THE 2022 World Cup has kicked off and it is now officially 20 years since the Boys in Green last played at the biggest stage in world sport.
There is now a whole generation of football fans in Ireland who have grown up, bought their first alcoholic drink, voted, whose only experience of their country in a major tournament was at the European Championships in 2012 and 2016.
This realisation comes after a treble of appearances at World Cups between 1990 and 2002, a period which saw some of the biggest results in the history of Irish sport. To the new generation of football fan, stories like David O’Leary’s penalty and Ray Houghton against Italy are folklore and they can watch countless hours of replays on YouTube and RTÉ.
An examination of the last twenty years would intake multiple managerial shortfalls, near misses on the pitch, and various internal controversies in the FAI.
It was the latter that actually threatened to bring down the association, but they narrowly avoided insolvency thanks to a state bailout in 2020.
And yet, the mood around the Irish football community has never been more positive given developments over the last 10 years.
The underage National Leagues have created an academy structure that is allowing young players to say in Ireland and develop in a local professional environment. There is also a clear link between Irish underage teams which allows players to seamlessly integrate between teams before they step up to Stephen Kenny’s senior squad.
The comeback has been led by Cork, with the county at the forefront for developing players and coaches over the last twenty years.
It all started with Alan Browne’s emergence with the Cork City U19s in the National League. He was the first player to capture the cross-channel imagination and he was recruited to join Preston North End in 2014.
That was the first injection of confidence into the new underage structures, as players were emerging into first teams and progressing to established sides in England. This was all but ratified in 2017 when Browne made his senior Ireland debut under Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane.
It was Cork man Colin O’Brien who helped shape the current state of the current Irish national team. He works as the U17 head coach, and he has personally nurtured a number of the country’s recent breakout stars.
Some of the names include Jason Knight, Troy Parrott, and Cork’s Adam Idah.
That group helped Ireland qualify Ireland for the quarter-finals of the European U17 Championships, a run that ended in a controversial penalty shoot-out defeat to the Netherlands.
He also coached the majority of the U21s team that made history by reaching the European Championships play-off round in 2022.
This was never before achieved by an Irish team and a group containing Cork’s Tyreik Wright and Jake O’Brien (another graduate of Cork City’s academy) got them 90 minutes from their first major tournament.
O’Brien’s experience within the FAI framework has allowed his player to progress through various underage squads without any need to adapt to a new style. This ladder is enhanced by the role Stephen Kenny plays as he regularly meets with the underage coaches so they can talk about systems and player development.
O’Brien’s most recent achievement was working with Cathal Heffernan, who was playing with Cork City’s academy at the time.
The defender’s performances were repeatedly singled out for praise, and this led to a high-profile transfer to Italian giants AC Milan in 2022.
All of the good work has built towards the current national team, which is made up overwhelmingly of graduates from the League of Ireland.
The Cork contingent includes Chiedozie Ogbene and Alan Browne, two former Cork City players.
The squad also includes John Egan and Caoimhín Kelleher, who were once stars in the Cork Youth Leagues with Greenwood and Ringmahon Rangers.
What this all means is that there’s a new way of doing business in the Irish football world. The teams from 1990-2000 were made up of players who went off at a young age to England and broke through at an academy and members of the Irish diaspora.
The current squad represents the new way for Irish football; of developing young players before selling them to top continental clubs.
Cork have been at the forefront of this breakaway from tradition, and the Rebel County is showing no signs of slowing down with the likes of Jake O’Brien and Cathal Heffernan emerging.
Soon, the domestic clubs will be the main tools for nurturing young Irish talent.
The next World Cup that Ireland can play for is the 2024 tournament in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. When qualification begins, a new generation of players will dream with a strong Cork core carrying the country’s hopes of ending 20 years of hurt.