Exclusive: John Delaney chronicles a big week in Irish football
'Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,’ Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, one said. ‘I can assure you - it is much, much more important than that.' All last week in Ireland football was more important than that.
This country's dreams of Ireland qualifying for the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil went up in smoke after a bad defeat against Austria in Vienna on Tuesday.
The following morning, Ireland’s manager Giovanni Trapattoni was reacquainted with his P45 after what the Guardian called “five aggravating years.”
On Friday night and again yesterday morning, John Delaney, the charismatic Chief Executive of the Football Association of Ireland, gave the Sunday Independent a frank and honest three hour interview about Trap’s departure, his legacy and the future.
On Thursday, Ireland plummeted to 59th in the FIFA World Rankings – our worst ever placing.
“Obviously I’m very disappointed with the drop, “ John said, “but the reality is that it’s the starting point for the next manager in the sense that I’m hoping that we’re heading back up from here.”
I asked him what mistakes did he feel were made looking back on Trapattoni's time in charge of Ireland.
“Look, there were plenty of good times and good things that he did for us. The positives outweighed the negatives if you want to put it like that. You have got to look at his contribution over the last three campaigns really to appreciate that.,” he said. “As a Board, we always feel that you leave the footballing decisions entirely to the manager you appoint and although everyone has opinions, we always have and always will stick by that."
“No player ever came to me and said they had problems understanding him," John adds. "We know his English wasn’t perfect but in football terms, the majority of players think he got his message across. We had discomfort as a board over public criticisms of players, matters that sometimes might be better handled internally. To be fair to him though he took our thoughts on board when it was raised and across all areas of working with him, he was an absolute gentleman. That is why I was personally happy that even with the difficult decisions that had to be made in the last few days, they were done with the dignity that a man of his international stature deserves.”
Asked when did he realise that his as manager of Ireland couldn't go any further, John answers: “The loss to Germany last October was a huge blow to us as the score board reflected,” John says referring to the 6-1 scoreline, Ireland’s largest ever competitive home defeat, “but the team and management regrouped very quickly and performed well against the Faroe Islands a few days later. "
"We performed well against Sweden and Austria in March, and were very unfortunate to miss out on three points in the Austria game in the dying minutes of the game when Alaba equalized,” John says referring to the injury time goal that earned Austria a 2-2 draw with Ireland at Aviva Stadium.” It would have been great to have the points behind us coming into this month’s games to ease the pressure, so realistically four points was the least we could have taken from these games to keep our Rio hopes alive."
Can you describe the moment when you told Trapattoni that it was over last Wednesday morning?
“It was a gradual process,” he says, “I spoke to him briefly after the game, with plans to speak the following morning in Dublin. After we had slept on it, Giovanni and Marco I think realised that they had taken the team as far as they could go. I’ve said this before and I’m not ashamed to say it again- it was a very emotional meeting, there were tears shed. We had developed a close bond over the last five and a half years. I have the utmost respect for Giovanni, the manager and the man and I’m proud of how he has played a part in Irish football history.”
Trap said in an interview Friday’s Mail that there were tears in his eyes. How emotional a meeting was it?
“To tell a man who’s entire life and passion, like my own, is football that it has to end is very emotionally taxing,” John says. “It was only made harder by the fact that we had become good friends. “
The meeting, which took place on Wednesday morning at 9.30 in Dublin airport., was attended by Giovanni, Marco, FAI President Paddy McCaul, Honorary secretary Michael Cody and John.
“After working together for so long, we all knew and like each other well, but there was inevitably some tension in the air before the meeting commenced,” John admits. “However, as soon as we sat down and started chatting, we were able to agree together that it was time for a change.”
You told Newstalk that "there was a lot of emotion" when the meeting was held. Did Trap want to go?
“He knew that the time had come,” John says, “but that didn’t make it any less sad for us on either side. He liked working here, and we certainly enjoyed working with him. It’s the nature of professional football that all good things come to an end.”
How was a compromise reached over money? How much did he ask for and how much did he get?
“I can’t go into that because it’s confidential, but there was an agreement reached and both parties are happy with the outcome,” John says.
Asked about Trap’s suggestion earlier in the week that his successor would struggle to do a better job than he had, John said with a smile: “I think we have to let a successor come in and assess things for himself, but in my mind we have some great talent in players coming through that can bring us good results in the next campaign. Giovanni did a great job, but sometimes a fresh approach from a new manager can help bring the team on again. “
You have always had a great relationship with the supporters. What sort of comments were you getting about Trap and the Irish team in the last six months? Did that influence your decision to end his contract?
“Since the Euros, there’s no doubt that there was more negativity there. The Germany result was a big trigger on public opinion. I think as a board, we made the right decision to stand by Giovanni back in October. We were still very much in the running for second spot, and it would have been premature to make changes given our position at that time.”
When did the thought of ending Trap's contract first come into your mind? After the Sweden game?
“When we discussed this campaign with Giovanni after the draw, we set out a clear objective to reach a playoff with the team, and hopefully qualify. We all went into September knowing that these games were make or break for our World Cup dreams, and I suppose at that time there was a realisation that if things went wrong, it was time for the board to re-assess things.”
What positive lessons have we learned from this World Cup campaign?
"Well, of course there have been some learnings,” he says.” Clearly, we didn’t perform as well as we set out to. Having reached a play off for the World Cup in 2010 and qualified for the Euros last year, the expectation was in that territory. The Germany match was a big low of course. But since you’ve asked for the positives, we have seen the emergence of a group of young players who will be around to contribute a lot in years to come. Seeing the emergence of Robbie Brady, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long and players like that gives you hope for the future - we have genuine talent coming up behind the more established names.”
In terms of a successor to Giovanni, even the dogs on the street seem to think a certain Northern Ireland demi-god of the soccer world has already got the plumb job.
I asked John straight had he spoken to Martin O'Neill yet.
“The board is due to meet in the coming days to set out the process in order to determine the best decisions for Irish football,” John said without blinking, without answering the question.
He seems to be the clear favourite. Does Martin have all the necessary qualities in your view to bring Ireland to the next level?
“It would be unfair of me to discuss any candidate at present,” John said.
Asked about the timeframe for when candidates will be approached, John said that the Board will decide the approach and the timing issues about candidates. “It’s not time critical given the match schedule for the next twelve months and the start date for the next Euros.”
Could Mick McCarthy take on the role for the second time?
“It’s unfair to speculate on any individuals before the board meet….”
You are mates with Alex Ferguson. Is there a possibility of you might approach him? “Alex is a good friend of mine, but as I say, I’m not going to talk about anyone specifically.”
‘I really don’t want to talk about anyone specifically!” he laughs.
I ignore him and ask is Roy Keane being considered.
“Same goes for Roy, I said during the week that we’re not ruling anyone out and for me to comment at this stage on any candidates would be inappropriate.” In terms of any apparent animosity between the two over Saipan in 2002, John smiles and says: “ The past is the past! We move on," John laughed.
When John rightly pursued a France-Ireland replay on the basis of honesty and fairness, Keane as usual went in with his studs blazing and his brain disengaged and said in a TV interview: "John Delaney? He's on about honesty and integrity. I wouldn't take any notice of that man."
John, a passionate man, says that Thierry Henry's intentional handball to set up William Gallas’s decisive goal against Ireland that November 2009 in Paris will haunt him until his dying day..” I’ll never forget going into the dressing room afterwards, the sense of injustice and the cold, cold silence of despair that cloaked everyone. Trap should take a lot of credit though for helping the team bounce back from that despair. Two years later the joy in the dressing room after the Estonia game when we qualified for the Euros.”
Were lessons not learned from the Euros in 2012? Or do people overlook the facts that we were playing against the likes of Spain and Italy?
“Absolutely,” he says. “Euro 2012 was a learning experience for everyone involved. Firstly we have to remember it was a great achievement to qualify. Lots of good nations didn’t. The draw wasn’t very kind to us, there’s no doubt about that. Spain and Italy were ultimately the finalists, and worthy ones too. We couldn’t be faulted on our attitude coming into the tournament, we genuinely thought we had a chance of getting out of the group-but it obviously wasn’t to be.”
Roberto Martinez of Everton this week said the English FA must stop blaming foreigners and instead overhaul a development system. Do you think Ireland can learn similar lessons about growing fledgling talent?
“The development of young talent and how we nurture our best players is a big issue for all football associations at the moment. There was much comment during the week about how we need a system to produce upcoming international players. We have one – and it is actually working,” John tells me.
“Over the last seven years, we have invested over €60 million into the development of the game. A big part of this includes a national emerging talent programme, involving weekly sessions for 3,000 of our best young male and female players, replicating the work undertaken at big academies. The appoint of our new High Performance Director, Ruud Dokter from Holland, and the development of our new National Academy in Abbotstown are very important pieces in this work. I can see where Martinez is coming from in the sense that elite development structures are required to compete in modern international football."
" I’m confident that we have a good base, improving facilities and already, new young, talented players are coming through our Elite pathway. We have a coaching network that many similar countries would wish for so the investment in the future development of players is being made. There is always more to do, but we’ve definitely made a good start in recent years and Ruud’s appointment will take it on to the next level.”
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
“Some people think that my job is mainly about the international team and I suppose that comes down to media coverage and general interest. In reality it is very different. I spend every weekend visiting clubs and leagues and listening to what our grassroots need and working for the 450,000 people that are involved in the game. The majority of the people involved in football are amateurs and volunteers and working with these guys is the biggest and most important aspect of my role really. The people at grassroots, the volunteers and coaches at the 900 clubs that I’ve visited know that but a big portion of the general public focus on what the media focus on which is natural.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “The senior set up is very important but it is just the tip of the pyramid in terms of what I spend my time trying to achieve for the FAI. There has been a huge amount done in recent years to grow football through the development of emerging talent, high performance programmes, a huge emphasis on coaching, and at the moment the roll out of the first phase of our national academy.
“Partnership with local authorities, a nationwide network of development officers, intercultural programmes, social inclusion programmes, working with disability groups and making sure that we are delivering for our members and sponsors is hugely important and also largely unseen.”
Will the new manager of Ireland expect to be on the same wages as Trapattoni?
“Like any contract,” John says, “this will be negotiated, thankfully with Denis O’Brien’s commitment for the next two years means we can now go the market with a competitive salary to offer a distinguished manager to help bring us forward.”
Ireland soccer legend Liam Brady told Aine Lawlor on RTÉ's News at One last week "a lack of quality players could turn O'Neill off Ireland job".
Is there any merit in what Brady is saying with regard to a future manager?
“To quote Robbie Keane in a recent press conference,” John says, “ if you had asked me after the Euros where the team was going with the retirement of our senior players, I was extremely worried. However, after the emergence of our younger players over the past year, who have made their positions their own, I am confident that we have the players required to bring the team forward positively as we aim for EURO 2016 in France.”
Brady added "My worry is that our best players are getting old and the ones coming in to replace them are nowhere near as good as they were, and that's not Giovanni Trapattoni's fault.’
“As I said, “ John answers, “looking at the totality of the depth of the players at our disposal, we have some fine young and promising footballers available for the national team. It’s worth remembering that all our underage teams reached the elite stages of their respective Euro campaigns last year so there’s more talent on the way.”
Niall Quinn said last week that Trap had at least five top players in the prime of their career - Shay Given, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and John O'Shea – and “that stood to him and he was able to bring guys on alongside them. But did he really bring them on so that they could take over from that group in the future? I don't think so." Is there any merit in what Quinn is saying?
“I have to say that I disagree with Niall,” John says un-surprisingly.
“We have an almost unrecognisable squad of young players now from that of the Euros. Only this week Seamus Coleman was shortlisted for the premier league player of the month. Players like Coleman, Brady, Hendrick, McCarthy, Long, Wilson and McClean have all grown significantly in the last campaign. I have no doubt that they are ready to step up and help the team forward for the next campaign.”
Some critics have said that Trapattoni is similar to Jack Charlton - he is suspect of creativity. "He thinks Hoolahan in trying to pass a ball will give the ball away, and that he will refuse to lump it up the pitch in the style that Trapattoni prefers." Is there any merit in this assessment?
“Our job as the Board was to pick the Manager. If we picked the team, as ten Board members, there might be ten different line ups!” John laughs. “His job was to select the players he felt would get us the success we all wanted and with one playoff, one qualification he delivered in those campaigns what we all wanted.”
John is a fervent Manchester United and Waterford United supporter, What style of play would you like to see the new manager of Ireland have Ireland play in?
“Ideally, as with all football fans, we’d want to see great, exciting football with lots of goals for and few against! The truth is that every manger is different and everyone has their own recipe for getting the results we want. At the end of the day, we all would cherish heading to another Euros and beyond. If we can do that by playing creative, exciting”
Dunphy also said that Trapattoni does not believe in his players or Ireland's footballing tradition. Is there any merit in this?
“I don’t see any merit in looking back at this stage. Giovanni achieved a playoff place in his first campaign and qualified us for Euros which gave the nation a huge lift let alone the football community. This campaign was disappointing but it’s now time to move on. “
I ask John can he you see as a big footballing fan himself – John lives and breathes soccer - why Dunphy would say this about Trap’s Ireland team.
"I don't think ever since Trapattoni took the job he has had the idea in mind, and Jack Charlton had the same idea, that we are a little country like Malta, Lichtenstein or Luxembourg. The team reached the Euros in Poland which must reflect well on the players, the management team – everyone. The away competitive record with excellent results in places like Italy, France, and Russia also reflects very well on the team and our place in European football.”
Do you think Trap treated Shane Long and James McCarthy with the respect they deserved as players?
“I’m not going to reflect on Giovanni’s relationship with individual players,” John says. “As I mentioned the sometimes public nature of the communications with players was something the Board thought could be handled in an internal manner.”
Will Stephen Reid and Stephen Ireland come back into the frame with a new manager?
“Our job is to concentrate on a getting a new manager,” John Delaney smiled.