John Delaney’s dilemma: Is it the manager or is it the players?
FAI boss will stick with Martin O’Neill, but he needs to address pipeline of future stars
Ireland’s Troy Parrott celebrates scoring against Bosnia & Herzegovina back in May. Photo: Andrew Fosker/Inpho
When FAI chief executive John Delaney spoke about the appointment of Martin O’Neill five years ago, he set out a two-item job spec for the Northerner. “Most importantly and above anything else,” he said, “is that the new manager gets the best out of our players and gets us to the Euros in 2016.”
The latter, he acknowledged, would be “slightly easier” now that almost half of 50-odd nations would be at the finals but, whatever the actual scale of the challenge, O’Neill obliged. And, after Ireland initially finished third to two much better sides, he might reasonably point to the play-off win over Bosnia and Herzegovina as evidence that he was fulfilling the other part of the deal.
Whether he still is, is another thing. With poor results compounding the frustration many already felt over the team’s style of play, criticism has mounted and O’Neill has repeatedly found himself of late pointing to the limitations of his players. That generally doesn’t end well for any manager.
The results have prompted a lot of speculation about his position, but there has not been the slightest concrete suggestion that Delaney is inclined to replace him.
The poor Nations League showing will have consequences, the most immediate of which is likely to be a third place seeding for the qualification stages of the European Championships. But so convoluted is the competition that Ireland will almost certainly still go into a four-team play-off for a place at the European finals. All of which assumes they don’t qualify automatically anyway, which is not an assumption that – whatever about his growing band of critics – O’Neill is likely to be making right now.
So, for Delaney, the question is whether O’Neill is still the man to get Ireland to what seems the pretty reasonable target of a 24-team European Championships, the importance of which has been heightened by the fact that some of Ireland’s games would be in Dublin. It is hard to tell for sure but, having effectively doubled the management team’s salaries to keep them around just a few months ago, changing horses right now would be both costly and embarrassing for the chief executive.
If O’Neill is the right man, however, then the quality of the players comes into sharper focus – and that is on Delaney himself. In 2015 he said the association had the “fundamentals in place to produce better footballers”, but, despite the structural changes that have occurred in recent seasons around the underage leagues here, there are no obvious signs of any impending new dawn.
The average age of the squad on Tuesday night was just about 27, and only three of 27 players were under 24. There has been a lot of talk and some excitement this week about the under-19s who finished top of a four-team preliminary qualification that included the Netherlands.
But the last time Ireland actually made it to the finals was in 2011 when they eventually lost at the semi-final stage to a Spain team that included the likes of Álvaro Morata, Sergi Gómez and Dani Carvajal. Two of that Ireland side went on to establish themselves in the senior team: Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty. Seven years on, Doherty has just earned his fourth cap.
There has been some success at under-17 level, but the greater gap in years makes things even more uncertain; the under-21s have still never made it to a European finals.
Delaney insists that the extended financial crisis brought on by misjudged financing of the association’s share of the Lansdowne Road development has had no impact on any of this, but that’s hard to imagine. The new plan for developing players, one everybody is agreed is key to the future of the senior team, is based around underage national leagues run at under-15, -17 and -19 levels, with an under-13 competition to start in March.
The FAI puts the existing cost of the first three at €1.4 million, of which Uefa stumps up €825,000. In March of this year the FAI made much of the fact it was coming up with €250,000. Its contribution previously has not been made public but seems, from other figures provided, to have been just €75,000.
The association’s high performance director Ruud Dokter accepted last week that, in an ideal world, the leagues would be run at under-14, -16 and -18 levels too. The current plan will involve some players alternating from season to season between League of Ireland and schoolboy clubs, which is probably not in too many international best practice manuals, but apparently the money isn’t there. Ticking a lot of other boxes, you are maybe talking €2.5 million, 10 times what it is giving, but half what it has been paying in stadium debt repayments and interest.
Delaney says the Aviva Stadium will be paid for in 2020, after which the good times will roll, but the only way that the association appears to be able to meet the target is to front-load sponsorship payments stretching well into the 2020s, so the sorts of increases in investments being made all over Europe are still many years away.
In the meantime, our national team is still based on the old system: around a third of the 27 players this week had left for England by the age of 17 or so, and only a handful had played serious game-time at senior level here before departing.
There is, then, just our declining place in the sprawling English system to produce new talent until things get properly up and running, so perhaps we should not hold our breaths. If patience does run out, however, we can always sack the manager.