Wednesday 21 March 2018

Defining month just another case of history repeating

The prevailing hope at the present time is that manager Martin O'Neill will oversee qualification to Euro 2016
The prevailing hope at the present time is that manager Martin O'Neill will oversee qualification to Euro 2016
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

October is now firmly established as the biggest month in the Irish football calendar, the period where celebrations and post mortems run hand in hand.

The League of Ireland's switch to a summer schedule has placed the business end of their season in tandem with the window where the FAI hierarchy have to take stock of the overall situation. International results shape the mood in an environment where the senior team is king.

Every second year, October is synonymous with either hope or desolation as a regular qualification campaign draws to a close.

Since the permanent introduction of a November play-off solution, there's a fall-back option which can delay the final verdict. Either way, this is always the window for state of the Irish football nation debates

Has it always been this way? Half a century on from the first brush with the play-offs, a decade by decade delve into the archives uncovers some eerily familiar tales.


Ireland's three-team World Cup qualification group was reduced to two when Syria dropped out. A narrow home win over Spain was followed by a heavy October defeat in Seville which, under the rules, necessitated the organisation of a play-off.

Fittingly, Paris would become the centre of the once off drama with the FAI famously agreeing to the French capital being chosen as the venue in return for claiming Spain's cut of the gate receipts. Pushing for a game in England would have helped players and supporters. Alas, the quick buck appealed; in the aftermath players concluded the FAI had sold them out.

A youngster named Eamon Dunphy was drafted in for his Irish debut. He played for Third Division York where, according to Irish newspapers, his presence was putting bums on seats. But in a stadium packed largely with Spanish supporters, the favourites secured a 1-0 win, with Ireland receiving little more than consolatory pats on the head. The France Soir newspaper wrote: "Beaten for sheer football, Ireland's only hope was to call on their indomitable pluck, so characteristic of a nation of unweakened fighters."


The Euros was a different animal in this era, with a four-team finals tournament the target. Ireland finished up with a heartening 4-0 win against Turkey on October 29, with Don Givens scoring all four goals, but player-boss John Giles knew it wouldn't be enough.

Coverage leading up to the match included bigger picture investigations into the health of Irish football, with the domestic league struggling due to falling attendances and a growing interest in cross-channel fare.

The Irish Press canvassed key figures. Cork Hibs secretary Sean O'Sullivan said: "Some years ago I thought there was a chance of a full-time professional set-up in Irish soccer but that's out of the question now."

Athlone boss Amby Fogarty proposed a reduction in the amount of Dublin sides from five to two and, potentially, the application of an inter-county style system.

"This has been discussed before but nobody ever says anything about it," he said. "That's one of the things wrong with Irish soccer. Nobody wants to make a decision, not even a small one."

FAI president Charlie Walsh did have important good news to report after the Turkish stroll; another away friendly with our old pals in Poland had been organised for the following year.


Eoin Hand, who had taken a savaging from rising journalistic star Dunphy, was on the ropes with Ireland's Mexican World Cup dreams dashed with a game to spare.

Fears were expressed about the impact of early elimination on the crowd for the final match with Denmark. In the Sunday Independent, a concerned Sean Ryan asked: "How can we ensure there is greater competition for places on the Republic team - apart from discovering some more English players with Irish grandmothers?"

Meanwhile, the FAI and RTE held talks to discuss the impact of Saturday TV matches from England on junior football attendances. The FAI sought £1,000 as compensation for every game that was broadcast after dropping threats to black out coverage of international games if RTE pressed ahead with plans to screen cross-channel fare.

"The key issue in the FAI's argument, of course, is not principle - it's money," argued an Irish Press editorial.


The glorious Jack Charlton era was drawing to a close and, after the magic of Euro 88 and two World Cups, Ireland were set to miss out on another major tournament on their doorstep.

With UEFA adding a play-off element to qualification, Ireland were in the thick of permutations which, according to one scribe, "would give Confucius a headache".

After an October squeeze past Latvia, there was an inevitability about what came next. It ended with heartbreak in Anfield.

"Only the dumb, the blind, and the deaf can believe any longer that Jack Charlton is anything other than a limited coach who got extremely lucky in Ireland," raged Dunphy.

Still, in a diary piece with the Irish Independent, the FAI's commercial manager Donie Butler spoke of the giant strides made in the golden years.

TV rights, sponsorships and gate receipts would apparently provide a legacy, with an Indo columnist adding that the FAI had left behind the 'dark days when anyone playing a word-association game would never link the FAI with 'Professionalism' and 'Success'.


Brian Kerr's World Cup tilt fell short, with a scoreless draw with Switzerland ensuring there will be no play-off, and the FAI opted against renewing his contract.'

There was a new sheriff in town and the Sunday Independent surmised that "John Delaney's reputation as chief executive of the FAI will not be decided by the dismissal of Kerr but by the man who replaces him."

Kerr was extremely unhappy to be cut adrift, believing his former employers to have been guilty of a "short-sighted decision contrary to the much vaunted principles of the Genesis Report."

That had been a reference to the root and branch review of Irish international football post-Saipan and, in autumn of 2005, the Scottish consultants released fresh findings after earning another wedge for offering their take on the right path for the volatile national league.

"When we asked Genesis to consult with the stakeholders, we were conscious that once we embarked on the road, there was no turning back," asserted Delaney.

"The train has left the station."


The Conroy Report. TV disputes. Dunphy. A trip to Poland. Worries about an over-reliance on English-born players. The hope that the Irish fighting spirit will prevail in another play-off so the FAI hit the jackpot.

With Paris on the mind again, it's appropriate that a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is credited for coining the epigram that the more things change, they stay the same.

Irish Independent

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