Monday 19 August 2019

Denmark hammering is not just on O'Neill or the players - it stops at John Delaney's desk too


FAI Chief Executive John Delaney, left, and Republic of Ireland manager Martin ONeill
FAI Chief Executive John Delaney, left, and Republic of Ireland manager Martin ONeill
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

It is probably not much comfort to Martin O'Neill, but some of the criticism that rained down upon him last week was a form of displaced anger.

How much, it's impossible to say, because getting thrashed 5-1 is reason enough in itself for a firestorm of hostility. The manager made some bad mistakes and was therefore entitled to a good share of the backlash.

But the overspill also contained a large measure of frustration with the state of the game in Ireland. It was the release of a pent-up and painful awareness that the sport is producing second-rate players in a second-rate system, ruled by a second-rate governing body.

As long as there were tournaments to qualify for, this outpouring kept getting postponed. But against Denmark on Tuesday night, everyone reached the end of the road. There were no other games to worry about, no further hopes to cling to: Ireland would not be going to the 2018 World Cup. It was the end of the denial too. The purge of emotion since has been tantamount to admitting finally, à la the old terrace chant, that we're shit - and we know we are.

O'Neill was the inevitable lightning rod for much of the anger. But he is not exclusively the cause of it, not remotely so. Nevertheless, he is not taking it well. As a manager of 30 years standing, he still remains surprisingly thin-skinned.

Once again he walked out on a post-match interview with RTé's Tony O'Donoghue. Once again he felt the need in his press conference to remind everyone of his track record as a player and manager. And on Thursday The Daily Telegraph told us, from seemingly well-placed sources, that "the lack of perspective and context annoyed him, but also the lack of understanding - appreciation even - of the limitations he works under has been a constant source of friction. He feels under-appreciated."

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O'Neill's current annual salary is €1m. He has a new contract from the FAI awaiting his signature. But the same article hinted that he might be inclined to walk away after four years in charge and return to the club game in England, given the fallout of the last few days. "There has been - and would be - plenty of interest in employing (him)," it added, lest there be any doubt about his value.

Funnily enough, there is another FAI employee who is apparently more appreciated elsewhere too. When John Delaney's contract as CEO was extended in 2014, he revealed that other, unnamed entities had offered him a job and salary that exceeded his €360,000 annual remuneration. "I've been offered salaries above what I'm paid," he said. "I haven't taken them because I love what I'm doing."

Unfortunately, as with O'Neill, not everyone is bowled over by the work he's doing. Failure to qualify for Russia has cost the FAI upwards of €10m. It is dragging the anchor of a €40m bank debt around with it. And year upon year it continues to oversee the decline of Irish soccer's status and reputation. The five goals scored by Denmark was just another flurry of chickens coming home to roost.

In England's top flight, for example, Irishmen are drifting ever further to the margins. During the 2003/'04 season, players representing the Republic of Ireland made 759 appearances in the Premier League. The figure for last season was 400. The projected tally for this season is 321, scattered among 12 or 13 players, all of them based at mid-ranking clubs or below. An endangered species in the Premier League, they are nowadays extinct in the Champions League.

The industry in England now has a globalised workforce. The FAI has failed chronically to keep up with the competition. Once again on Tuesday night Irish players were exposed for their basic inability to control the ball and pass the ball - the fundamental building blocks of the trade. Anyone with a passing interest has been banging this drum for at least 20 years. A shoddy indigenous culture is repeatedly producing shoddy footballers. And nothing seems to change.

The FAI insist they are addressing this problem. In 2014, it carried out "a fundamental review of all aspects of how the underage game is played in Ireland." This was done by a 'Technical Advisory Group' working in conjunction with the association's High Performance Director, the Dutchman Ruud Dokter. Following this review, ten recommendations were adopted by the board of the FAI. "These recommendations," it says in its Strategic Plan for 2016-2020, "form the basis of the FAI Player Development Plan."

In March 2015, Dokter issued a briefing document on this new Player Development Plan to clubs and leagues. This plan will "introduce a uniform playing style and coaching style in order to develop skilful and creative players. An attacking style of play is the best guarantee of learning and development. Our philosophy sees the 4-3-3 system of play as the best format in which to develop young players. This system of play is recognised in many successful European countries as the best approach for player development. Coaches should encourage young players to play out from the back, through midfield, linking up with attack. Whilst the long ball can be effective, it is no longer considered the only method of attacking play."

Well, hallelujah. But it does beg a few questions. John Delaney has been CEO since March 2005. So what was he doing for the first ten years, when it was already obvious that Irish players were technically and tactically in the dark ages? Why has it taken so long to even begin to tackle the problem?

Even more to the point, what is he doing about it now? Plans are one thing, implementing them another. He was conspicuous by his absence when the flak was flying last week. Previous performances tell us he'd have been conspicuous by his presence had we qualified. The 5-1 is not just on O'Neill or the players. It stops at Delaney's desk too.

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