AS Cork City huffed and puffed for a moment of quality last Saturday evening in Turner’s Cross and news drifted through of results across the water, one score and one scorer, in particular, stood out.
Alan Browne continued his remarkable season with another goal for Preston against Bolton, another neat first-time finish in what’s been a season and a half really of constant influence and just really, really good goals.
After zero goals two seasons ago, Browne hit seven in the league last time and already has 11 this season and there’s no knowing when this might stop.
A while back we came across one of those compilation videos of his recent goals and it was stunning to see them as a collection rather than as a two-second glimpse on Sky Sports News on Saturday night – the goal of the season v Cardiff last season; the leap and header v Wolves; the control, turn and volley v Bolton that’ll surely win this year’s goal of the season.
That was before the last two weeks, the quick feet and finish at Stoke and then the strike across goal into the corner last weekend, the sort of consistent finishing and technical ability (right foot, left foot, headers, long-range bangers, clips) that announces his arrival as a player who can win games at Championship level, at least.
Browne is only 23 and going by his evolution and improvement rate, there’s more in him.
It seems like an age since he was winning U19 titles with Cork City and with another League of Ireland season about to begin, Browne’s emergence as a proper footballer seems meaningful, both as an example of what’s possible here for player development and why it’s so difficult at the same time.
It’s quite striking of course, another League of Ireland preview week dominated not by the big players or clubs as much as by a focus on all the things that are wrong and need to be fixed and the lack of media attention (there is something off about the inability to fully commit to the TV coverage) and if anybody cares enough and if there’s potential for more and how that change might happen.
There are more references to Niall Quinn’s idea which could be either interesting or naive nonsense than say, oh I don’t know, the fact that the next Irish football manager will come from the current league champions.
Yet it’s hardly unfair or inaccurate to draw a line from Ireland’s struggles to produce elite players to the unique challenges (complete reliance on the UK mainly) that make player development such a problem and end up with the domestic league as a key part of the solution here in some form.
Irish soccer needs players that are playing and developing from the age of 19 to 23/24.
League of Ireland clubs need young players coming through consistently. Players need competitive games.
Back in that successful Cork City U19 season six years ago now, City beat Shels 3-1 to win the league late in the season.
Alan Browne scored two and of the rest of that team a lot of them are playing local soccer now or have been on a wander around the league of Ireland without massive impact - John Kavanagh is probably the next best known of that group.
Browne is the only one to play outside the domestic league and if that hints at a fairly shockingly low percentage of players who go onto make a real career out of this, it also suggests room for another path to emerge.
It was interesting to read recently about Ajax’s academy system where Frenkie De Jong’s transfer to Barcelona was not mourned but celebrated, seen as a fundamental part of their model, to develop players through the system there to come into the first team and contribute for a few years before making way for the next talent to develop.
It’d be hard to compare Cork City’s plans with the Toekomst right now but there’s something to be learnt from Ajax’s awareness of their place in the grand scheme of things and their ability to make that work.
There’s a pathway for a 12-year-old now in Cork and around the country to play through the ages here and it’s up to the clubs and the other parties (FAI, league, academies) to make it a viable alternative where a young player can achieve the same development and coaching and maybe have more genuine opportunities at the end of it.
Players will still go to the UK early and most will come back – again, one recent story told of a bunch of players from St Kevin’s Boys who all left together a few years back and are all back now looking to start again with Bohs – but there’s a chance to bring players up to the first team now at the age of 19/20, experience a few years of first-team action and then go to the UK when properly ready if a bigger stage is needed.
The clubs benefit from the talent and potential transfer money, the players benefit from the exposure and avoidance of the factory element of the UK environment, the league benefits from better players coming through together.
Some will stay and some, like Alan Browne, will be too good to hold onto.
There’s still this feeling sometimes that the league operates separately from football development here, where clubs and players and fans have their own loop outside the football world.
There are plots to the league – how Dundalk develop with their financial backing will be key to the next few years – but there don’t seem to be any alternatives right now to making the league a central part of the regeneration of Irish football.
You get the feeling clubs like Cork City and Bohs and Shamrock Rovers know this and are ready in some ways to make it work if given the chance. How this all plays out could be a gamechanger here.