More than a manager, Irish football needs a clear and persuasive vision
Even the appointment of a respected coach won’t cure game’s deep-rooted problems
Martin O’Neill: delivered some early success but things went rapidly downhill after the World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark last year. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty
It was Brian Clough who said that if a chairman sacks the manager he initially appoints, then he should go as well.
It doesn’t work that way in the FAI. Nobody gets sacked. They leave quietly. It is possible that Martin O’Neill, razor-sharp in his recollections, heard Clough’s words rattling around in his mind when he sat down with John Delaney for what turned out to be a final meeting in Abbotstown on Tuesday night.
Football sackings are dramatic. There’s an element of blood sport in the sudden disappearance of the face and voice of the national team. It’s been a recurring pattern for Republic of Ireland managers since Jack Charlton realised that his time was up after a dispiriting play-off defeat against Holland in Anfield in 1995.
Mick McCarthy, Giovanni Trapattoni and O’Neill all led Irish teams to major championships but discovered that in the end, it unravels. Momentum stalls. Results decline. The criticism becomes intense.
In the FAI boardroom, they have a keen instinct for running with the crowd. After the grim night in Aarhus, somebody lifted the phone. Everyone knows the drill: statements of muted thanks are issued, flights are booked and the departing man ghosts back to England.
Attention immediately turns to the next manager, the new hope. That prospect alone creates energy and momentum. For John Delaney, whose long, resilient tenure as chief executive has come under increasing scrutiny, it’s also a terrific diversionary tactic.
Suddenly, everyone is thinking about a brand new chapter for Irish football rather than the deep-rooted problems within the domestic game and the pattern of initial optimism about the international team slowly but surely souring - and the vague worry of never knowing when and how the next international goal might come about.
Martin O’Neill is 66: young in life but not in football. If this year turns out to be his last hurrah in a distinguished and durable managerial career, then it was an unhappy one.
From the disclosure, in January, that the Derry man was on the verge of leaving to join Stoke City, to his thorny attitude towards RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue, in which he came across as tetchy and superior, to the Declan Rice debacle: it felt as if both he and Roy Keane were piloting an aeroplane that was losing altitude by the month.
The team drifted shapelessly and painfully through a series of nothing friendly matches in the build up to this summer’s World Cup and played dreadfully in the subsequent Nations League fiasco. Ireland games became funereal.
Throughout those games, O’Neill’s teams looked bereft of imagination and ideas and the players unclear of what they were supposed to do. Maybe in his mind, O’Neill felt that these games were not where he earned his keep.
He could point to the roaring triumphs against Germany in qualifying or against Italy in that emotional evening in Lille as evidence of what he was truly about. He could argue that he came within one game of guiding the Republic to its first World Cup since 2002.
That was true and O’Neill’s nights of glory won’t be forgotten. But it was also true that some essential flame died on the night of that 5-1 play-off drubbing against Denmark in Dublin. Since then the public has lost faith. Richard Sadlier on RTÉ News: Pat Dolan on Prime Time: the opinion was that O’Neill’s era was done. So it proved.
What John Delaney and the FAI won’t do is come out and explain why, if O’Neill was sufficiently attractive to earn a two-year contract in January, he has become untenable in their eyes before the next competitive campaign has even started.
Whoever gets the job will have the primary task of guiding Ireland to the next European Championships. But there has to be a broader ambition too.
Brian Kerr, steeped in Irish football, was given one campaign – and one campaign only – in charge of Ireland. He hasn’t been employed by the FAI since. It’s the 20th anniversary of Kerr’s celebrated young team that won the U-18 European Championships.
In conversation with his friend Eamon Dunphy this week, John Giles identified a fundamental flaw in Irish football.
“We do have a problem bringing the players through,” Giles said. “I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if anyone knows exactly why that is, to be honest.”
Finding the answer to that question and putting a correction in place is surely the key to the future of football here. The old model of hoping that enough Irish kids make it through the threshing machine of the English apprenticeship system to emerge as a contemporary Giles or McGrath or Roy Keane or Damien Duff is now redundant.
It could be that importing a figurehead manager from the English game for the bit of prestige has had its day also. In a way, it doesn’t matter who becomes the next Irish manager.
What matters is that there are football people like Kerr and Stephen Kenny and Lee Carsley, the reliable midfield general of the first McCarthy era now on the coaching staff of the England U-21 team, with the knowledge and vitality and imagination to come up with a blueprint for how a small country could guide today’s eight-year-olds through a football culture that truly backs itself.
Irish football people need to demand of their FAI executive a clear and persuasive vision for the next two decades of Irish football so that the national senior team becomes a reflection of the progressive domestic game rather than a puzzle that needs to be solved over and over.