Ken Early: There's a confusing sensation around Ireland, is it optimism?
Conflicting emotions the order of the day as 'Succession Plan 2022' is unveiled
Newly appointed Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy at the Aviva press conference. Photograph: ©INPHO/Gary Carr
Nobody covers the Irish team for many years without developing a thick protective outer shell of cynicism: I have been hurt too many times to be taken in again, I am a rock, I am an island. Yesterday’s second unveiling of Mick McCarthy at the Aviva Stadium therefore gave rise to a confusing jumble of feelings. This unfamiliar sensation . . . is it . . . optimism? You want to give in, you want to believe – but experience has taught you that if you are feeling optimistic then you are probably missing something.
The positive way to look at the FAI’s Mick McCarthy-Stephen Kenny “Succession Plan 2022” is that they have come up with a creative solution that addresses the Irish team’s problems in both the short and the long term. The plan promises to integrate McCarthy’s experience and knowhow with Kenny’s energy and promise, as well as incorporating an outstanding player of recent times in Robbie Keane, and improving the links between the League of Ireland, the underage teams and the senior international side. As Mick McCarthy said: “We’re all in it together. That’s the upshot – John, Ruud [Dokter], myself, Robbie, TC [assistant Terry Connor], Stephen Kenny and all the scouts. It’s one.”
We’re all one, a beautiful vision. But you know you have a responsibility to remember the negative interpretation: that this succession plan is a fudge, that it suggests the FAI board could not make its mind up to fully back either McCarthy or Kenny and has dodged a tough decision by appointing both. In the jaundiced view that becomes reflexive when you spend too much time following the Irish team, this is a kind of FAI version of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, which in seeking to appease various conflicting interests ends up pleasing nobody.
Clearly there is an element of risk to the plan – announcing your managerial appointments years in advance leaves you vulnerable to unexpected turns of events. One obvious potential issue is: what happens if Mick does so well that nobody wants him to step aside when the time comes for Kenny to step up?
This question was lightly brushed aside as being a problem we would all be delighted to have. McCarthy’s take was, if he does well then maybe a Premier League club will want to hire him, or maybe he gets to go to China for £10 million a year. And if he doesn’t do well, then people would have been calling for him to go anyway, so it makes no difference.
FAI chief John Delaney for his part insisted there was no extension clause of any kind in McCarthy’s deal, and that whenever Ireland’s Euro 2020 campaign is over, Kenny will become the manager on a contract that will take him to the conclusion of the 2022 World Cup cycle. If Kenny happens to take over a team that has come together under McCarthy’s leadership and acquitted itself well in the Euros, then so much the better for him.
A cynic might suggest that Kenny now has to hope Mick enjoys success, but not too much. But cynicism gets tiring after a while. Yesterday it felt good to sit back and let yourself daydream about what it might be like if something in Irish football worked out for a change. After the weariness of the last few months, we now have the chance for a fresh start. The new regime will go straight into competitive games in March. The immediate jeopardy will be good for ratings and attendances at the Aviva. Maybe the cycle of fortune is due some kind of upturn.
The fact that McCarthy will be leaving in 2020, come what may, could change the dynamic of the conversation around the team, rendering moot the usual energy-sapping arguments over whether the manager is the right man for the job. McCarthy said he now believes that international coaches should work on two-year cycles anyway, and if these next few years work out as hoped then maybe this will be the best model for Ireland to use in the future.
And it’s not necessarily delusional to be optimistic that Ireland have the potential to be much better than recent performances have suggested. If you want a reason to be hopeful then think about what Matt Doherty told 2FM’s Game On last Wednesday evening.
“Compared to the set-up I have at Wolves, you could class [Ireland training under O’Neill and Keane] as old-school. When you were away with Ireland, you didn’t really have that much coaching. It was more of five-a-side, or 11-a-side game, and that would be it. The day before a game you would do a few set-pieces here and there and then go into the game. You are kind of thinking to yourself, ‘what shape are we going to play?’; “You’d have a few players thinking ‘we’ll play this shape’, or someone else thinking something else. You can’t have that, especially at international football, people not really sure on what their role is the next day.”
Martin O’Neill reportedly called Doherty afterwards to express his annoyance at what he evidently felt was an unfair characterisation of how Ireland worked under his management. But Doherty was echoing things other players had said about the regime. The promising thing about these reports from the training ground is that they suggest rapid improvement might be possible if the new staff can bring greater clarity and focus to the preparations.
If Doherty wants Ireland to spend more time working on shape he should find at least one ally on the new coaching staff. According to Peter Crouch in his recent book: “At Spurs, Robbie Keane would sometimes complain that we should be doing more work on team shape and tactical patterns. Harry would give him a dirty look and launch into one. ‘What the f*** would I want to do that for? You want me to tell Gareth Bale where to run? Eh? You want me to tell Luka where he should pass it? Huh? These are top players, Robbie, top players!’”
John, Mick, Ruud, Robbie, TC, Stephen Kenny, the players, the fans, all of us together, setting aside our divisions and working together to heal Irish football and make it a better place. We’ll probably look back on the moment when that felt possible and laugh – great gusts of bitter hollow laughter – maybe the hyena shrieks will already be resounding by the middle of March. But it was at least a nice daydream to while away a couple of hours on a cold dark evening in November.