Crunch Scottish qualifier vital the future of the FAI
Published 10/06/2015 | 02:30
How will June 2015 be remembered in the annals of Irish football?
In truth, the only way that action on the pitch will provide the defining image is if Martin O'Neill's side deliver the goods against Scotland on Saturday to bring a happy end to a summer gathering that has been overshadowed by events that are totally out of the manager's control.
John Delaney's confirmation of the FAI's deal with FIFA succeeded in catapulting Irish football into the middle of a global scandal and the collateral damage continues with Jose Mourinho having another pop at the Abbotstown hierarchy yesterday.
"When I hear that news about a country that should be at World Cup and millions of Irish people that should be enjoying having its country at the World Cup and they didn't because, to close their mouths and emotions and their hearts, somebody got €5m," said Mourinho. "I'm happy that I'm not (Giovanni) Trapattoni and I don't feel as he is feeling now."
With an Oireachtas committee meeting today to decide whether Delaney should be called before them - with Independent TD Tom Fleming calling for the halving of the CEO's salary - it is clear that this story will not go away.
The bigger FAI picture here, regardless of opinions on the €5m, is that the FAI were grateful for that settlement and a subsequent loan from UEFA because of their substantial commitment to the Aviva Stadium. Delaney takes great pride in lobbying for the expansion of Euro 2016 to 24 teams and was hopeful that Ireland would make their way to France.
Anything less than three points in the return meeting with the Scots and an improbable series of results will be required to achieve that mission. The stakes are huge for the key players in the dressing room and the board room.
It's squeaky bum time, as a certain Scotsman used to say.
Delaney has always insisted that the FAI's monetary strategy is not dependent on making it to major tournaments.
Yet the foreword to the association's annual accounts has made the point that the performance of the senior international team is vital for the association. This can extend to ancillary benefits such as ticket sales and sponsorships.
The €10m-a-year centralised TV deal from UEFA has removed an element of pressure surrounding the identity of opponents in qualifying draws, but the straightforward situation is that being competitive at the business end of a group is essential.
Friendlies are a hard sell these days; the FAI came nowhere near selling out the prized England game they've been seeking for a decade. Polish bodies filled the stadium in March and Scotland think they will have more fans in the ground on Saturday than their 3,500 allocation.
There won't be an excess of Georgian bodies to September to make that game attractive and, while Germany will always be a draw, a dead rubber in October is of little appeal. If Ireland fail to make a play-off, it'll be almost a year until the next competitive match in Ballsbridge.
That's a grim scenario and with the age profile of the dressing room creeping upwards, a necessary period of transition is looming over the horizon. It is extremely difficult to qualify for the World Cup these days and that's why middle-ranking nations drove the enlarged Euros plan.
It was bad luck to land the toughest group. That excuse will provide little consolation as they count the cost. Put simply, the Scottish game means everything and failure will add another angle to July's AGM.
Martin O'Neill & Roy Keane
When the high-profile dream team was unveiled, France was the only acceptable bottom-line outcome.
"If I don't make it, I don't deserve to go on," said O'Neill. "I said the same to Roy, that if I messed up he goes with me. There is no staying on."
The definition of failure has changed in the interim. In April, the Derryman said that a limp exit from the Euros would demand introspection.
"If we went out with a whimper, then I'd have to look at myself. But if we go out and show what we are capable of doing (and still miss out), then I would certainly look at it."
The caveat is that the emphatic comments post-appointment were made before the vagaries of the draw dropped an improving Polish and Scottish sides into Group D along with the world champions.
Therefore, it is conceivable that a conclusion could be reached that Ireland missed out simply because they weren't good enough - not because management failed to draw the best from their squad.
Still, it would be damaging to O'Neill if Saturday's outcome removed suspense from the remaining four matches. The last time Ireland went into the second September of a campaign without any realistic hope was the ill-fated Steve Staunton experiment.
Keane's fate is tied up with O'Neill. The argument for the Corkman as a natural successor at some stage in the future would be weakened if this regime was associated with deflation. A stirring showing is required in this Celtic derby.
Robbie Keane is 35 next month. John O'Shea turned 34 in April. Shay Given will be 40 for the tournament proper if Ireland advance. Regular starters Wes Hoolahan, Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters are also in the thirtysomething category.
They are entitled to worry about the shortage of newcomers coming through the ranks to the replace them and that's why it would be dangerous to talk prematurely about retirement because, as it stands, Ireland will still require their senior citizens for the World Cup 2018 campaign.
However, Keane and O'Shea have been on the go for a long time and nobody could blame them if they opted to concentrate on prolonging their club employment whenever this Euros tilt comes to an end.
They would have an excitement-free four months to think about their next move if the Scottish joust effectively brought down the curtain on the dream of another crack at the big stage 12 months from now.
O'Neill did make a reference to rebuilding last weekend and if he's sincerely thinking about sticking around for the long haul then there would a certain logic in prioritising fresher faces for the final stretch.
The flip side is that three points from the Scots would propel Ireland towards a winnable September double-header with Gibraltar and Georgia and guarantee a thrilling conclusion to this tricky group.
If the old stagers are viewing the 24-team Euros as a last hurrah, they have to seize the moment and save us from a summer of discontent.