With the World Cup trophy coming to Belfast on Friday there’s been a lot of reminiscing about the last time Northern Ireland played at the finals of a major tournament.

The year was 1986 and the venue was Mexico, but the question on every fan’s lips is ‘When are the Green and White Army likely to feature in the main event again?’

Norman Boyd gives us the lowdown what Northern Ireland’s football boffins are doing to ensure they get back to the big time…

Sweeping changes to the way young players are coached have become mandatory and Ian Stewart, Coaching Co-ordinator for the Irish Football Association and a member of the 1986 World Cup Squad, says we should see the results in around 10 years.

Stewart said: “Northern Ireland is not producing a certain type of player for the modern game. We’ve got to do something about it. It hasn’t been working for years, whereas the rest of Europe has changed.”

To that end 11-a-side football for children of primary school age is no longer recognised by the IFA.

Depending on age, the children will play in teams of 5, 7 or 9 players. They’ll play on small pitches with and against players of similar ability. There are few rules, no offsides and no scores are kept.

Recognising that Northern Ireland was falling behind, the IFA undertook extensive research over the last decade. Representatives visited other European countries and learned that successful nations like Germany, France and Spain have all dropped 11-a-side football at primary school age in favour of small-sided games.

Anyone who remembers spending hours as a child, freezing on a cold football pitch, sleeves stretched over shivering hands and rarely touching the ball, will see the advantages of these new methods.

Stewart explained: “Children are encouraged to play without fear. They’re comfortable receiving the ball no matter how many players are around them. Having so much of the ball as a child produces a more technically gifted player.”

It’s taken 16 years from the realisation that change was needed, to the implementation of new methods which it’s hoped will finally bring us closer to our European counterparts. It will be another 10 years before the children benefiting from these changes come through to senior level.

If those players can take Northern Ireland to the final stages of World Cups and European Championships, it will have been worth the wait.

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