Wednesday 22 May 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'FAI's Irish solution to an Irish problem leaves Stephen Kenny in no-man's land'

 

Back to the future: Mick McCarthy at Lansdowne Road in February 1996 when he was unveiled as Ireland manager for the first time. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
Back to the future: Mick McCarthy at Lansdowne Road in February 1996 when he was unveiled as Ireland manager for the first time. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Ten years ago then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan decided the State should guarantee all the customer deposits and borrowings of Irish banks. His decision was widely praised.

"Brian Lenihan has made a wise choice," wrote David McWilliams in this very paper. "In time his move yesterday will be seen as a masterstroke." The Irish Times described the decision as "brave and necessary" and declared: "Europe needs the kind of radical thinking that underpins the Irish initiative."

Lenihan's guarantee turned out to be perhaps the worst political decision in the history of the State. It ruined the economy. Yet a recurrent feature of Irish life is the hailing of really terrible decisions as, "masterstrokes". Whether it's the Pro-Life Amendment, the Citizenship Referendum or the invention of Guinness Light, someone will always shower awful ideas with praise.

So it's not surprising to see cheerleaders for the FAI's decision to appoint Mick McCarthy as national team manager and make Stephen Kenny under 21 boss with a kind of, "don't worry bud, I'll see you right," arrangement to take the top job in two years.

The proper response is not praise but derision. In the first place McCarthy shouldn't have been given the senior job ahead of Kenny. In the second what is the point of appointing a glorified caretaker manager who players will know is just a stopgap? The record of managers living on borrowed time is not good.

If Ireland qualify for and do well in the 2020 European Championship finals, why should McCarthy resign? Surely in that situation the FAI would revisit the issue. Imposing a fixed term on a manager regardless of results makes no sense.

Newly appointed Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy poses for a portrait in the dressing-room at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Newly appointed Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy poses for a portrait in the dressing-room at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

If McCarthy doesn't qualify, Kenny will inherit a side not good enough to make the top 24 in Europe and have to steer it into one of 13 World Cup qualifying slots. Having been denied a crack at a manageable objective he'll be handed an almost impossible one. Hamlet drank from a chalice with less poison in it.

The surprise announcement of Kenny's putative succession suggests the FAI, panicked by the unenthusiastic reaction to the McCarthy appointment, quickly improvised something to take the heat off themselves.

This latest Irish solution to an Irish problem contains more holes than a Cavan by-road. What is Kenny going to learn from managing the Irish U-21 team that he hasn't already learned with Dundalk in Europe? He's unlikely to encounter opposition as strong as Zenit St Petersburg.

The FAI's opinion of the U-21 side can be seen by the fact that they left Noel King in charge for eight supremely unsuccessful years.

Yet, as if by magic, this Cinderella job has turned from a pumpkin to the fairy carriage which will bring Kenny to the ball. It's also been suggested that the senior team will have more respect for him if he has spent time with the under 21s. Really? How much respect do you think they'd have for Noel King as senior manager?

It's odd, this respect thing. Not long ago our players were supposedly so inept, Martin O'Neill couldn't be expected to do anything with them. Now they're apparently a bunch of ruthless high achievers who wouldn't countenance being managed by someone who has won the kind of European club ties most of them will never play in.

Stephen Kenny has been appointed as a mudguard for the FAI. Should things go badly for McCarthy we'll be enjoined to remember that the team is going through a period of transition and that things will be better under Kenny.

Essentially the succession story gives the FAI a free play for the next two years. The worse McCarthy does, the more we'll be assured this is just the beginning of a process.

Meanwhile Kenny will be under pressure to deliver at U-21 level, where only 12 teams qualify for the European finals and Ireland are currently ranked number 34. Is there a level of achievement the FAI require from Kenny if he is to succeed McCarthy? If there isn't, why not just give him the senior job now?

Talk about Kenny becoming U-21 manager "with a view to becoming senior manager" is cheap. We were frequently assured that Roy Keane's presence as Martin O'Neill's deputy would ensure a smooth succession. A lot can change in two years.

If the FAI believe McCarthy is only fit to be a caretaker they shouldn't have appointed him.

The current arrangement stems, as did the sacking of O'Neill, from the Association's desire to distract attention from their inept stewardship of Irish football. As Candi Staton sang, "Self-preservation is what's really going on today."

Populist

The FAI wanted McCarthy as manager because he's an Organisation Man who'll always defend them to the hilt. But they also wanted the populist cred of appointing Kenny. Hence this compromise designed to provide breathing space for Delaney and Co.

It also compels Kenny, a notably independent and outspoken character, to keep the right side of the FAI. Why fall out with the top dogs when the big prize dangles within reach?

There are those, as there were at the time of the bank guarantee, who'll counsel optimism because we don't know for sure this idea won't work. But by that reckoning every idea ever proposed is good till proven otherwise, a theory most thoughtful six-year-olds would find absurdly optimistic.

If you think the FAI's innovative appointment strategy marks a great leap forward for Irish football, I commend your lack of cynicism. You may be interested in an investment scheme I'm involved in.

See, there was this African dictator and he died and I have the number of his bank account and . . .

Irish Independent

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