Friday 20 April 2018

Euro failures must become catalyst for reform

Ireland's playing structures are clearly not working and need a radical overhaul, argues John O'Brien

WHEN it came to RTE's analysis of Ireland's dismal showing at Euro 2012, there was something particularly refreshing about listening to Didier Hamann, the former German midfielder. What Hamann had to say wasn't essentially new or startling, but his dispassionate delivery and common sense made him vital listening. He wasn't eloquent or long-winded like Eamon Dunphy and it helped that he didn't have a clearly emotional panelist beside him asking why he hadn't said these things before.

Instead, Hamann articulated his misgivings about Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni in composed and measured terms. He had played under the Italian at Bayern Munich so maybe there was history there, but his analysis was powerful and packed a meaty punch. He was particularly scathing about Paul Green replacing Glenn Whelan against Spain, deeming it an insult to better players on the bench, and coming from an outsider the argument carried considerable weight.

Even more than that, it hinted broadly at the kind of cold, rational discourse that is too often lacking in the navel-gazing that passes as football analysis here. Niall Quinn suggests Roy Keane as a future Ireland manager and hostilities resume over whether Keane was a martyr or a traitor when he left Saipan in 2002.

On RTE, the idea of a review of Trapattoni's position was floated and met with general approval by the panel. Surely, like Hamann, we need to step back and take a forensic look at the Irish football team and the nature of the game here in general. In his last major press conference before heading home, Trapattoni argued passionately that he had done everything required of him and, in truth, he had a point. Still, if the Italian could provide all the answers, perhaps we just weren't asking the right questions.

Should we not expect more from a manager than what Trapattoni has achieved? Shouldn't we be trying to develop more home-grown candidates, capable of negotiating less-than-intimidating qualifying groups like the one Ireland faced in the last campaign, who wouldn't command outlandish salaries and would have a passionate and vested interest in all levels of the game here and maintain a fussy approach when it came to keeping in touch with players in England and beyond?

Instead of asking pertinent questions, though, we get stuck in the familiar rut of hailing managers as heroes one day before dismissing them as washed-out the next.

As recently as last September, the vibes against Trapattoni were negative. Two months later, his stock soared again. In Poland, it seemed as if he was in bonus territory, but after three poor performances the blades were being sharpened again. We are up and down like the Nasdaq index.

The FAI argue it is making progress in critical areas. It has established regional centres around the country, filled them with players from the emerging talent programmes, more coaches are taking their UEFA A and Pro Licences and there is the John Giles Foundation and other worthy schemes. But is it doing enough? All the recent evidence seems to suggest much more could be done.

In particular, the Airtricity League needs critical attention. When he was installed as the FAI's performance director in 2008, one of the first things Wim Koevermans mentioned was the importance of having a strong domestic league. Yet the impetus for positive change in recent years has come from supporters taking control of their own destinies. The FAI needs to embrace this development more, offer encouragement and more investment if it can afford it.

In the last few years, Kevin Doyle, Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and James McClean have all made the leap from Irish football to the Premier League in England. After an initial unhappy spell in England, Keith Fahey rebuilt his career and his reputation at St Pat's. The league's critical role as a bridge for young players hoping to forge careers in England needs to be carefully nourished. Leaving home at 17 shouldn't be the only option for an aspiring professional.

The juxtaposition of Monaghan United's demise with pictures of FAI officials whooping it up in Poland was unfortunate yet it is sobering to recall that when the club was obviously in difficulty earlier this year, the association was throwing the book at Roddy Collins for a few throwaway comments he made on a radio show. Whatever way you look at it, the optics of that look bad now.

Irish football is in need of a radical rethink. After a disastrous Euro 2000 -- just a single point and a goal to their name -- Germany initiated a root-and-branch reform of the game, building a new national side around a restructured Bundesliga. Spain did something similar after the 2002 World Cup. That these are big countries with huge resources shouldn't mean we can't learn from their example.

If the sobering experience -- on the playing field at least -- at Euro 2012 is to be of long-term value, we should be asking ourselves where precisely things went wrong. The 2002 World Cup was the catalyst for the FAI to reform itself and now there is an opportunity to do the same on the playing front. It would be a shame if it was missed.

Sunday Indo Sport

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