Extra, extra: A small club makes financially viable decisions to become European middleweight contenders season after season.
“Michel Louwagie is a savvy operator,” says Dominic Foley of KAA Gent’s Managing Director. “There would be no waste of money. His network of scouts covers all of Africa and South America, where he brings them at low prices, builds them and resells them. That’s how clubs of this size survive.
Foley knows all about the medieval city of Ghent. The Republic of Ireland international spent four years at the Royal Athletics Association (KAA), scoring 39 goals in 161 appearances for De Buffalo’s after a mildly controversial switch from Bohemians and before a mildly controversial move to Cercle Brugge.
“They never stretch too far,” he explains. “The difference with Irish clubs is that they cultivate talent but manage to keep it in the first team for two or three years before a bigger fish comes from Germany or Holland. time, the golden harvest ended up in the Premier League.
Shamrock Rovers look to an idyllic future at the Ghelamco Arena in the group stages of the Europa Conference League on Thursday night.
Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy “In Bruges” can be referenced simply because Foley was quick to notice that Belgians exist on a similar wavelength to the Irish.
“It was the best moment of my career,” says the 46-year-old. “Gent suited me and I suited Ghent. Everything worked well, in both clubs. People in Belgium are a bit like us, they do their job but when they go out, they go out.
“It was very similar, both clubs had English as their language, so it was easy to settle in.”
Ghent are more Bohs than Rovers if the comparison to Irish football is to hold – winning just one Jupiler Pro league title in 2015 despite making lucrative progress on the Europa stage during the 2010s – but that’s assuming the rise in power of League of Ireland clubs will accelerate throughout the 2020s and 2030s.
“We have this age-old problem; I would like to see all Irish players go to English clubs and stay in Ireland until they are 20, 21. That means more clubs need to have in place what Rovers have, with Stephen Bradley and Stephen McPhail, guys who have been there and done, and can give good advice.
“I think a much higher percentage of players would last longer in England if they waited. Get the right kind of football education from the right people, but with the right kind of facilities in place.
“Belgium were so far ahead in my time that we facilitated 17, 18 year olds into our first team who had to go to school in the morning and then come for the afternoon session. The club paid their studies.
Rovers can point to Gavin Bazunu’s education and the current crop of transition year students attached to their Roadstone Academy.
“If Irish football wants to get to the [Belgium] level then we need four or five Shamrock Rovers and that means the League of Ireland has to be full time. It’s all about money, having good support and smart investment.
A minor pitcher from Cork, his small-ball existence was cut short by a trial period at Liverpool, as he swallowed hard watching the Galway side pip Seán Óg Ó hAilpín in the 1994 All-Ireland final .
“I have no regrets about my football career, I have traveled here and there, and I would only have regretted not having done so, but if there is one regret, it is not to have played that final. Jimmy Barry-Murphy was our manager. Would I have been worth some points? Surely.”
Foley had already made the decision to hedge his bets after seeing the desperate look on the faces of 17 boys when Manchester City signed just three of the 20 players on trial.
“They all left school at 15 and what did they get at 18? I will always remember that day at Maine Road, and I thought ‘Holy shit!’ »
He returned home, obtained the Leaving Cert and signed for Wolverhampton Wanderers, just before a comet whistled into the club.
“We were lucky, Robbie Keane was there, but Keith Andrews, Glen Crowe and about six or seven other Irish boys, a home away from home too.
“The days of [multiple] Irish players featured in top English clubs are likely gone. We compete with the world. I think our expectations need to be lowered a bit.
Foley’s Wikipedia page has a section called “transfer controversies.” After his spell in England with Wolves and Watford, while mostly on loan, including a season in Portugal with Braga, he returned to Bohs, where he was picked up by Ghent after the Intertoto Cup of Clubs meeting in 2005.
Rumors of secret meetings have been circulating, as they were when he moved to Bruges around the same time Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were filming in the ‘fairytale town’.
“I think people kind of made things up that weren’t. There are legally binding contracts involved in every club. There was no way I could have left Bohs unless there was a breach of contract.
“Football is football, business is business, I was lucky to get to a higher level. There wasn’t really a story about when my contract ended at Ghent. I spoke to the Director [Michel Preud’homme] and I was not in his plans. I was club captain, I scored in the cup final, but I knew my time was up.
Foley witnessed the arrival of Belgium’s golden generation as Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard rose through the ranks, but the Red Devils’ fairy tale decade ended without silverware.
“It was always the feeling that they had the players, but they had two countries in one country. There were the Dutch speakers and the French speakers and there was always a divide. That’s the reason why they didn’t won nothing – team spirit and camaraderie, rather than talent.
Not so Irish after all? “I was never in the camp to see him but I spoke to people and there was this Flemish-French-speaking difference in the country.”