Kevin Kilbane: Ralf Rangnick’s Austria offer lessons for the FAI

Progress of mid-tier nations emphasises how badly the modern FAI is doing business

With Rodri running their midfield, Spain have the quality to win Euro 2024. Photograph: Rafa Babot/Getty Images

Let’s start the Euros at the final, in Berlin’s Olympiastadion on July 14th when Spain beating France will feel far removed from Aveiro last Tuesday night as Cristiano Ronaldo, yet again, revived his international career at Ireland’s expense.

Portugal looked sharp, particularly Bruno Fernandes and João Félix, but their dominance was evident across the pitch.

Roberto Martínez inherited an enormously gifted group entering their prime. If he uses Ronaldo wisely, and sparingly, they can top Group F and pick off the Netherlands before Spain, Rodri and a 16-year-old named Lamine Yamal should have their number.

This is the major tournament when a back four becomes the standard again.

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I hoped that John O’Shea would abandon using three centre halves, as no matter how hard Ireland try, their wing backs never get high enough up the pitch.

France are an example of a modern formation. William Saliba and Dayot Upamecano behind two holding midfielders allow Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé to shine, with Kylian Mbappé set to operate in Germany as the number nine.

Didier Deschamps’ men can knock out Italy in the quarter-final and stop my outside bet, Austria, in the last four. Yes, Austria under Ralf Rangnick. Their national football structure should be studied by the FAI in detail.

Ralf Rangnick has made Austria stronger than the sum of their parts. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Austria’s players are predominantly based in the neighbouring Bundesliga, which makes this very close to being a home tournament for them. It’s their collective approach that should be the template for Ireland. No star turns, although Christoph Baumgartner is a powerhouse who brings an X-factor now that David Alaba is injured.

They are in a group containing France, Poland and the Dutch, so I may have to swallow these words, but Rangnick’s high-press, one-for-all approach can bring Austria to the semis, where Mbappé will eat them whole.

I think England will pay the price for going one tournament too many under Gareth Southgate. It’s not a direct criticism of Southgate but the chance to bridge the gap from 1966 came and went in 2021.

In the last Euros final, England took a 1-0 lead against Italy only to go into their shell. That attitude comes from the dugout. France were better than England in Qatar and now Southgate has been forced to move past Harry Maguire, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson.

There is genuine quality replacing them, such as Kobbie Mainoo and Cole Palmer, enough for England to win the tournament outright with Harry Kane, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham to the fore. Or an unsettled starting XI might stumble and finish runners-up in Group C, behind either Denmark or Serbia.

That would set up a last 16 tie against Germany in Dortmund on June 29th. If the English fail to exploit the decline of Manuel Neuer, who made costly errors in the Champions League semi-final at the Bernabéu and recently against Greece, I think Spain will beat the hosts in a quarter-final.

With Cole Palmer and Kobbie Mainoo, England are very much in the frame for Euro 2024. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/The FA via Getty Images

All this pre-tournament analysis could come unstuck. Any one from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Croatia and England is capable of staying the course.

The mid-tier nations interest me as much as these traditional powerhouses. I believe that John Delaney’s time as FAI chief executive sent Irish football back to the mid-1980s, before Euro 88, before Joxer went to Stuttgart, before we reached a World Cup quarter-final in 1990. In the same breath, nobody can convince me that, with the right people in charge, Ireland cannot be better than Hungary, Ukraine, Scotland, Switzerland and even Austria.

Euro 88: When everything seemed possibleOpens in new window ]

Or Albania. They reached the Euros thanks to a fortuitous draw but, like Ireland, they have one top player – Inter’s Kristjan Asllani, like we have Evan Ferguson – surrounded by decent professionals spread across European leagues.

What’s missing from the Irish team at the moment is physicality, and a bit of quality.

For three years now, Josh Cullen and his midfield partners have struggled to quicken the tempo of games. He can do it for Burnley in the Championship. And I get it, the step up to the Premier League and international football is intimidating, so a midfielder can be overly cautious to avoid making mistakes.

Covering Canada on TSN I watched Ismaël Koné, who is at Watford and still only 21, take the game to France last Sunday, challenging N’Golo Kanté and Eduardo Camavinga, moving the ball forward at every opportunity.

The problem with the current FAI is not that they are servicing a €50 million debt, it’s their lack of urgency to create a centralised or at least a part-funded academy system to bring through our talent in a way that is comparable to serious football nations.

AVEIRO, PORTUGAL - JUNE 11: Josh Cullen of Republic of Ireland (C) tries to escape Bruno Fernandes of Portugal (L) during the International Friendly match between Portugal and Republic or Ireland at Estadio Municipal de Aveiro on June 11, 2024 in Aveiro, Portugal. (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)

Similar to how the Austrians join German clubs, our best and brightest will continue to go to England, and we’ll always have four or five British-born players in our strongest line-ups. But the lack of a coherent plan to develop talent at home makes the next managerial appointment almost irrelevant.

After losing 3-0 to Portugal in Aveiro, O’Shea offered the same reasoning as Stephen Kenny did in 2002 following defeat to Armenia, and Keith Andrews did in 2023 following the loss to Greece in Athens – having most Irish players in the Championship is detrimental to attaining any form of success.

Nobody is offering an immediate solution, beyond O’Shea asking lads to find a way of getting into the Premier League. Sorry for going all Greek mythology on the readers, but that’s like asking Sisyphus to push harder.

International success comes in many forms, from Croatia to Belgium and Austria to Poland.

The model required for Ireland to consistently reach major tournaments starts with streamlined academies. But the FAI leadership talks about the worm turning by 2036. Does anyone know who is actually in charge out in Abbotstown? Is it the interim CEO, the FAI president or the chairman of the board? Are they even on the same page as each other?

It can always get worse. Ireland could conceivably fail to qualify for Euro 2028, when Dublin hosts five group games.

Back to what promises to be a fantastic four weeks of football, I think Spain have evolved sufficiently from their glory days to land a fourth major trophy. But Austria to capture the imagination, like Ireland did in 1988.