Tuesday 27 September 2016

Off the Ball: Ireland need 2020 vision to restore qualifying hope

Next European campaign must be top priority as next World Cup in Russia looks out of reach

Donny Mahoney

Published 17/06/2015 | 02:30

James McCarthy takes the fight to Scotland last weekend. McCarthy is by far the classiest footballer we have and should be made captain after this campaign DAVID MAHER / SPORTSFILE
James McCarthy takes the fight to Scotland last weekend. McCarthy is by far the classiest footballer we have and should be made captain after this campaign DAVID MAHER / SPORTSFILE

Back when I was a teenager in America in the late 1990s, I remember US Soccer launching a project called 'Towards 2018', or something like that. It was one of those nakedly, and dare I say it, foolishly ambitious schemes Americans are prone to: a 20-year plan to win the 2018 World Cup.

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We've had nearly 72 hours of post-mortems following Ireland's highly-frustrating draw to Scotland. The wolves are at the door. The bleak future of Irish football has become the bleak present.

It's time for a plan. Let's call it 'Towards 2020'.

The goal won't be winning the next Euros, just qualifying for them. It's a tall order, I know, but it can be attained with clarity of purpose.

Planning for the future means accepting the reality of the present. Our fate was sealed when the pots for 2014 World Cup qualifying were allocated on Sunday. No UEFA country from the fourth pot reached the 2014 World Cup. In 2006 and 2010, only one country did. There will be no Irish team in Russia. Sorry.

But the World Cup qualifying campaign will not be pointless. It will allow us to blood a new team who can develop a playing style and togetherness. For all their brave soldiering, the likes of Aiden McGeady, Marc Wilson and, sadly, Wes Hoolahan are no good to the cause any longer. Time to move on.

James McCarthy will be 33 when Euro 2020 kicks off. Forget the haters, he's by far the classiest footballer we have. He should be made captain after this campaign. The responsibility might extract some of the 'assertiveness' so many yearn for.

Conversations should then take place with the O'Neill/Keane regime. If it suits both parties, O'Neill should remain in charge for the next two years with Keane taking over for Euro 2020 qualifying. There have been many baffling moments under O'Neill, but he and Keane are two of the best football people this island has produced. It's either them or a laptop and some Moneyball geeks. Any dreams that a savvy gaffer with a lucky streak could do better (Harry Redknapp comes to mind) should be banished.

Accepting that all is temporarily lost is hard to do. There will certainly be darker days to come.

But there are the bones of a team here. Robbie Brady, Richard Keogh, Cyrus Christie: your time is nigh.

It's time that Ireland accepted its place in world football.

Until radical restructuring takes place at the grassroots, qualifying for the European Championships should be the height of Ireland's ambitions.

Irish Independent

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