Belfast Telegraph

Major plans to ensure Northern Ireland have finals say

By Steven Beacom

The Irish FA have targeted qualifying for a major tournament within five years... Here's their vision and our views on the subject

IFA say: Since 1986 we have failed to qualify for 14 consecutive tournaments. To avoid further failure something must change. Our first five year objective is to qualify for a tournament.

We say: Great, but how exactly will that be achieved given our recent history?

IFA say: Euro 2016 France and 2018 World Cup Russia are the next two challenges. Brazil is now beyond us, but we have confidence that by 2018 we will have a team who can qualify for a major tournament. To do so we must change how we spot, develop and retain the talents of Northern Ireland players.

We say: Commendable, but more than that will be required.

IFA say: We will ensure that every player qualified to play for our international team is as well honed and prepared for his professional career as possible. We must identify talent from the earliest moment and encourage the development of skills at a younger age. Each Northern Ireland squad needs to carry a winning mentality, starting with our under 12s, flourishing at under 16 and carrying onwards into the senior game. We will transform our Excellence Programme for 12-15 year-olds into an Elite Programme.

We say: Again, it all sounds good in theory, but declaring that Northern Ireland will qualify for a major tournament within five years places a lot of pressure on manager Michael O'Neill and Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton.

IFA say: It remains the role of the international manager to shape the current players of our senior squad into a coherent and successful team. An Elite Performance Director has been appointed to co-ordinate the development of our players, both at senior level and up through our youth squads. Their focus will be to deliver performance enhancement and oversee high performance coaching to better develop our players to compete.

We say: With more teams qualifying for Euro 2016 Northern Ireland have a fighting chance, but it's still a task of Everest proportions. The IFA are introducing a policy of 'small sided games' to focus on the development of skills in young players (what kept them?). Talent ID will start from as young as six years old, a National training centre will be built by 2017 allowing our stars of the future to flourish, but qualifying for a major tournament by 2022 may be a more realistic target.

IFA say: The IFA intends to become a world class organisation with a winning mentality at all levels. We believe the objectives we have set out in this strategy are ambitious but achievable.

We say: The IFA has often been seen as a blundering organisation lurching from one crisis to another. While still capable of scoring own goals, the image has improved and this Strategic Plan is a further example of good work being done in the organisation. Some of the ideas ought to have been put in place years ago, but better late than never. If the IFA deliver on these promises, football in Northern Ireland will be in a much better place by 2018. Time will tell.

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