Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton has launched a passionate defence of the Irish League game as a pathway into professional football.
The former Northern Ireland international considers the domestic league a crucial learning experience for promising talent and chance to establish key skills compared to the traditional development on offer across the water.
Hamilton was left impressed by the performances of homegrown players during Northern Ireland under 21s’ two European Championship qualifiers with Spain and Iceland alongside those based in full-time football.
The match-winning cameo by substitute Paul Smyth on his senior international debut to secure success over South Korea only served to cement Hamilton’s belief in the benefits from life in the Irish League. Smyth made his Linfield debut at 17 years old then left for Championship-based QPR last summer, scoring on his club debut in England at the start of this year before finding the net in Belfast against South Korea.
“I came away from the under 21s’ Spain game thinking how players like Gavin Whyte, Paul Smyth and Mark Sykes stood out, alongside people like Shayne Lavery and Liam Donnelly who each have Irish League backgrounds,” said Hamilton, who has handed Irish League debuts to a string of players at Glenavon including Sykes. “Look at someone like Paul Smyth and he struggled with injury issues after initially moving to QPR but that can happen because of the adjustment to full-time training.
“However, the games he managed to get under his belt in the Irish League can only have helped him in terms of maturity and confidence to deal with any setbacks.
“It is the same for people like Mark Sykes and Gavin Whyte, they’ve the experience of senior football to draw on and that high-stakes environment is much more beneficial for your mental strength compared to underage football.
“Confidence is crucial towards making it and a strong Irish League career can help prepare the right player to go into the firsts in professional football.”
Hamilton’s talent as a teenager secured the striker a switch to Blackburn Rovers and he spent time in England before returning home and enjoying a successful Irish League career with Portadown and Glentoran.
He accepts a shift in his philosophy towards the home gains of youth development.
Under Hamilton’s guidance as Glenavon boss a number of the most highly-rated young players within the Irish League have been blooded over cup ties before earning regular league minutes.
“I probably felt the other way myself but I think things have maybe changed since my experience,” he said. “People knock the Irish League for a lot of reasons but there must be something we are doing right when you look at the recent performances and how our guys coming up that way have developed.
“You see Bobby Burns having come up at club level with Glenavon and everything that comes with playing regularly in the Premiership.
“He has now made his debut with Northern Ireland under 21s and spent time training alongside the international senior squad.
“I think a player can really learn some crucial things in the Irish League that will allow someone to maybe go over to the professional game and move into the firsts.
“At that level you are talking about people’s livelihoods.
“Therefore, every result counts and I think coming up off 50, 60 or 70 games in the Irish League against experienced players can help prepare you for that mental challenge.
“I think the youth development system in professional football can be cut-throat and your first game may be your last, so it breeds a need to think about the individual over the team.
“But if you come up in the Irish League there is a smaller pool of talent, so young players with ability get more of a chance to make mistakes and learn.
“You can be in then out due to loss of form but also get another chance down the line and build up match experience of the ups and downs that can only help if ever given a shot at first-team full-time football.”