Sunday 18 November 2018

18 ways for Irish game to shake off the blues in 2018

It will be difficult without Russia but Daniel McDonnell looks at what Ireland can do to turn things around

Declan Rice looks certain to make his Ireland debut this year having impressed for West Ham
Declan Rice looks certain to make his Ireland debut this year having impressed for West Ham
Declan Rice looks certain to make his Ireland debut this year having impressed for West Ham. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

1. Managerial stability

If a proper rebuilding job is to get under way, then there can be no more uncertainty or speculation. The manager for the March training camp in Turkey needs to be planning to stick around until the end of the Euro 2020 qualification cycle no matter what happens in the interim.

2. Win Nations league group

Let's not get carried away here. It's going to be difficult to sell the new concept to the public because the results ultimately only succeed in providing a safety net in case things go wrong in regular Euro 2020 qualifying in 2019. Ireland will be drawn into a three-team group in a fortnight's time with four games played on a home and away basis in the autumn. Those fixtures will also determine the seeding position for the Euro 2020 draw, although it must be acknowledged that there is so little between the middle rump of UEFA nations that seeding position is unlikely to make or break Ireland. The real value of a strong Nations League would be the security of knowing that if Ireland do not finish in the top two of their Euros group, they will get another chance to make the 2020 tournament in the play-offs, which take place in March of that year.

3. Cap Declan Rice

The West Ham teenager has made a positive impact after building on his Premier League debut on the final day of the 2016/17 campaign. Rice prefers life as a central defender, but has also impressed in central midfield and the Londoner has been effective there for Noel King's Irish U-21 side. He looks very comfortable at top-flight level and Ireland have a desperate need for youngsters with that pedigree.

4. Irish U-21 side challenge for Euros qualification

The only argument for delaying Rice's promotion is that he's an important part of Noel King's U-21 group, who performed well in the opening phase of their European Championship qualifiers and have competitive games to look forward to in 2018. Ireland are second, two behind leaders Germany, and two ahead of Norway with a game in hand, and the four best second-placed teams across the nine groups get a play-off. Ireland's next game is at home to Azerbaijan in March, with a trip to Kosovo in September followed by the visit of Germany to Dublin. King's men finish with a tricky October double-header away to Israel and the Germans.

5. Qualify for Womens World Cup

Why should major-tournament bandwagons be a preserve of the men's team? Colin Bell's outfit sit second in their qualifying group with a run of home games to come. It's a big ask to think about World Cup qualification in his maiden campaign, but a play-off position is attainable. That would make for an interesting autumn event.

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Head coach Colin Bell joins in as as Ireland’s players celebrate after drawing their Women’s World Cup qualifer against Holland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

6. A seamless return for Seamus Coleman

It's a crying shame that he missed so much of 2017 and Coleman turns 30 in October. Everton have looked after him during his rehab and it may well be that he spends the rest of his career there. Much as it would be nice to think that the Donegal man would eventually get a chance at Champions League level, the priority now is getting the skipper back to the level where he was before.

7. And for Robbie Brady....

His Irish performances were below par, yet he was just getting to grips with Premier League life at Burnley when injury struck. Tendon damage in the knee is a complicated business and he will need to be patient. The good news is that Burnley are already safe so his top-flight status is secure.

8. League of Ireland joy in Europe

Dundalk's run put players on the map and raised awareness of what was possible. Last year's European attempts failed to capture the imagination - although the four sides ultimately went out to better-resourced opponents. As it happens, Dundalk's 2016 run kicked off in the shadow of an exciting Euros in France and we could really do with something like that this year, with events in Russia the centrepiece of the summer. Unseeded Cork will get a second chance in the Europa League qualifiers if they lose their first Champions League tie.

9. Harmony at underage level

An ambitious wish as the new national underage leagues have met teething problems. They are a necessary evolution, but the proposed national U-13 league lends itself to more friction between schoolboy clubs and League of Ireland sides. The partnership between St Kevin's Boys and Bohemians was a result for the FAI, but there's still serious work to do. Another talking point is the amount of players that reach U-19 level and then have nowhere to go domestically if they are not automatically ready to step up to a senior operation. Unfortunately, the pathway can still lead youngsters to dead-ends.

10. Stadium progress

The latest round of capital sports grants didn't do much for the beautiful game at senior level. A third stand in Tallaght Stadium is welcome, but the Dalymount project needs to gather steam with the time-line remaining uncertain.

11. Get James McCarthy back

His career has been in the wilderness for the guts of two years, but he's only 27 and has a lot to offer if he can get an injury-free run. Sam Allardyce appears to rate him which is a positive step.

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Martin O’Neill offers words of encouragement to James McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile

12. Give Brian Kerr a call

The 20-year anniversary of European U-16 and U-18 success should remind the brains trust in Abbotstown that Kerr might have something to offer. Whatever about restoring him to his old position of prominence, it's daft that he has no role at all.

13. Involve LOI youngsters in senior squad

This is dependent on another Daryl Horgan or Sean Maguire coming to the fore this year. However, if there is a player tearing things up at the start of the League of Ireland season, then there is a benefit in getting them around the international camp as it will build morale for other youngsters at home. With opportunities increasingly limited across the water, the local scene is going to be very important for our long-term future and the argument for giving talented home-based players a leg-up is gaining strength. It's not tokenism; it's pragmatism. Scandinavian national teams work with their home-based players during winter months. 'B' internationals should be considered too.

14. An AGM of change

Imagine if the main news out of the FAI's annual meeting was the arrival of several new faces on to the association's board. They could even be young bucks who don't remember where they were when JFK was shot. What's more, the FAI could then establish firm term limits which ensures there are a range of different voices at the top table over the next decade. Yes, it requires imagination.

15. Make the FAI Cuo final an event

Start selling tickets and pushing the day out to schoolboy clubs and their mentors before the finalists are even known. The preparations should gather pace months out from the big day, not in the week before.

16. Change on the RTÉ panel

John Giles is gone but RTÉ substituted the wrong senior panellist. Irish football would actually benefit from a different noise-setting agendas from Montrose, as the headline-generating cabaret act is tired.

17. A proper goodbye to Wes

His Irish career started too late and it appears the playmaker would like to go quietly. A Wes-timonial would energise his fans - he is due one at Norwich. Maybe Trap could be drafted in to manage an opposition XI with a view to shutting him down.

18. A good draw in Dublin

The Euro 2020 qualifying draw comes to Dublin in December, which means the great and good of UEFA blazerdom will descend on our capital - a scenario that should make one appreciate the unexpected benefits of a volcanic ash cloud. The draw is what matters, as it will actually give Irish fans some purpose for 2019.

Irish Independent

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