Friday 20 October 2017

Patience a virtue in search for an inspirational leader

By moving beyond the usual suspects, FAI might get right manager for the job, writes Dion Fanning

‘If O'Neill remains the preferred candidate, it was hard to see how he would remain interested if his methods at Sunderland were being questioned’
‘If O'Neill remains the preferred candidate, it was hard to see how he would remain interested if his methods at Sunderland were being questioned’

Dion Fanning

Tomorrow Ireland's caretaker manager Noel King will name the squad for the games against Germany and Kazakhstan. King has spent the week since he was appointed doing what football men usually do: watch football matches.

After the Trapattoni era, this seems like a revolutionary act. King was in London last week to watch Darron Gibson play 69 minutes for Everton at Craven Cottage and the following night he saw Stephen Ireland score for Stoke City against Tranmere Rovers. King is expected at the Britannia Stadium at lunchtime today when Ireland may feature again.

The return of these two players might add something to the attendance for the game against Kazakhstan but, of those two, only Gibson is certain to be in the squad. Others like Kevin Doyle and Anthony Stokes could also be included as the damage done to relationships with certain players during Trapattoni's time is repaired.

In other countries, King would be a candidate for the job himself. In some other countries, King would have been left in his old job as coach of the under 21s for a crucial game rather than manage the senior team for two matches which, in John Delaney's words, "are not of importance" in terms of qualification.

On Friday, Ray Houghton and the FAI's high-performance director Ruud Dokter met to discuss their roles in the search for a new manager.

Two weeks ago, there was a hope that the search would barely have to start. When Giovanni Trapattoni departed, there was the feeling within the FAI that Martin O'Neill was interested and there could be a swift appointment.

Over the following week, things changed. O'Neill, who according to a source close to him remains understandably upset at his dismissal from Sunderland, was taking his time. Some suggested he wanted a return to club management. The FAI again stressed that they could take their time.

Last week, the FAI broadened their search while questions were asked about O'Neill. A report in last week's Irish Independent stated the FAI's interest in O'Neill had diminished after a "series of background checks" had raised questions about his management style if, as he was at Sunderland, he was without his usual assistant John Robertson.

The FAI were to be applauded for their thoroughness but if O'Neill remains the preferred candidate, it was hard to see how he would remain interested if his methods at Sunderland were being questioned.

O'Neill remains the outstanding candidate of those regularly mentioned. Mick McCarthy is believed to be the man most likely if O'Neill is not appointed. If McCarthy returned it would be a reward for his integrity and decency but there would be those who would question if, with Denis O'Brien's financial support, the FAI couldn't find a more inspirational figure.

The FAI are believed to want a manager from Britain or Ireland as they attempt to correct the mistakes of the Trapattoni era. Only if they can uncover a name as big as Trapattoni's will they consider a continental manager.

Yet not all foreign coaches manage as Trapattoni does and Houghton and Dokter must establish contact with those who are interested.

Houghton was part of the search party six years ago that took 113 days to arrive at the conclusion that Giovanni Trapattoni was the right man.

There is nothing to stop Houghton and Dokter being as thorough this time.

"There was some pressure the last time round," Houghton recalled on Friday. "The results hadn't been there with the team and it was important we had the right appointment. There was a lot of focus on it then obviously Giovanni Trapattoni was appointed. He came in and lifted the morale of the team. This team has a winning mentality now and although results haven't been great in the last couple of games, the team is in a better place than it was."

The FAI will hope that Houghton and Dokter can find a similar candidate. "The process was extensive," Houghton said on Friday of the last search. "There were a lot of names and CVs put forward. We made sure we did our due diligence and went through the names that came up."

Last week Sunderland were contacted by agents who wanted to let them know that Marcelo Bielsa could be interested in the job at the Stadium of Light.

The former Argentina, Chile and Athletic Bilbao coach should be a man the FAI's headhunters want to talk to. Bielsa inspired Pep Guardiola – who described him as the "best coach in the world" in 2012 as he took Bilbao to the Europa League final – and a generation of coaches while producing teams which play exciting, dynamic football.

Bielsa doesn't have an agent, instead relying on what was described as "certain trusted people". Following his departure from Bilbao, he is keen to work again and as a consequence representations were made to Sunderland last week.

It could not be established if he was interested in the Irish job last week but the fact that contact was made on his behalf to an English club should alert the FAI.

Bielsa would be a man to produce a revolution in Irish football which would be a bit more extensive than going to matches. His intensity might alarm some players but many would thrive. "He is a genius," Fernando Llorente said and he would inspire a generation of coaches.

Houghton made some encouraging noises after his meeting with Dokter on Friday which suggested that there needs to be greater unity between the senior team and the teams working below them at underage level.

"It's obviously not just about the first team now. It's about the grassroots too and I think that's hugely important that maybe we change the mentality of our younger element to maybe play football in a different way and improve them so that when they come into the first team, it's a style of football that they're used to playing."

On Wednesday morning in Lucan, there will be another sign of the change required away from the high profile of the senior team. At the South Dublin Football League headquarters, former Irish international John Devine will launch what is called a 'Vision for the Future of Irish football'.

A year ago, six teams were using Devine's coaching vision which, in phase one, involves children from six to 11. They play on smaller pitches in smaller teams and results don't matter. The emphasis is on passing, control and dribbling.

"The aim is to produce intelligent players and intelligent people," Devine says. A year later and six teams have turned into 60 teams, something which Devine hopes is only beginning.

John Giles and Eamon Dunphy will be at the launch this week and Devine is among those with a passionate interest in reforming how players are developed and starting it at an age when players can be shaped. "Look at Belgium 10 years ago and look at where they are today," Devine says.

A year ago, Ireland were 26th in the FIFA rankings, 14 places ahead of Belgium. Today Belgium are sixth and Ireland continue to tumble and are currently 59th. Devine has been backed by Michael O'Brien at the South Dublin League and it is important that, as Houghton and Dokter search for a new manager, the work done at the youngest ages is seen as relevant and essential to the development of all levels of the game.

For that reason, the search needs to move beyond the usual suspects, to look for somebody who can excite

Irish football. In Vienna, John O'Shea called for Niall Quinn, Roy Keane and Kevin Kilbane to be involved in shaping the future and they have too much experience for it to be wasted.

Keane is believed to have little support within the FAI but he is another person Houghton and Dokter should talk to. As each manager leaves Sunderland, Keane's record at the club becomes more impressive.

Noel King believes the FAI's Emerging Talent programme is going "from strength to strength" and the FAI are pitching the attractiveness of the Irish job on the back of some talented young players.

"There have been many interesting names already put forward to us, both Irish and from abroad," Dokter said on Friday. "In a process like this it is important to have an open mind, try to prioritise what the role actually requires and then see who best fits that requirement.

"Finding the right coach for any job is not an exact science. It is about speaking to candidates and finding out about them. Unless we do that we can never be certain who will be the best person for the position. The national coach is extremely important and a very high-profile position in the football community in Ireland."

The FAI have a Dokter in the house and his international experience could be useful in seeking out a candidate. Guus Hiddink has shortened in the betting but he is believed to be looking for a job with a World Cup side and a return to Australia has been mentioned.

Dick Advocaat is another interesting candidate while Hector Cuper remains eager to talk to the FAI, even if his candidacy has so far failed to capture the public's imagination.

In that, he may be the perfect candidate for a team which is neither loved nor hated by the public but greeted with a shrug. There are 33,000 coaches in Ireland according to Delaney, the game could be said to be more popular than it has ever been, except the domestic league struggles and all passion seems spent for the national team.

The FAI are searching for a man to manage the national team but if they can find a leader to transform Irish football then their thoroughness would be applauded for generations.

Sunday Independent

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