Monday 24 June 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Seven moments that shaped our year in football'

The twists and turns that led to dramatic series of changes

Former Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane oversees Harry Arter in training in October. The row between the two added to the sense of crisis within the Ireland camp. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane oversees Harry Arter in training in October. The row between the two added to the sense of crisis within the Ireland camp. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It was always going to be a challenging year for Irish football with the World Cup in Russia a reminder of what could have been.

There was a feeling that the absence of that major tournament involvement would make 2018 an uneventful affair.

Declan Rice. Photo: Reuters
Declan Rice. Photo: Reuters

Instead, it turned out to be a dramatic 12 months, mostly for the wrong reasons at international level, and that set up a panicked conclusion that culminated with changes in the top managerial jobs and a domino effect that will impact the League of Ireland on a number of levels.

Timing was everything. Here are seven moments that played their part.

O'Neill move to Stoke collapses

It was a will-he-won't-he saga that exposed an apathy in the Irish support that the FAI hierarchy failed to pick up on. Stoke did want O'Neill to become their new manager, even if the extent of the entire board's interest in his appointment has been disputed.

They certainly weren't the only employer to enquire about the Derryman's availability during the period where he actually hadn't got around to signing the FAI's contract - a month before the devastating World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark. The confusion suggested that O'Neill was open to other offers, although John Delaney has argued otherwise.

He opted to stay and the FAI handed out improved contracts for the overall management team that would cost the association in the region of €3m before they reached an additional settlement figure to part terms. Everyone is a genius in hindsight, yet the handling of the whole episode hasn't really aged well.

McCarthy leaves Ipswich

The other angle on the O'Neill impasse was the absence of available candidates out there for the FAI. That said, the suspicion is that Mick McCarthy would have walked from Ipswich at the first opportunity if the Ireland job came up.

He was interested before O'Neill's appointment and was left hanging at that juncture. Nevertheless, McCarthy's exit from East Anglia in April - a month ahead of his scheduled departure date - meant he was completely free and open to offers.

Perhaps a January approach from the FAI might have represented the wrong timing in the sense that it wouldn't have given him the space to recharge his batteries and get ready for the next challenge. Seven months was just about the right window to warm him up for a return to the Irish gig.

Hoban comes back to Dundalk

There's a slight liberty taken here as it was actually November of last year when Hoban rejoined Dundalk after a frustrating spell in England and a spell out of the game through injury.

Hoban came off the bench in Dundalk's opening match of the season which was a scoreless draw with Bray - possibly the most misleading result of all time in the context of the campaign that followed with the Lilywhites setting a new all-time goals record and Bray leaking goals consistently to go down.

Hoban was a revelation, banging in 29 goals to set a new Premier Division record. That was 14 more than any other top-flight player scored.

Granted, he was playing in the best team and therefore was always going to get chances but there was a remarkable efficiency in his all-round contribution. Without him, the story of Dundalk's year could have gone on another path.

Rice stars against Turkey

When did England know they had missed a trick with Declan Rice? We can't be sure of the date really. At the UEFA Nations League draw in Switzerland in January, Gareth Southgate confirmed the West Ham player was on their radar.

And his stock grew steadily as he continued to play consistently at Premier League level while promising members of an England U-20 squad that had triumphed at a world level struggled to get a look-in with their clubs.

In March, Rice made his full Irish debut in Turkey and the quality of his performance raised expectations about what he could offer in the future. There was talk that the teenager could go on to win 100 Irish caps.

Emotional scenes with his father, Sean made the Irish public believe that he was in for the long haul and he seemed equally adamant about his intentions after the double-header in the summer where he also starred.

That made the pain of his decision to stall on his future all the more fraught. His absence hung over the senior team for the autumn while U-21 results bombed after a promising start to the campaign with Noel King eventually stepping aside.

Keane's row with Arter

The full details did not emerge until September, with the help of Stephen Ward's use of WhatsApp, but Roy Keane's row with Harry Arter - and to a lesser extent Jon Walters - helped to highlight the feeling of staleness that hung over the Irish camp.

Results were poor enough as it was but tales of the number two's run-ins with players, and more pertinently the impact they were having on morale, struck a further blow to the O'Neill regime.

The September international window was a disaster with Arter opting to stay away and Rice stalling for the first time. He did hear a portion of Keane's verbal attack on Arter, but it's not believed to have been a factor in his Irish dilemma.

Without the Arter saga adding to the feeling of crisis, it might have been easier for O'Neill to ride out the storm.

McEleney's FAI Cup final winner

What would have happened if Dundalk had finished the season on a downer? If the joy from their comfortable league win had been dampened by a third successive FAI Cup final win for Cork City? Stephen Kenny said in the aftermath that he couldn't have faced a trip back up the M1 without the trophy.

Instead, he was front and centre in the celebrations at the Aviva, with the energy around his team contrasted with the low mood around the national team. This wasn't the first time that the idea of Kenny becoming Ireland boss had gained traction; his 2016 Europa League exploits really put him on the map, but O'Neill's stock was high at that stage.

However, his presence in the middle of celebrations at the national stadium gave weight to the idea again. If the job had come up a year earlier, he wouldn't have got as prominent a mention given that Cork were top of the tree. Timing is everything and McEleney's run into the box to meet Sean Gannon's superb cross played its part in the drama that followed within the space of a month. Kenny would not settle for the offer of the U-21 gig.

Euro 2020 draw bounce

The range of permutations created by the UEFA Nations League and the once-off staging of a competition in 12 countries meant there was a lot of elements for the audience to consider ahead of the Euro 2020 draw in Dublin at the beginning of December.

There was knowledge in some quarters that no more than two hosts were permitted to be in the same group, but there were gasps in the Convention Centre when Ireland's name was drawn out of Pot 3 - with the audience assuming they would be joining Holland and Germany in the next group that needed a team.

But as both Holland and Germany will stage matches in 2020, Ireland were spared that nightmare scenario and bumped into Group D with Switzerland and Denmark. The importance of that escape will become clearer 12 months from now.

Irish Independent

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