Thursday 19 September 2019

Comment: It's time to address the root cause of Irish football's woes - not the management team

John Delaney with Donal Conway and FAI President Tony Fitzgerald
John Delaney with Donal Conway and FAI President Tony Fitzgerald
Callum O’Dowda and Jonathan Walters survey the wreckage of Thursday’s defeat against Wales in Cardiff, which has created a sense of urgency ahead of Ireland’s next competitive fixtures in October. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Just over three weeks ago, John Delaney's interview with Sunday newspapers around the FAI AGM in Cork turned to the subject of his new role on the executive committee of UEFA.

Delaney has been an enthusiastic supporter of Aleksander Čeferin, the Slovenian who assumed European football's top job in 2016.

"We have a new president," said Delaney, "He's a really good president and there is a really strong board of people. David Gill, the CEO of Arsenal (Ivan Gazidis), is there. There is a new breed there. A new board of UEFA is running well."

That, one would assume, is the value of fresh energy and fresh ideas generated by fresh faces. Words which do not spring to mind when discussing the power structure back in Delaney's constituency.

Last year, UEFA voted in term limits which ensure that the maximum their leading officials and committee members can serve is 12 years consisting of three terms.

Delaney became full-time CEO of the FAI in March 2005 and he's part of a board where the majority of the members have been in place for 13 years or more.

In the aftermath of a sobering night in Wales, this angle should be tied in with any discussion of Martin O'Neill's future. Irish football is locked into a cycle of concentrating on the work of one man, but the analysis should run deeper than that.

The FAI Board of Management is the primary decision-making body of the organisation. It makes the big calls about hiring and firing managers, strategic appointments in the area of development and they sign off on financial decisions such as the method of funding their contribution to the Aviva Stadium.

Seven months after Delaney took over, the ten-man FAI board made the first major call of his tenure when they opted against renewing Brian Kerr's contract, thus ending his working relationship with the association. Steve Staunton was brought in to replace him.

Thirteen years later, six of those officials - Delaney, Michael Cody, Eddie Murray, Jim McConnell, Paraic Treanor and Donal Conway - are still at the top table. Another current board member, Eamon Naughton, was in situ by the time it came to relieving Staunton of his post.

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John Delaney, left, during the 41st Uefa Congress in Helsinki Photo: Sportsfile

Put simply, the main boardroom changes in the intervening period have been instigated by the limits that do exist when it comes to continuing in the role of President and Vice President - it is capped at four years - and the need to replace board members that have passed away.

Last year, there was a shift when Niamh O'Donoghue was brought on board to give a female presence. But the newer voices are in the minority and in the lower ranked positions.

Delaney, Murray (Honorary Treasurer) and Cody (Honorary Secretary) have been in their respective positions all the way through an era that will be remembered for high-profile managerial appointments and the battle to cope with the debt created by the costly failure of the ten-year tickets for the Aviva.

The support of Denis O'Brien helped to fund appointments, but the FAI are now standing on their own two feet and are believed to be paying somewhere north of €2.5m for the Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane and support staff package.

Place that in contrast with the reported €400,000 that Wales pay Ryan Giggs.

If the FAI are forced to consider change, the headache goes beyond a pay-off. They will either have to plough ahead with a policy of splashing out way above the market rate for a job of that level or else try and explain to a new manager that they will be paying him half as much as the previous incumbent.

This is a dilemma which isn't going away. Should O'Neill be retained, it's merely kicking that can further down the road. The same core of administrators that approved the inflation of salary from the €350,000 that Staunton was paid will likely decide whether to retain it.

The board have continued to extend Delaney's contract. The FAI's Council have continued to re-elect that board.

Back in the fraught year of 2002, the Genesis Report recommended the addition of two non-executive directors into that mix in order to bring another perspective, but that proposal wasn't adopted.

The FAI say they are on course to be debt-free by 2020 and their satisfaction with that is perhaps understandable given there was a sceptical view taken of those predictions when borrowings hit €70m.

However, that can be countered with the original bullishness that the premium ticket plan would be reaping dividends from 2016 onwards. The FAI are still playing catch-up and Delaney has at least belatedly admitted that the original prices were too high.

In stressing that he retained the drive to push the FAI forward beyond the expiration of his current contract in 2020, he cited the association's centenary in 2021 as a date to look forward to in the diary.

As it stands, most of the influential figures within the association will be able to say that they remember most of it.

With no functioning football industry in the country, and the senior international team the main source of revenue, we remain completely reliant on finding a manager that can secure results. That is the model.

It's also the easiest discussion to have, the conversation that energises the floating public who only really tune into football matters here for the Irish games and use the outcome as a barometer of health.

The quick fix is unseating the manager and hoping that a replacement can work the oracle. This is the brand of analysis that was favoured by the former RTÉ panel who mastered the art of vilifying the supremo while being strangely obsequious with regard to his paymasters.

There is a sensitivity around criticising individuals who have devoted many years of their life to Irish football in a voluntary capacity. Nor is it an intention to come across as ageist, although the raising of age limits for council members from 70 to 75 couldn't be described as progressive.

Furthermore, the FAI rules now state that honorary officers elected prior to February 2016 who were 75 or older 'are entitled to remain in office until the end of the term for which they were elected and shall be entitled to seek re-election'.

Power brings responsibility and the retention of the same cast of characters could only be justified if we were reflecting on a decade or more of unprecedented success. Surely it is time for a 'new breed' of administrator to come in and shake things up.

This doesn't mean that discussion of the management's performance is invalid. Ireland were short bodies, but O'Neill has to be accountable for Thursday. The real fear is that this team are a busted flush and old mistakes have been repeated; Giovanni Trapattoni's third term was one too many. Who made that call again?

Former Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

Still, the Derryman did steer Ireland to a second-place finish in their World Cup qualifying group, a better league performance than in Euro 2016 qualifying.

He deserves the chance to prove that he can bring about improvement in next month's Dublin double header; the FAI have gone this far down the road now so they have to stick with him.

Two terrible competitive performances spaced ten months apart have left a stench and the real issue is that Ireland's last impressive display in a meaningful match was in Vienna in November 2016.

The win in Cardiff 11 months ago that gave Ireland a playoff with Denmark was ballsy and courageous but it was nowhere near the level of the better performances on the way to France and at the Euros themselves.

This was a team on its last legs, with 34-year-old Daryl Murphy leading the line.

The warning signs for the immediate future were there. O'Neill felt the backlash in the aftermath of the Danish game was unfair, contrasting the fact that Denmark's skipper was a Champions League star (Christian Eriksen) and Ireland's was struggling for game-time in the Championship (David Meyler).

Ireland's youngest squad member for Thursday's drubbing, Callum O'Dowda, is 23 years old. Wales had nine squad members that were born after him.

That means O'Dowda was ten years of age when the decision was made to relieve Kerr of his services. Players in that generation have been slow to emerge.

Callum O’Dowda and Jonathan Walters survey the wreckage of Thursday’s defeat against Wales in Cardiff, which has created a sense of urgency ahead of Ireland’s next competitive fixtures in October. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There is optimism about the next crop down and there is no doubt that the FAI are employing some excellent people below the radar that are working with age group sides.

But there is a distinct absence of joined-up thinking. At U-21 level, there appears to be a reliance on players born overseas, some of whom have dubious credentials relative to homegrown performers. There is no clear pathway from the start of the cycle to the international team; there's an absence of identity when it comes to style of play.

It's plausible that refreshing dugout personnel will reverse the slide. Middle-of-the-road teams at club level tend to rotate managers frequently in search of a short-term edge. There are no guarantees it will work with the personnel available to O'Neill. The FAI will have to mull it over if October's fare is as dismal as the last two competitive games.

It would be a disaster if the opportunity created by gaining co-host status for the 2020 tournament was spurned.

Trapattoni's capture was signalled as a historic moment. O'Neill and Keane were the dream team. Coups that were supposed to galvanise the game.

Board members have accepted congratulations for securing the A-listers, but the bigger part of their job is creating a thriving football scene that is capable of giving them the raw materials. That hasn't happened.

To paraphrase the words of this board's first major appointment; O'Neill is the gaffer, but the buck stops with them.

Irish Independent

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