David Miskelly - the former Northern Ireland under 21s international and current Irish League assistant manager - has accused the existing coaching model for goalkeepers in this country as “failing our young players”.
Miskelly is calling for those at the top of football in Northern Ireland to conduct a major review and, ultimately, radical overhaul of goalkeeper coaching or risk falling further behind.
Now number two at Portadown, Miskelly has a perspective unique on the specialised number one playing position thanks to a viewpoint shaped by time in the professional game, international experience, decade-plus Irish League career, background in youth coaching and insight into modern transfer needs.
He has grown frustrated with what he views as “fundamental flaws” evident across so many current goalkeepers and how “problems with basics from that key development period” can lead to long-term issues.
“We do not seem to be getting our goalkeepers enough senior minutes and that is a problem which impacts from international level down to the club game,” said Miskelly, who spent seven years in England with Oldham Athletic and Macclesfield Town before returning home to represent Portadown. “We need to ask why that is the case and how to go about fixing it because, as it stands, we are just losing ground.
“I know of goalkeepers who have been over 10 times or more on trials across the water but without anything coming out of it.
“Then at Irish League level it tends to be the same names mentioned when we discuss our top goalkeepers, many of those guys now in the latter stages.
“As someone looking at potential signings, I see young players who would benefit from minutes with Portadown in the second-tier Championship but still fall short of what we would need if promoted to the top-flight Premiership - because of flaws I consider not ironed out by the right coaching and then a lack of mental strength due to limited senior playing time.
“The approach is not working and I really feel we are failing our young players in many ways.”
Miskelly’s pathway into professional football during the 1990s arrived within a generation of names like Alan Fettis, Roy Carroll and Michael Ingham. A talent pool that consistently reflected the depth of competition on home soil.
“How many of our young goalkeepers are now getting signed up on professional contracts?” said Miskelly. “There must be reasons behind it and, from my viewpoint, I see fundamental flaws in too many players, with problems with basics from that key development period resulting in lasting issues.
“It is hurting our goalkeepers and the game on two fronts - whatever is lacking and preventing more young players getting signed up across the water then leads to players staying home but, when it comes to Irish League clubs, too few seem to feel they can trust the players to throw them in as late teens or early 20s, which cuts out any chance of moving on from that point too.
“We are in something of a golden period for Irish League players moving over to professional clubs off the back of gametime in our domestic league.
“But people like Bobby Burns, Mark Sykes, Gavin Whyte and Paul Smyth are all outfield players and one major difference is they’ve been given minutes to learn and grow in competitive senior football.
“But our goalkeepers are struggling at both ends of the scale to make any impact - they get passed over as young teens then cannot get Irish League minutes to force any opportunities down the line.”
Miskelly accepts resources remain limited in Northern Ireland but feels a greater emphasis on former players working within the coaching system can prove a starting point.
“I think too often that we view goalkeeper coaching as an afterthought, with the focus on preparing someone for the next match by doing various training drills but not actually working on identifying and ironing out problems,” he said. “In my experience, we often send out a message to our goalkeepers that it is not that important to have specialised coaching and that, in turn, impacts on the players’ mental toughness when they go across on trials up against players with the benefit of specific training.
“I know there are a lot of dedicated people working with our young goalkeepers but I feel, in that position more than anything, we need people with playing experience.
“We have signed a young goalkeeper from America called Bobby Edwards who has progressed within a specialised coaching system and, at 23 years old, is passing on that information to another generation of players, so the pattern is set and everyone benefits from that cycle.
“A goalkeeper develops later and much of the skillset improves by playing and learning the game on the pitch, along with the crucial aspect of the mental strength.
“You need to build up trust and confidence but that cannot come from sitting on the substitutes’ bench.
“So, I feel 12 years old is around the right time to start identifying and really honing our young goalkeepers.
“I know resources are an issue in Northern Ireland but it is about improved coach education at the foundations.
“I see people passing on methods which are now outdated, even something like teaching a goalkeeper to drop on one knee to get behind a shot.
“With so much movement in modern footballs, having that position cuts back on your reaction time and ability to adjust but it is still so common.
“I really believe you need to be able to draw on real-time experience, along with the latest coaching methods, to help our next generation.
“I know my coach at Oldham Athletic was way ahead of his time but many ideas he told me 20 years ago are only coming into our game here now, if at all.
“Roy Carroll told me his time in Greece, which was towards the end of his professional career, opened his eyes up to so many fresh ideas.
“I look at Roy and wonder why we are not utilising his experience and knowledge in a way that can benefit our whole system, someone who spent so long playing for major clubs and representing his country.
“If we can change our approach at grassroots level that will give our goalkeepers the right building blocks from the start, which offers a level playing field when going up against others on professional trials and also should lead to players getting more gametime from an earlier age in the Irish League, so that strengthens our options on all fronts.”