cork and outlying rural areas. Then I think that as a nation we've become more confident after the success of the national team under Jack Charlton, and even in business and music: we don't have an inferiority complex any more."

As a former manager of St Patrick's Athletic, last season's Irish champions, Kerr has mixed feelings about the fact that more and more British clubs are pouring scouts into the country. "They take boys training at 11 and 12, for weekends at 13 and 14, and are signing them at 16. It's crazy. But until we provide an alternative ourselves, it's going to continue. Once I pick someone for one of the youth teams, he's usually gone within a few months. The positive side is that they then get a good lifestyle for sport, good coaching and training. Lads like Duff and Keane have emerged very quickly into the senior team, and that encourages other young lads."

The short-term may be all about what happens in five remaining European Championship matches, and could yet end in tears. Even if it does, they will quickly be wiped away, for bright eyes are focused on the future, with a clarity and optimism matched in few places.