FAI look to end under-21s Euros hurt by hosting them

John Delaney may be about to deliver a first qualifying berth by securing the tournament

Having repeatedly described himself as a man who delivers for the association he has been running now for more than a decade, John Delaney has, it seems, taken it upon himself to singlehandedly get that great lost cause of Irish football, the under-21 team, to a European Championships.

Along with his IFA counterpart Patrick Nelson, the FAI's chief executive will be in Belfast on Thursday to announce a joint bid with Northern Ireland to host the 2021 finals. If successful, both teams would qualify for the 12 nation tournament, the rules of the competition having been quietly amended recently to allow joint hosts to both participate.

Uefa’s Executive Committee, of which Delaney is a member, will decide on the venue when it meets in Dublin on December 3rd (the day after the Euro2020 qualifying stage draw). It is somewhat hard to imagine, however, that less than five weeks before the ballot the 51 year-old would announce his association is entering a race the outcome of which is still in doubt.

The very minimum required to stage the event is six stadiums each containing 4,500 seats but in reality a good deal more is expected. The 2019 finals will be held in Italy and San Marino with the latter’s venue holding just 6,600 spectators. The Italian end of things, though, will be staged in grounds with capacities ranging from 23,000 to 38,000. In Poland last year, five of the stadiums held just over 15,000 with the sixth slightly larger at 20,000.


Butter up

Here, the Aviva may well be considered too big for a tournament with uncertain powers of attraction but the RDS, Tallaght and Thomond Park are all likely to be included in the list of venues in the south with the revamped Windsor Park looking to be the frontrunner for the final, especially if the FAI wants to butter up their Belfast counterparts whose goodwill will be required if Dublin is to get in on any 2030 World Cup action that might be going.

On the face of it, this would not be the most formidable of bids and any rival with a well equipped league could make a strong technical case for itself – there had certainly been talk of Hungary – but 2021 will mark 100 years since one association on the island became two with the establishment of the Dublin based breakaway. A theme like that, the related political context and, of course, Delaney’s status as a near poll topper in the Executive Committee elections last year, have presumably been enough between them to either frighten off the opposition or put the bid in a commanding position to beat it.

Assuming that is the case, it will be an odd and unexpected way for the Ireland under-21s long, long run without making it to the business end of a European Championship to end. Four managers have overseen 16 qualification campaigns since the team played its very first competitive game, away to Belgium, on September 9th, 1986.

A couple of overage players were allowed back then so Gerry Daly and Ken de Mange played in a side that also included Denis Irwin and Niall Quinn plus the likes of Pat Dolan, Aaron Callaghan and Derek Swan. The match ended scoreless but reporting on it for The Irish Times, Peter Byrne observed that it had been "an authoritative performance which augers well for the future of Irish football". There were, to be fair, some good time around the corner although few of those who featured that night played starring roles.

Serious challenge

That, in a sense, has been an issue ever since with the team rarely containing enough talent at any given time to mount a serious challenge for qualification. On occasion, particularly talented players have been moved quickly on to the senior set up, something facilitated by the fact that the team was initially run by the assistants to senior side's manager (Maurice Setters then Ian Evans) but Don Givens certainly shared their view that the its fortunes were of secondary importance to its recruitment and developmental role.

Noel King, who is about to step aside from the role after eight years and so create an interesting opening at the heart of the underage set up, observes that: "When you are scouting there is the team winning today and then there is the senior team but ultimately the senior team is the important thing."

Under him, things improved from the point in 2010 when Givens departed after a team team including Séamus Coleman, David Meyler and Alan Judge was beaten at home by Armenia. However, he could never do enough to improve on a persistent fourth seeding in the qualification draws; an almost insurmountable hurdle in an event with a finals that only recently expanded from an eight teams to 12.

However Delaney, it seems, has found another way.