Football in Northern Ireland needs to take advantage of Brexit in 2022.
It may sound bizarre, considering some of the negative ramifications that have come with the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, but hear me out.
We’ve never had a better chance of getting our kids across the water to professional clubs in England and Scotland.
Brexit red tape does not permit young players in the Republic of Ireland to move until they are 18 years of age, while there is similar bureaucracy for the rest of Europe and further afield.
Therefore, our kids need to make the most of this opportunity.
For years, Northern Ireland’s aspiring and talented young teenagers struggled with the overwhelming competition from around the globe, but now they have a chance to get ahead of the game.
In recent times we’ve witnessed a number of aspiring young players such as Dale Taylor and Callum Marshall leave Linfield for cross-water football, while the Blues’ Northern Ireland Under-21 international Trai Hume is on the verge of a move with Sunderland and Lincoln City in the mix.
All incredibly positive, but I want to see that number increase in 2022.
And that can only occur with a joined-up approach from everyone in Northern Ireland football.
That means all the Northern Ireland Football League clubs, boys’ clubs and grassroots teams joining forces to implement a plan that will give us a greater opportunity of producing top-quality players.
The ultimate goal and aspiration has to be developing, nurturing and providing players for the senior international team.
So I want the clubs in the Danske Bank Premiership to play an even greater role in being a springboard to professional football in England and Scotland.
And in return they receive a decent financial return which they are then able to continually reinvest in their youth programmes, so that those players at 12, 13 and 14 are given the best chance to succeed.
With the new coach education we can help as an association to develop coaches and players. Yet more joined up thinking, working together to develop talent.
Andy Waterworth’s Irish FA Academy is a great start, preparing talented young players for life as a professional in England and Scotland.
But we need to become less Belfast centric. Let’s move around the country and set up regional centres so that we go to the players and make it easier for them to be brought onto the system.
We don’t produce enough players to be able to miss out on players and so the Irish Football Association needs to go the extra mile.
If you look at the players in the international squad who were born in Northern Ireland, many of them are from well beyond Belfast. I’m thinking Steven Davis (Cullybackey), Stuart Dallas (Cookstown), Kyle Lafferty (Kesh), Josh Magennis (Bangor), Paddy McNair (Ballyclare), Shane Ferguson (Londonderry), Shayne Lavery (Aghagallon), Conor Bradley (Aghyaran) and Niall McGinn (Dungannon).
Going back, I’m from Larne, Aaron Hughes is from Cookstown, Michael McGovern and Roy Carroll from Enniskillen and really there are actually very few players from Belfast.
So in 2022 I would love to see the introduction of regional centres, cutting down the chance of missing much-needed talent.
Hopefully the sub-regional funding will also come through to help clubs with their infrastructure, but we also need to look after what we already have.
I watched the Linfield/Glentoran game last Monday and couldn’t believe the state of the Windsor Park pitch. It was a disgrace. This was a pitch that UEFA pumped a load of money into just six months ago to make sure it was up to standard for their SuperCup, but in my mind it didn’t resemble a decent playing surface.
It just reinforces my point that we need synergy in all aspects of Northern Ireland football.
There are positive soundings coming out about a National Training Centre and new Northern Ireland Under-18 team. Hopefully they can both be signed off in 2022.
As we move forward, young players in Northern Ireland have never had it so good.
Now we just need to make sure we take advantage of Brexit…
In 2022, I would ask who has the leadership qualities to be the next Northern Ireland captain?
We have to be realistic as captain marvel Steven Davis, who turned 37 yesterday, isn’t going to last forever, while Jonny Evans continues to be hampered by injury.
So, who has all the attributes required to be a top skipper for Northern Ireland? Who will lead by example both on and off the pitch?
The obvious candidate would be Stuart Dallas, and I’ve mentioned him as a future Northern Ireland captain before.
But it’s not set in stone so I would like to see other players give Ian Baraclough options.
One of my biggest complaints from the Bulgaria defeat last October was that not enough players showed any leadership qualities. That has to change this year.
I want players to be vocal, to have the confidence to change things and take on more responsibility.
With four Nations League games in early June, the Northern Ireland players are basically going to have to sacrifice their summer. Family time will be curtailed, but this is the commitment required at international level.
In midfield, and with Davis’ availability still unclear, Ali McCann, Jordan Thompson and George Saville will be given opportunities to stamp their authority on their positions and this could be an exciting trio for Northern Ireland going forward.
Ali has been a revelation since storming onto the international stage but I want to see him raise his game to the next level.
Paddy McNair wants to play in midfield, but for the good of the team it may be better for him to remain in defence, where he plays most of his games for Middlesbrough these days.
Up front is still the place we have limited options, so I’d be looking for the returning Shayne Lavery to consistently improve at international level throughout 2022.
After the result against Italy in November, Northern Ireland have momentum and hopefully if the Irish FA are kind with the March friendlies they arrange, Baraclough’s boys can go into the Nations League games in June full of confidence and a desire to succeed.
The Scottish Premiership title race could come down to which of the Old Firm teams deals best with playing in empty stadiums again.
With limited capacity coming into play in Scotland after the winter/Covid break, players will have to adjust quickly.
I can’t tell you the number of players who told me they hated every moment of playing with no fans the first time around and how it affected their game.
Last year, it was Rangers who were much more comfortable playing in empty stadiums, so it will be interesting to see how Celtic respond this time around with new players having been brought in and with Ange Postecoglou at the helm.
Rangers may hold a slight advantage in the League table but I don’t think Celtic are too far off the pace. They have the potential to be extremely dangerous.
New Rangers boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst has only made slight tweaks to the team and style employed under Steven Gerrard. He likes to play 4-3-3 with wingers and as a result that often means Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis has to settle for a place on the bench.
While players may be affected by a lack of crowd, we should also be thinking about those clubs who desperately require decent gates to keep going through these tough times.
Hopefully the restrictions in Scotland will be for a short period of time.