Ken Early: McCarthy the ‘safe’ choice but is he the right choice?
FAI has passed up the chance to take a new direction with Stephen Kenny
Mick McCarthy: His popularity in the game means that he has hardly ever been out of work. Photograph: PA/ Toby Melville.
Imagine you are John Delaney. It’s been an awkward few days. Now that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have stepped off, you are the sole remaining figure against whom the suffering football public can vent its resentment and scorn. Internet polls suggest your approval rating has slumped into single digits. People are writing awful things on social media and starting angry petitions against you.
Thankfully the FAI board is still stuffed with loyalists, trusted veterans who have been at your side for years – many, many years – but even they can’t have failed to detect the rumblings of mutiny.
It’s time to choose a new manager for the international team. And the clock is ticking. Next week you are welcoming all the top brass of European football to Dublin for the Euro 2020 qualifiers draw. You don’t want to be the gooseberry FA president who turns up without a manager on his arm.
Even more important, you need Ireland to qualify for Euro 2020, and those qualifiers start in March. Reaching the finals of Euro 2016 was worth €11 million in prize money to the FAI and 2020 will be worth more again.
But there’s more than money at stake. There’s personal pride. Securing four Euro 2020 finals matches for Dublin has been among the headline achievements of your 13 years in charge. But now you need the team to get there. Imagine the ignominy if football comes home to Ireland at last, and nobody turns up to meet it? Who wants to host a party to which they’re not even invited?
You know people have been complaining for years that Irish football needs to start thinking long term. But right now the short term feels pretty significant for you. Your contract is up in 2020. Yes, there’s a good chance the board will extend it if you want to stay on. Luckily those decisions are not made by the same people who vote against you in internet polls and sign petitions demanding your removal. But the wolves are on the trail, the vultures are circling. All good things come to an end and in the long run, we’re all dead. How long-term can you afford to think?
There are two credible Irish candidates in Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny, both of whom are known to be available. And there are other candidates too, experienced world travellers like Carlos Queiroz. When agents hear you were paying the last manager €2 million there is never going to be a shortage of candidates. The idea of bringing in a big-name mastermind is tantalising. Somewhere out there, without any doubt, there is a foreign coach who would be a brilliant manager for Ireland, who could connect with the players and the fans, who would turn out to be an implausible yet perfect match.
The problem is telling the perfect candidate from all the monorail salesmen, celebrity frauds and other assorted gold-diggers. Turning this team around is no job for a carpetbagger, this is going to take somebody’s full attention. Can you afford to hire somebody who might only be in it for the money? In these circumstances, ignoring the Irish candidates is surely too risky.
So realistically your choice is between Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny. You know Mick. Everyone knows him. There are few better-known quantities in the world of football. His career has been so long and so consistent that you know exactly what you are going to get.
If he has one outstanding quality as a manager, it is stickability. He spent nearly four years at Millwall, six with Ireland, three at Sunderland and almost six at both Wolves and Ipswich.
By industry standards these are remarkable figures. In the Championship – the league in which McCarthy has spent the majority of his career – the average manager lasts less than a year. If you look at how long the current managers of the 92 English league clubs have been in their jobs, McCarthy’s spells at Millwall, Wolves and Ipswich would all place him among the top 10 longest-serving current managers, and his three years at Sunderland would have him in 15th place.
Warmth and decency
This tells you that McCarthy is easy to work with. He is good at getting along with people. His former players are almost unanimous on the matter of his essential warmth and decency. He gets on with the board, he gets on with the players, he gets on with the media, he runs a happy ship.
There is another notable pattern in McCarthy’s career. In the end, the happy ship sinks. Millwall were already in something of a tailspin by the time he left for Ireland and they got relegated at the end of the season. Ireland were torn apart by Mick’s falling out with Roy Keane and his six years ended with the crowd turning on the team after a defeat to Switzerland, and the FAI’s top official resigning as the Genesis report recommended wholesale organisational change.
Sunderland were bottom of the table when they sacked him in March 2006 and were relegated at the end of the season. Wolves were in 18th position when they sacked him in February 2012 and were relegated at the end of the season. Ipswich finished in mid-table last summer in McCarthy’s last season but he had already decided to resign after growing irritated at the constant complaining of the fans. Ipswich are now nailed to the bottom of the Championship table and looking highly likely to be relegated.
Considering that McCarthy is a renowned good vibes man it is odd how many of these managerial stints have ended in bitterly acrimonious Mickerdämmerung. Whenever and wherever the fans have turned, McCarthy has succeeded in coming across as a dignified football man, surrounded on all sides by unreason and hysteria, stoically enduring the suffering that awaits many good football men. His popularity in the game means that he has hardly ever been out of work. And yet you have to wonder, why does such a charming and decent figure so often end up getting chased out of town by an angry mob?
Is it possible that the easy-going stability that is McCarthy’s selling point as a manager turns over time into a weakness? He’s clearly good at running things day to day and establishing a happy working environment. But he has not been so successful at creating the impression that his team is going places, that his players are exploring the limits of their potential. There comes a point when stability settles into stagnation. Decency can take you a long way but you need more than that to drive players to finals and to trophies. McCarthy has never taken a team to a final.
Stephen Kenny has been in many finals with many different clubs. Five league titles, three FAI Cups, numerous smaller trophies and accolades, besides taking Dundalk into Europe and winning Ireland’s first-ever points in the group stages of European competition. Even in his supposedly failed spell at Dunfermline he led the small Scottish club to only their second cup final in the last 50 years. Stephen Kenny had Dundalk passing, pressing, playing better football than Ireland usually did under O’Neill. In a normal football country he would already have been appointed as the new national team manager.
Of course, Ireland is not a normal football country. Ireland is a country where for decades anyone who was successful at home was almost by definition a failure, because if they were really any good they would have been working in England instead. You had to prove yourself in some international context – usually by playing or managing abroad, or in the case of Brian Kerr, by winning youth European Championships. Success only in Ireland was deemed irrelevant.
That doesn’t hold any more. The Irish presence in English football is dwindling. The opening up of the English leagues to players from all over the world has pushed Irish players to the margins. The League of Ireland no longer seems like the overflow bucket for all the players who weren’t good enough to make it in the big leagues. It’s increasingly clear that the league you once called the “difficult child” is going to be the beating heart of the game in Ireland and the place where many of the Irish players of the future will emerge.
What better way to harness that untapped potential than to bring in a manager who knows Irish football from the bottom up. To see Stephen Kenny’s success in Ireland rewarded with the international job would show everyone else in the league that the top level was no longer off-limits to them. Surely that would energise the domestic game. And if Kenny went on to do well? Then Irish domestic football could reclaim a level of respect it hasn’t enjoyed in 50 years.
Being John Delaney, you are also aware of certain political considerations. There is a sizeable constituency out there calling for Kenny to get the job. A lot of the people who want Kenny are the same people who are calling for your head. Might giving Kenny the job be a good way to shut these people up?
You reach for the phone. But you hesitate.
What if . . . what if it doesn’t work? Kevin Kilbane was on Newstalk during the week saying there will be players in the Irish squad who know nothing about Kenny. He might take time to win them over. These same players, Kilbane says, will instantly respect McCarthy. They might be too young to remember him managing Ireland at the World Cup, but they will have seen him many times over the years making wry remarks on Sky Sports News.
You think of the Euro 2020 draw and the prospect of having to introduce your new manager by name to all the other European FA honchos. Will there be name tags? McCarthy wouldn’t need a name tag.
Yes, O’Neill was somehow able to command the respect of UK-based Northern Ireland players, even though he’d only managed Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers before. But before he became Northern Ireland’s most successful manager in 30 years, it took him 10 matches and 18 months to get his first win. If Kenny had a start like that, you can forget all about Euro 2020.
Casual Ireland fans will ask why you turned down an experienced manager like McCarthy for a guy who was unproven at the top level. And the others – the people who wanted you to give Kenny the job? The ones you tried to appease? They’ll probably find a way to blame you anyway.
McCarthy. He’s been there. Done that. Recognised by the players. Popular with the media. Easy to work with. Familiar. Reassuring. Like a comfortable old pair of shoes.
You reach again for the phone . . .