Belfast Telegraph

Where is the next Stuart Elliott coming from?

Steven Beacom and Martin Mawhinney talk to former international heroes about the state of the game and where we go from here

Michael O'Neill made the point earlier this week that not enough Irish League players are going across the water to ply their trade at a high level in England and Scotland before going on to establish themselves as Northern Ireland internationals.

Out of his present squad the only one to have travelled that route is Gareth McAuley.

How manager O'Neill and the Northern Ireland fans could do with more like 'Big G' who left Coleraine for Lincoln before rising up the ranks with Leicester City and Ipswich and eventually moving to West Brom in 2011.

It's no exaggeration to say that since joining the Baggies he has been their most consistent Premier League performer.

To illustrate that point he swept the board in terms of the recent end of season WBA awards nights.

What a shining light the defender is in terms of what can be achieved.

Prior to him was Stuart Elliott who followed a similar path.

He was a window cleaner when he played for Glentoran but it soon became clear that his career would go in a different direction as he raced down the left wing at the Oval, scoring spectacular goals galore.

Three years after making his debut for the Glens, in 2000 he moved to Motherwell where he became a Fir Park favourite and then transferred to Hull City, playing almost 200 games netting 65 times.

It was at that stage that Elliott became a fixture in the Northern Ireland side earning himself 36 caps including his most treasured against England in that famous 2005 success.

Having been there and done it, Elliott continues to take a keen interest on the future of the Northern Ireland team.

He has his own thoughts on what needs to be done, suggesting that the fans need to stick with O'Neill and adding that the Irish FA need to help the manager all they can, insisting that one particular model in Europe is worth following.

"It is always going to be difficult for Northern Ireland and we have to accept that," says Elliott, now 34 and out of big time football after a short spell at Glentoran earlier in the season.

"World football is developing all the time and other countries have a bigger pool to pick from. That is the reality.

"Even so there are still things that we can do to help us improve and I think we need to be having a good look at the successes in Europe.

"The likes of Borussia Dortmund, who were recently in the Champions League final, have invested heavily in youth football, and it's paying off.

"The IFA should go out to clubs like that, and build their model around theirs, by getting the young elite players involved in their programmes and getting them coached by top coaches. The coaching is very important for the development of youth players and you need the right people doing it, both at international and at club level in the Irish League."

Elliott also feels enhancing faciilties here would benefit kids.

"I look at the countries producing the best players around the world today, and very often, they don't have the X-Boxes, the Playstations and the Sky TV that kids in Northern Ireland seem engrossed in," he says.

"You need facilities where they can play, and I know there are more and more 3G pitches being laid, but you can never have enough. When I used to come home from school, it was schoolbag off the shoulder, and out to kick a ball with your mates until the sun went down. It feels like that generation has gone, but with proper facilities we can try to nurture future generations."

As for the current generation of Northern Ireland players, Elliott is fully behind the boss. He says: "You can't be too hard on Michael. I think he is doing a good job. You can see he is passionate and that the players are 100 per cent behind him.

"What's good about Michael is that he's giving young players a chance but that takes time and I would urge the fans to be patient.

"There is a fine line between success and failure and at the moment we are on the wrong side of that line but one or two results can change that, just like it did for the Northern Ireland team I played in. We beat Azerbaijan at Windsor and then a few days later beat England and from there we felt like we could compete with and beat anybody."

Pat Jennings: Won a record 119 caps for Northern Ireland

Even when we were qualifying for World Cups in the 1980s, it wasn't easy for Northern Ireland.

A lot of the time then, like now, we were underdogs but came through to win vital matches and had a great time in 1982 and 1986, when we qualified for the finals.

We are going through a difficult period now in terms of results, but I do believe Michael O'Neill is the man to improve things.

Once he gets his first win as a manager under his belt, then I think things will change for the better.

I was at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland's draw with Azerbaijan and I still don't know how we didn't win, because I genuinely can't remember ever watching a Northern Ireland team create as many chances.

What I'm pleased to see under Michael is that the players seem to want to play for the team and nowadays, with the way club football has become so important, that is not easy.

In England now, club managers don't want players to play international football in case there are injuries.

That's one of the big problems for Michael, because he doesn't have the biggest squad to pick from.

In my role with McDonald's I go around coaching sessions held under the Irish FA/McDonald's Grassroots programme and it will be interesting to see the talent coming through there in the next few years.

I think the coaches in those programmes are absolutely brilliant. You can see the kids skills are developing all the time, so I'd like to think that will benefit football here and that hopefully they will come through at youth, schoolboy level and beyond.

So, while results for the Northern Ireland team have not been what the supporters want in recent years, there is good work going on out there. The IFA/McDonald's programme is an example of that, and bodes well for the future.

Billy Hamilton: Won 41 caps for Northern Ireland

We have got to realise we are a small country, and that football now isn't the only show in town, as it was in my day. For instance kids who years ago may have wanted to become footballers are aspiring to be golfers. Rugby and GAA are also competing for future players.

There are other even more important issues, such as the fact that there are so many foreign players playing in the Premier League that it is harder than ever for anyone from Northern Ireland to make it now.

For the good of all the home nations something has to be brought in, like a cap on the number of foreigners. I don't know if it's something Fifa are looking into, but it would be a step in the right direction.

The other problem we have is the North/South issue.

I have no problem whatsoever if a young boy from a nationalist area wants to declare for the Republic, but some of these boys are being brought up through our system – it's like taking a nice piece of fruit, where they come along and say, 'this is ripe for the picking.'

If they want to take a player who has come through the IFA ranks, they should have to pay a compensation fee of somewhere between, say, half a million and a million pounds a player.

If they had to make that payment when they capped the player, it would make them think twice about whether he was worth it.

I know it's a thorny issue, but everyone would benefit.

The Republic would get a promising player, and we would get money that could be put back into the IFA to develop and coach more young players.

If I were involved in the IFA I wouldn't give up on this and would be lobbying Fifa about it.

In terms of the manager Michael O'Neill, I know results haven't gone his way, but I actually think he is doing a good job with the players he has at his disposal.

Bryan Hamilton: 50 caps and manager from 94-98

Whether we like to admit it or not, Northern Ireland's results have been an issue for some time now.

During Lawrie Sanchez's reign, there was a young man by the name of David Healy on the team.

We got a lot of results on the back of his goals, and I think if you take those away, you'd see they camouflaged a lot of the areas of concern.

It's clear there aren't many players from Northern Ireland coming through at the top level.

It's been like that for too long.

To have any chance of turning that around we'll have to be in it for the long haul.

This won't be a quick fix – anyone who thinks it will be has a serious problem.

Essentially Michael O'Neill needs to get good coaches and structures in place.

It only seems like five minutes since I was the Northern Ireland manager.

We didn't have an Under-21 side – I fought hard to get that in place.

We didn't have a Northern Ireland side at the Milk Cup – I fought for that too.

And now Michael has to fight for what he feels he needs. Michael played for me in the international team and as a player he was thoughtful and smart.

He didn't say a lot, but when he spoke, you listened.

When he got the job, I thought, 'he can do well, and put good structures in place' and I still believe that.

I have worked in an advisory capacities in Antigua and Barbados, and although they didn't have much money, the kids there were raw, hungry, and there was a great desire from them.

In my day, we didn't have a lot outside of football – you made your own entertainment, but the kids today have so many more opportunities.

You have to ask yourself – are the kids of today as hungry as they were in my day?

I don't think so, and, in a way, we are all to blame for that.



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