16 questions for Irish football in 2016
A big year for Irish football looms, with all roads leading to Paris on June 13 when Ireland open their European Championship finals campaign against Sweden.
Can Martin O’Neill’s banish the painful memories of Euro 2012 by regaining respectability for Ireland or is another Group of Death beyond the Boys in Green?
Other matters in Irish football are also down for decision. On the domestic front, can any team halt the freight-train of Dundalk becoming the first team for 29 years to complete a three-in-a-row of titles?
Many more questions linger in the 12 months ahead. Here we look at 16 of them for 2016.
1. How can Ireland thwart Ibrahimović?
Before Eden and Mario comes Zlatan. If Ireland are to progress from their group, much will hinge on beating Sweden, or more specifically, quelling the threat of their talisman on his home patch of the Stade de France.
Ibra, all 6’5” of him, is determined to complete his international career on a high and so central to Ireland’s plan will be containing the Swedish captain.
Although they managed to do just that in Stockholm three years, the return match in Dublin was a different story when he masterminded a 2-1 victory to mothball Ireland’s World Cup qualification ambitions and Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure.
2. Can Ireland make their mark in France?
Three points from three games would likely propel Ireland into the knock-out stages, given four of six third-placed teams advance to the last-16.
Where those points are derived from is immaterial but losing the opener would probably trigger an insurmountable task as only victory over Belgium or Italy will do if the Swedes are to be leapfrogged.
Thankfully for Irish fans, the team approaches the tournament carrying a tailwind from the latter stages of qualification.
3. How many senior Ireland players will retire after the Euros?
Qualification euphoria can sometimes distract from the inconvenient truth which is that Ireland possess an ageing team.
Shay Given will be 40 by the time of the Euros, John O’Shea 35 and captain Robbie Keane touching 36.
All three centurions have indicated this to be their last hurrah and they’ll sail into retirement with our blessing.
But will others follow? Playmaker Wes Hoolohan is already having his game-time managed by bosses at club and international level and that’s before his 34th birthday in May.
Daryl Murphy belatedly found his international stride in 2015 but is lurching toward towards his 34th year.
Another family man, Jonathan Walters, may also have a decision to make on his future later in the summer as his 33rd birthday beckons.
4. Who will succeed Robbie Keane as Ireland’s top marksman?
For so long Ireland’s saviour, Robbie’s decorated 18-year international career is well into twilight stage and how we could do with an addition to his 67-goal haul in France.
Beyond that, Shane Long appears the leading contender to replace King Keane in the sole striker’s role, despite Martin O’Neill’s reservations.
The Ireland manager wants the Tipp terrier to develop into a great goalscorer rather than just a scorer of great goals.
His winner against Germany represents a lifelong memory but other strikes in less glamourous settings like Robbie provided at times of need are also required.
5. Will Dundalk smash the glass ceiling in the UEFA Champions League?
After having the misfortune of drawing BATE Borisov, who subsequently came within a point of reaching the last-16, Dundalk will be hoping for better luck when the pairings are made for next season’s Champions League.
Progression to the third qualifying round activates a seven-figure jackpot but also inches closer to the coveted group stage, where the rewards are multiple.
If countries with less than Ireland’s population like Albania and Croatia can make this season’s play-off and group stages respectively, then why can’t we?
6. Are Shamrock Rovers equipped to challenge Dundalk’s mantle?
Pat Fenlon has another year left after this season on his contract but has spoken about the club’s desire to push the champions further this time around.
A 13-point differential between the teams last season illustrated the job on his hands but Nutsy has built title-winning sides in the past and, after 18 months in charge at the Hoops, must feel the time in nigh for a genuine tilt at ending the club’s five-year wait.
He’ll be without former internationals Damien Duff and Keith Fahey but is entrusting new recruits Gary Shaw and Dean Clarke to deliver goals.
7. Can Limerick bounce back at the first time of asking?
Fears of Limerick’s demise, upon losing the play-off to Finn Harps, were soon allayed when benefactor Pat O’Sullivan assigned manager Martin Russell a budget some Premier League clubs couldn’t match.
The club have overcome several obstacles in recent years, including the need to launch High Court action when the FAI denied football fans in the south-west a friendly against Barcelona, but they’ve established a strong foundation at Markets Field and through their youth set-up.
Once the crowd stay with them, Lims will be in the First Division title mix.
8. How much will the League of Ireland prize money pot increase by?
As the Conroy Report recommended “an incremental” increase for this season, hard-pressed clubs can expect some sort of improvement on the derisory pot which the FAI had slashed by 80pc amid their own financial troubles.
Perhaps the increase will ensure the clubs collectively receive more than they fork out over the season in registration fees and fines to the governing body.
9. Will Ireland get their World Cup campaign off to a flyer?
With only the top team from the pool guaranteed qualification, Ireland will need to end 2016 strongly for ambitions of reaching Russia to be realistic.
A daunting opener away to a talented but dispirited Serbia outfit is scheduled for September to be followed by trips to Austria and Moldova before Christmas. The Celtic derbies with Wales don’t come until 2017.
Unlike the bloated 24-nation Euros, only 13 nations from the continent join hosts Russia at the 2018 World Cup. Third place won’t be enough to earn a play-off on this occasion.
10. Can Ireland’s senior women break their duck by qualifying for the 2017 Euros?
Sue Ronan’s girls won’t get a better chance to reach a major tournament this year given its expansion to 16 teams and the composition of their group.
Second place will likely be sufficient to net a place in the Holland showpiece and that can be achieved with victories over Finland away in June and Portugal at home in September.
11. Who will take over as Ireland U-19 manager in May?
Paul Doolin was typically forthright in explaining his reasons for quitting after six years, citing the absence of a professional league or academies in Ireland chief amongst them.
Robbie Keane has long called for the FAI to integrate former international players into their coaching structure, like the English FA did by enlisting the Neville brothers, and here’s an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment for a position which is hugely important as a tunnel to the senior set-up.
12. Can Jack Byrne push on from his loan spell in Holland?
Tipped as a future star, Byrne is enjoying his season-long stint at SC Cambuur.
Facing the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven can only improve the Dublin-born midfielder and will frame his next step when he returns to parent club Manchester City in the summer.
He’ll be 20 by then and eager to graduate into the Ireland senior fold.
13. Will teen prodigy Danny Crowley pledge his allegiance to Ireland or England?
Another year brings another tug-of-war with the Auld Enemy for a playmaker.
Jack Grealish took until last September to pick England and the dilemma his pal and former Aston Villa teammate Crowley faces could drag too. For this season at least, the Arsenal teen will continue playing for England’s U-19s.
14. Will long-suffering loyal Irish fans be finally appeased by the FAI introducing a transparent ticketing system for away internationals?
It seems the fault lines first highlighted from the fiasco over ticketing arrangements for the Euro qualifier in Scotland 14 months ago have not gone away.
Prominent independent supporters group, You Boys in Green, remain frustrated in their calls for an adequate system to reward fans with a history of supporting the Ireland team on their travels. To date, no points-system has been produced. Furthermore, they claim the 30pc allocation for supporters clubs is significantly less of a portion which other national associations operate to.
15. Can the FAI keep hold of Roy Keane?
While Keane’s first full year as Martin O’Neill’s assistant was mired in controversy arising from his autobiography, the hotel fracas with Frankie Gillespie and clashes with journalists, 2015 saw the Corkman emerge in a better light.
Still, his urge to resume club management is undimmed and suitors admiring his influence on the Ireland camp are certain to come calling
before or after the Euros. Celtic tried and failed to lure him, so can another club succeed?
16. Is there any hope of a question being asked at the FAI AGM?
All must be rosy within the Irish football family when just one question has been posed from the floor during the past five annual summits.
This year’s gathering in Tipperary has more chance of another standing ovation for the FAI chief executive taking place than a query arising from the delegates.
Then again, Sepp Blatter received one of those at the FIFA convention last May and look where it got him.