Friday 19 January 2018

Odds stacked heavily against Delaney returning for Euros

Crystal Palace's Damien Delaney. Photo: Alex Morton/Reuters.
Crystal Palace's Damien Delaney. Photo: Alex Morton/Reuters.
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The suggestion over the weekend that Damien Delaney might be willing to return to Ireland colours was accompanied by the observations of his Crystal Palace colleague Scott Dann.

"I'm sure deep down he would want to play at the Euros," said Dann. "He's good enough to play for Ireland, he's shown that. If he was asked the question, I know what the answer would be."

The 'if' could prove to be the most significant word in that sentence as it is reliant on a scenario where Martin O'Neill viewed the apparent about turn as a development that demanded an urgent rethink of his summer plans.

Delaney's belated blossoming as a trustworthy Premier League defender is one of the great Irish success stories of this decade. During Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure, where he was always on the fringes of the squad, the Corkman was viewed as a reliable enough Championship journeyman.

Now, as he approaches his 35th birthday in the summer, Delaney is closing in on a century of Premier League appearances in his thirties. From the Irish perspective, only Séamus Coleman and Glenn Whelan have made more top-flight outings this season.


That is the argument for welcoming Delaney back into the fold and the facts and figures are there to make it a convincing one. But it's not that simple.

He effectively announced his Irish retirement last August without using the word directly in an Instagram post where he said that he was not the future of Irish football and needed to rest during international breaks with a view to preserving his position at Palace.

In the same message, he denied seeking guarantees about a starting place from O'Neill before confirming his availability and also stressed that he had no beef with Roy Keane - it's known that they didn't always see eye to eye when the Irish assistant was Ipswich manager.

The issue with O'Neill dated back to the summer tour of the US at the start of his reign, but the exact details are unclear. If there was a diplomatic silence with regard to the specifics, Delaney's praise for Trapattoni in his social media message was interpreted as a dig at the present regime.

"We need to build an identity and team ethos from schoolboy football to full international that will last," he wrote, adding the interesting point that sacrificing major tournaments could be a part of that mission. That particular idea would be unlikely to go down well in Abbotstown.

"I understand people weren't enamoured with Mr Trapattoni but whether you agreed with his philosophy or not you have to respect the man and the results he achieved with his philosophy," he added.

In these sanitised times, it would be remiss of anyone working in the media to condemn a footballer for expressing a genuine opinion. The suspicion, however, is that Delaney might well one day regret his public address. Even his own boss Alan Pardew indicated that any comeback would require the player being "big enough and bold enough to swallow his pride and do the right thing".

Saying nothing at all might have worked out for Delaney in the long run given the uncertainty in the centre-half department during the campaign to make France.

At the beginning of the road, it looked as though O'Neill had settled on the combination of senior man John O'Shea and his left-sided partner Marc Wilson. Richard Keogh was quickly identified as the alternative and impressed when the door opened.

Then, last autumn, the path cleared for Ciaran Clark to stake his claim when at an earlier stage of the journey it seemed as though he was in the same bracket as Delaney in the pecking order - Alex Pearce was further up the line when lengthy provisional squads were cut. Clark also missed the US gathering.

When it came to the play-off crunch, Keogh and Clark rose to the challenge. The former is a strong contender to start in France while the latter is sinking in the mire with Aston Villa but could arguably benefit from a full year in the Championship to iron out some rough edges. Either way, it would make little sense to cut him from the picture as he will be needed in the World Cup campaign.

O'Shea is trusted by O'Neill and a strong contender to lead the side out with Robbie Keane likely to be on the bench. The Waterford man has more miles on the clock than Delaney and endured another tough start to the campaign at Sunderland, yet his experience has come to the fore in previous relegation battles and he shone against Manchester United last week.

In reality, it means that on the football argument alone, Delaney would have to move ahead of Wilson who has endured a stop-start year at Stoke with loss of form and then an injury setback that will rule him out of next month's friendlies. What he does offer, though, is versatility across the defence and even in midfield that makes him the perfect squad member if fit.

Leave aside the history with O'Neill and the obvious questions about morale that come with restoring a prodigal son, and there's enough reason to doubt whether Delaney would make the cut.

Combine all those factors together and the odds are heavily stacked against an unlikely reunion.

Cork underdogs earn deserved shot at glory

Compared to the other major sports, second and third-level football in Ireland doesn't really get too much media attention. There is a result worth looking out for this week, however.

On Wednesday in Midleton, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa from Cork will take on Carlow IT in the final of the Umbro Colleges and Universities Premier League.

Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa (CSN) are the only further education centre engaged in the top tier of colleges football in Ireland and their progression to the decider is a significant achievement given they have just over 700 full-time students on one or two-year courses.

Along the way, they have scored wins over the likes of UL and UCC, who have a much bigger selection and the ability to offer scholarships and bursaries to budding athletes. There are a host of players on the books of Airtricity League sides engaged in the tournament but CSN do not have any in their dressing-room.

There was a time when CSN was a top dog in the field because of a strong relationship with Cork City, with a range of underage internationals - including Shane Long - lining out in their colours in the early 2000s.

But the collapse of the old regime at Turner's Cross led to the breakdown in the link, and the reformed Airtricity League operation have since struck up a partnership with UCC.

Football means a lot to the CSN squad. There is a danger in applying sweeping generalisations, but it is fair to say that a number of their players come from relatively disadvantaged areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds.

They battled through adversity in the semi-final, bouncing back from an early concession to knock out UL in a 3-2 thriller. Carlow will provide tough opposition on Wednesday; their football pedigree has been enhanced by a sports and exercise course they offer which is run in conjunction with the FAI.

Therefore, it will present a difficult challenge for the CSN staff, who are extremely proud to have reached this stage. Liam Murphy, the former Cork City player and manager, is a full-time member of staff and a big part of their story.

Assistant boss Paddy Gleeson stressed during the week that the Leesiders will be underdogs, but you sense that they relish that role.

Whatever the outcome, the CSN are an example of why sport and education should always be paired together.

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