Thursday 27 July 2017

Cunningham row begins silly season

John O'Brien

The dubious prize for St Patrick's Athletic for their fine victory against IBV Vestmannaeyjar of Iceland in the first qualifying round of the Europa League at Inchicore on Thursday was a 10,000km round trip to Kazakhstan next week where they face Shakhter Karagandy in the second round.

How that went down with the money men trying to keep the ship afloat at Richmond Park wasn't clear, but it was encouraging to see that Ireland's cash-strapped clubs remain competitive against clubs from other small nations.

Less edifying, however, was the mini-storm that erupted when Damien Richardson announced the appointment of Kenny Cunningham as his assistant to the Airtricity League XI for the Dublin Super Cup at the end of the month. Cunningham's lack of League credentials was cited by a number of critics, led by former Shelbourne boss Dermot Keely, as a reason why he was wrong for the job.

Not surprisingly, Richardson launched a vigorous counter-attack, labelling Keely and his fellow-critics "myopic" and "incestuous" and while there was a degree of righteousness on both sides, the unsightly kerfuffle over what was, in essence, a minor appointment was an unfortunate throwback to the days when the league was regularly blighted by bitter squabbles and internecine strife between clubs and rival managers.

It was Cunningham's misfortune to be caught in the middle this time. The former Wimbledon and Birmingham defender was honest enough to concede his coaching experience was negligible. But the 72 caps he won for Ireland and his distinguished career in English football ought to have ensured diplomatic immunity from the charges levelled at him. He is a young coach eager to get on the ladder and simply seized a decent opportunity presented to him.

One of the wilder accusations flung at Richardson was that Cunningham's appointment was made at the behest of an outside body, presumably the FAI, and although there is no reason to believe this, it would hardly have constituted the crime of the century if true anyway. The FAI giving the nod to the future by enabling a young coach to gain valuable experience alongside a legend of the game. More of it please.

We applaud the fact that an Ireland under 19 team will contest the upcoming UEFA championship finals, but we forget that we need to develop home-grown coaches too. Our record is poor in this respect. The teams led by Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy were full of leaders and bright characters but that didn't translate into a generation of great coaches. McCarthy himself, David O'Leary and John Sheridan have enjoyed success. Roy Keane and the likes of John Aldridge and Ronnie Whelan less so. The less said about Steve Staunton the better.

So we need to try harder. It was regrettable that Cunningham downplayed his interest in securing a full-time coaching role in Ireland because there's no reason why it couldn't be a staging post for a successful career elsewhere, as it was all those years ago for Sam Allardyce at Limerick.

None of this is to suggest that Cunningham is a future Ireland manager in waiting. But if we don't push them then we'll never know.

This matters because the days are surely gone -- and mercifully so -- when the FAI could afford to splash out on glamour foreign managers and new avenues need to be explored. And even if things didn't work out, it's still impossible to forget the boost it gave the game here when Brian Kerr was unveiled as McCarthy's successor in 2002. So whatever his fortunes in the coming years, Cunningham didn't deserve the criticism that came his way before he'd even spent a day in the job.

We need to be encouraging these guys, not trying to drive them away.

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