Sneering elitism leaves Ireland manager panel-beaten

Noel King’s short reign as Ireland manager came to a grubby end after his unseemly run-in with Eamon Dunphy

Noel King’s short reign as Ireland manager came to a grubby end after his unseemly run-in with Eamon Dunphy. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie

Noel King’s short reign as Ireland manager came to a grubby end after his unseemly run-in with Eamon Dunphy. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie


In the 1980s it was Frankie Goes to Hollywood who made many of us wonder what actually does happen when two tribes go to war. Holly Johnson’s conclusion that “a point is all that you can score” seemed cutesy in the context of the blood sport on RTÉ in the past week.

Eamon Dunphy’s tribe of imagined “real football people” eviscerated the qualifications of Noel King’s “real football people” in a contest where such claims were made to the grassroots of the game that both men ought to have had stains on their knees.

The phrase “real football people” should not be taken literally – it is code for “people who know what they are talking about”. When an upset King said to the press after Ireland’s loss in Germany that real football people would know his team did okay, he meant that the people working in domestic or League of Ireland soccer – his tribe – would understand the impossibility of his task in Cologne.

Dunphy’s tribe is more mysterious and less easily defined, but when he implied real football people (he uses the phrase a lot) would know King was “tactically illiterate”, he seemed to mean those who know what they are talking about like himself who played international soccer – sometimes brilliantly, like John Giles – for Ireland many years ago, and who now watch a lot of it on the box.

It was a play in two acts, culminating in King’s near-meltdown in the face of Tony O’Donoghue’s gentle questioning after Tuesday night’s win over Kazakhstan.

The interim manager was overly defensive after the criticism of four nights earlier, and sadly wore his hurt on his sleeve. It was not very dignified.

Real football people would have found it painful to watch a decent coach and popular man so exposed. In the studio Dunphy could not have looked more pleased. “I think he’s been shown to be out of his depth,” he cooed. The cat was in the sack.

‘Only a Game?
The title of Dunphy’s classic diary of life as a professional footballer, Only a Game?, could also apply to the way his career as an analyst will be remembered. You do not have to be schooled in football to see how often Dunphy’s understanding of the game is overwhelmed by his dependency on the soundbites of showbusiness. The performance of pantomime villain is often fun to watch – when directed, for instance, at an Italian manager with a salary of €1.5 million and an unsurpassable track record – but King was entitled to believe that the rules of engagement for him would be different.

Although the brightest fireworks came on Tuesday, the tone was set by the RTÉ panel before, during and after the thankless task in Cologne. King’s selection appeared a little eccentric and his failure to use his substitutes seemed foolish, but he was entitled to choose a team that matched his beliefs and be criticised for that choice.

Instead, Dunphy chose a line of gross incompetence: it looked, he said, like a member of the public who had never seen a game had picked it. It was a “mess”, a “shambles”, and Ireland needed a “real manager”.

The sneering smacked of elitism and reinforced the worst stereotypes about the game in Ireland: that Irish football men who have not plied their trade in England really are no good.

It was in this climate that Shane Long, annoyed by the fact that he hadn’t been selected against Kazakhstan, felt it was okay to tweet his derision for the interim manager: “Cowboy!! Nuff said . . . ”

Appointed on September 23rd, King had 23 days in the job, including three training sessions with his players before taking them to Germany. After 30 years coaching his salary with the FAI is said to be roughly 5 per cent that of Giovanni Trapattoni’s.

This was a respectable apprenticeship that may not have merited the senior job full-time, but it did warrant respect, or at least some semblance of the phoney war that usually greets new appointments. King was entitled to be moved gently sideways rather than scraped off our shoes.

In furnishing us with its opinions RTÉ’s panel likes to use broad brush-strokes and brass tacks, delivering a relentless message that football is a simple game. Pick the best players you have. Pass the ball when you have it. Work to get it back when you don’t. These are beautiful and enduring truisms that could be carved on rocks and passed down through generations, but they are also simplistic readings that need to be accompanied by analysis befitting the more sophisticated demands of the modern game.

The RTÉ panel, and Dunphy in particular, have increasingly shied away from the depth of analysis that might have lent an understanding to what an active working coach like King was trying to achieve this week. Instead we got a long-ball game dressed up as analysis, a grubby spectacle in which a decent Irish football man was made to wear a dunce’s cap.

Dave McKechnie is an Irish Times journalist

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