Sunday 25 September 2016

James Lawton: Time for FAI to stop counting the profits and invest in the future

Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30

Robbie Brady fires his shot through the legs of the Bosnian defence - and the fog - to give
Ireland the lead
Robbie Brady fires his shot through the legs of the Bosnian defence - and the fog - to give Ireland the lead
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill said that he saw for himself a crucial role in re-casting Ireland’s place in the international arena

beyond the fine edge of Martin O'Neill's still buoyant chances of taking Ireland to their sixth major championship finals is a mission statement which ultimately must be weighed more heavily than the outcome of tonight's match.

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O'Neill made it clearly enough a few days before last Friday's fighting performance in the tribal football enclave of Zenica.

He said that he saw for himself a crucial role in re-casting Ireland's place in the international arena.

He wanted to help groom young Irish players, especially perhaps those growing up on the home shore, into a different view of themselves so that, when they stepped up to the highest level, they did not have a sinking feeling that they might be scaling an Alpine peak in carpet slippers.

That is the necessary, realistic understanding that has to be embraced even if the potentially dangerous touch of Bosnia & Herzegovina is overcome.

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When Robbie Brady emerged, briefly, from the fog as a possible match-winner, he had done little to counter the conclusion that this team, albeit gallantly and with splendid application, had done no more than hang on in the fringes of the tournament.

Four years ago such a feat led to the unavoidable, draining impression that the old Italian fox Giovanni Trapattoni's knowing campaign had led merely to his team arriving at the finals with an instant and overwhelming sense that they were in over their heads.

Trap's mournfully resigned face seemed to say, "What on earth can I do about this?"

O'Neill, to his credit, has addressed the truth that, down the road, Ireland will at best be treading water if they cannot make some reconnection with a tradition which produced players for whom the world stage was not a minefield but a theatre of opportunity.

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Players of the craft and skill of John Giles and Liam Brady, of the ferocious will and winning instincts of Roy Keane, of the defensive quality of Paul McGrath, David O'Leary and Denis Irwin - the sort of players O'Neill can only fantasise about.

The supply chain is simply not good enough. That Ireland should grasp so eagerly at the possibility of recruiting Jack Grealish, a player unformed both in his eye-catching talent and competitive character, was a statement of both great need and some desperation.

Grealish proved to be an illusory target but the lesson of that somewhat humiliating denouement, given that he had been part of the Irish system, is one that O'Neill is plainly not willing to ignore whether Ireland are involved in the French finals or sunning themselves on the beach.

O'Neill has said he will do all the nurturing he can. Of course, the requirement runs deeper and broader.

The FAI, rather than counting the profits, have a much more pressing duty in investing them in the most precious commodity of any national game - a flow of properly identified and professionally developed raw material.

It is something that cannot be done on the cheap. It is something that requires crack pros, recruited if necessary, from places like the classic breeding grounds of such superior talent, Spain, Germany, Holland and South America.

None of this is to short-change the efforts of O'Neill's squad. Their qualifying victory over world champions Germany is a badge won by dint of supreme commitment.

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And in Zenica we saw a similar strain of determination against a team, drawn from a similar population base of 4.5m, of at times more bountiful creative talent. If Edin Dzeko had not finally thrown off the shackles imposed by Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh, we would have been celebrating a victory secured by nerve and resolution.

O'Neill's chances of completing the job will be boosted by the return of John Walters, John O'Shea and, hopefully, Shane Long.

If a positive result ensues, it will be above all a cause for admiration and gratitude that a group of footballers have met the challenge of discouraging odds.

It will say much for the ability of their manager to recognise both the strengths - and the limitations - of his dressing room, and of the players to see that, without exceptional effort and self-belief,their cause would surely have been doomed.

They have done it with great honesty and heart. A similarly unvarnished vision must now be displayed by the administrators of Irish football.

They, too, have to see the scale of their challenge and the urgency of the need to lift their performance.

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