Sunday 18 August 2019

Eternal debate over manager is an Irish flaw

Constant search for a short-term fix is part of Irish football's doomed one-track mind

After four years under Martin O’Neill, this was a ragged Ireland display when it came to the crunch – and a big cause for alarm. Photo: Reuters
After four years under Martin O’Neill, this was a ragged Ireland display when it came to the crunch – and a big cause for alarm. Photo: Reuters
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Should he stay or should he go? In all of the debates that have surrounded the direction of Irish football in the past two decades, this is the line that every post-mortem comes back to.

This time it's Martin O'Neill. Before that it was Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr, Steve Staunton and Giovanni Trapattoni. It's the discussion the wider public craves because they tune in and out for international windows and find TV panels who happily feed that debate.

The FAI's pursuit of big-name figures, starting with the appointment of Trapattoni, has added layers to the soap opera. Post-match TV interviews are now part of the drama.

One of these days, O'Neill is going to walk away from Tony O'Donoghue to the sound of the opening riff of the 'EastEnders' theme tune.

The presumption is that all of the problems can be solved by a fresh voice. If only it were that simple.

O'Neill was brought in with a simple brief - to get results. With a limited bunch of players, he can reasonably argue that he got them to a point. And that is why he has earned the opportunity to stay on if he decides that he wants to. They were the terms of his employment.

Nobody can say with absolute certainty that another manager would have brought Ireland to the World Cup, much as serious questions linger over the organisation of the side for Tuesday's horror show where basic errors exposed the absence of a coherent game-plan.

The modern player requires more direction than to be told to get on the ball and make things happen. O'Neill appears to trust individuals to problem-solve, when the majority operate in environments where they are micro-managed.

rebuilding But he is playing with a poor hand and that is a consequence of the production line. A rebuilding job beckons, and the big question is whether the FAI can really afford to deal with the consequences of that.

Their reliance on results is such that the Football Association of Ireland really ends up functioning as Republic of Ireland Football Club as the operation revolves around the front of house. Writing off a campaign or two to completely build a new team, perhaps even with a new philosophy, is simply not viable.

To say that the FAI only care about their senior team is unfair on the staff members beavering away behind the scenes on a variety of initiatives, often for little reward. Development officers are currently trying to get pay-cuts restored. And successive financial officers have argued that the FAI do not make budgetary plans based around the likelihood of qualifying for tournaments.

However, they cannot deny that the financial health of the association is based on having a thriving senior side. It is their main revenue generator, be it through sponsorships, ticket sales, kit deals and other commercial income. That's why it is absolutely imperative that the team is competitive, by whatever means.

Former Ireland defender Gary Breen guested on Newstalk's Off The Ball AM yesterday and brilliantly deconstructed the mistakes in the Danish disaster. He went further than that by speaking about Northern Ireland's highly sought-after manager Michael O'Neill and how he was involved in their longer-term planning and youth development.

There has never been any suggestion that Martin O'Neill has been expected to involve himself in that work with the FAI. That is simply not part of his remit.

We got an insight into what was expected when he spoke in October on the day that his new contract was verbally agreed.

"We qualified for a competition and I think season tickets have gone from 4,000 to 16,000 so I think there is some evidence we are doing okay," he said. He didn't pluck those figures from thin air.

The hiring of high performance director, Ruud Dokter, has led to some joined up thinking at underage level and coaches being encouraged to favour a more expansive style of play, but it is completely detached from the way the senior side operates.

Sean Maguire has been the success story of 2017 and he couldn't even get in the U-21 team a year ago. That can happen, of course. There will always be late developers but the chronic lack of funding for the League of Ireland is an obstacle to creating an atmosphere that delivers more Sean Maguires.

It has never been important to do so, with decades of outsourcing player production to English clubs eventually coming back to haunt the authorities. The rot set in during the glory days, when Ireland's greatest sporting moments papered over the cracks

Belated attempts to address this, such as the new national underage leagues, have proved divisive because the old dysfunctional system is so entrenched with competing interests at odds with each other.

Not that this gives O'Neill a free pass. After four years at the helm, a ragged display when it came to the crunch is deeply alarming. Every regime runs its course at some stage and he must now prove that he can shape a new dressing room.

But much as it grates when English observers look in and say 'the Irish' should be grateful for what they have, there's a kernel of truth in the point that reaching the final hurdle is an achievement given the shallow pool of high-level performers.

We have no football industry or culture to speak of. Irish football's main priority is a strong senior international team, and we have deservedly been left behind by nations like Iceland who copped on that you can achieve that by strengthening everything else first. They didn't need marquee appointments to put them on the map. And they have spread the wealth created by their version of Jack's Army to fund clubs that are making it all possible.

O'Neill's hard-working players, whose passion could never be questioned, will now pour their energies into making Euro 2020, which could be the best house party in Ireland's history. A chance to welcome the world to a stadium the FAI are still paying for. And at what cost?

This is the most important campaign of them all. Failing to qualify for a tournament that is being co-hosted on your own patch would be unforgivable. Results will matter more to Republic of Ireland FC than they ever have.

And so the vicious cycle begins again.

Irish Independent

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