Saturday 14 December 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'The €830m decision and 'snowflaking' of a once great tournament'

'The expansion to 16 nations probably optimised the balance between inclusiveness and quality, but today it has the feel of a school sports day, where there's a medal for everyone'
'The expansion to 16 nations probably optimised the balance between inclusiveness and quality, but today it has the feel of a school sports day, where there's a medal for everyone'
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

A few years back at Electric Picnic, an MC came out on stage and announced there was a special guest as a treat for the crowd. The place fell silent, until one woman with a strong Dublin accent let out a roar.

"As long as it's not Jerry f**king Fish." The timing was stunning as, within seconds, the man on the mic continued shyly. "Ladies and gentlemen, Jerry Fish."

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Giggles started and by the time the musician was out front, many had erupted into laughter.

Should Ireland make it to the Euros, there ought to be that same jaded and jokey reaction. We've had enough and should know our place having been well and truly put in that place.

As dignified exits go, Monday would and should have been as good as it gets. Drawing with Denmark didn't have the deflating feeling of long-lost qualifiers, basically because we could not have asked for much more. There were guts all through, desperately trying to overcome the vast dearth in quality. We came, we saw, we got a right night out of it, and walked away with heads held high. In olden and in better days, that would have wrapped it all up nicely as we left the party at our bed time, avoiding heavy drinkers looking to pull the all-nighter.

This is 2019 though. Just when we thought we were out, they pull us back in. Never ending.

If there's money to be made, the process will be protracted.

* * *

Whatever about performances, when results don't go your way in sport, there's a need to assign blame. And with that blame applied in an instant, there's often a knee-jerk reaction.

What if Mick McCarthy hadn't been so cautious?

Why, for a side so reliant on set-pieces, is Conor Hourihane often the first player subbed?

For all James McClean's effort, does Callum Robinson not offer slightly more upside?

With a team that cannot score, can age be an issue with Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott?

How can there be just seven goals in eight games with two of those games against Gibraltar?

All of this ire can easily be added to by the fact that it was Denmark that again proved our undoing.

Yet even against this merely decent side, it has to be remembered Ireland did their best.

That it wasn't good enough isn't an issue however, it's THE issue.

International football isn't solely or arguably even mostly about 11 players on pitch, the guy walking the line, or the faces staring out from the dugout though. It's an entire system. In functional business, when a defective model comes off the conveyor belt, you don't scrap it and hope the next will be better, you look at why it's defective in order to avoid repetition.

It's why our soccer doesn't function and hasn't for an age.

Matt Doherty may have taken the blame for the goal conceded on Monday, but this was a result borne out of years of waste and ineptitude. The very same that saw time, effort and finances go on luxury hotels, rent and designer shirts for John Delaney. He and those who stood and stand by him are responsible for the standards we see because they set the standards. Sure, it would be nice to move on from them, but the financial mismanagement, empty bank accounts, and overall stench doesn't go that fast.

A key query in all this is why we always expected more from the team, when we've never expected more from those upstairs behind the production lines that create that team?

Look at Delaney's 15 years in charge, dating back to the end of 2004. Across that stint, at under-17, it was 2017 before Ireland actually won a game at the European finals, and that was against no more than Bosnia; in fact it could be argued that it wasn't until 2018 that we had a campaign at that grade you'd truly call successful. At under-19, we've won two games at the finals across that entire era, falling at the very first qualifying stage as often as we reached the ultimate destination. At under-21 we didn't just fail to make it to the finals but, prior to this ongoing campaign, we've won 20 of 64 outings, gaining 73 points out of a potential of 192. Indeed in 38 underage continental tournaments there to be qualified for, we made it to seven with one of those as hosts. A 16 per cent strike rate under Delaney.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Our politics have polluted so much and we are so backwards that our decision-making and choices have provided an unsolvable riddle at this juncture. Could McCarthy have done better? Given what he'd to work with, probably not, but then you look at his pay packet and you realise he should have done better. These two strands tellingly contradict and they jar.

Change needs to be carried on, for Delaney's exit should be the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end. Otherwise we'll be left like a haggard man looking at barren fields and remembering the days when the growing was good. But you've to plan your way up from there, only we rely on accidents. The under-21s are one more example.

That they've come along playing brilliant football under a brilliant mind like Stephen Kenny has actually made this a fine year for the sport here. And on top of that, shedding Delaney makes it an even better year. The future is potentially bright, if only we could get out of the present. That's easier said than done when there's one last gift from the former CEO.

* * *

If the darkest moments come before sunrise, we're left here waiting for some light.

It's hardly surprising that John Delaney was one of the stronger voices within UEFA pushing for an expansion of the tournament finals, basically asking that standards be reduced because he didn't do a whole lot to improve those standards back here at home.

If it means that we cannot move on yet, there's a wider-reaching issue with this though.

The truth is the European Championships have had their status shaved away, as if a plane taken to a lump off wood. There was always something wonderful in losing yourself online in qualifying campaigns of yesteryear - when making the finals was a real achievement - but that glance back has been enhanced further by a sorry contrast with the present.

The expansion to 16 nations probably optimised the balance between inclusiveness and quality, but today it has the feel of a school sports day, where there's a medal for everyone.

Thus far there have been 392 games played to get to this point in the competition. That's around 588 hours or 24-and-a-half full days worth of football, in order to eliminate a mere 19 of 55 teams. It's actually easier to qualify than get knocked out, with Ireland the perfect proof around a system that has safety net after safety net.

If a dog was as sick as some of those still vying for a place, you'd humanely put them down.

Had Mick McCarthy's side lost all four games in the Nations League, and all eight games in qualifying, we'd still be Division Two in the former with the only difference in the latter being a play-off with Bosnia. What a waste of time that is, and yet it demands more time.

There are those who point to a growth in the openings for medium-and-lower tier countries but there's nothing to say that's the case. In 2016 when this new format began, the last 16 consisted of the hosts, seven qualifying group winners, and six qualifying group runners-up, who'd all have most likely been there in a 16-team version anyway. The only wildcards to get that far were Ireland and Hungary, who between them accounted for a win over Austria and a victory over a second-string Italy. Is it really worth depreciating all of this for that?

Of course we all know why this is the case. With the expansion for Euro 2016, UEFA said they'd make record profits of €830m from a total revenue of €1.93bn, an increase of 34 per cent in income from the previous edition. The price of everything and the value of nothing. Yet now, so complex and convoluted is a structure that keeps giving one more chance to those who we thought had been given every chance already, that genuine football people weren't even sure how this next play-off phase worked and got bored trying to figure it out.

In the end they waited to be told Ireland would be away to Slovakia. Then many shrugged. The reason is that you celebrate a sense of achievement and that no longer exists.

Instead this is about sport being reduced to an event where everyone comes together, sings in defeat, celebrates failure, and gets some gong or assorted biscuits for being top fans and for having fun. In essence the competition has been traded away for a feel-good factor that chips away at its very cornerstone. In that way, it's like the snowflaking of the tournament.

In a group that contained no more than Denmark, Switzerland, Georgia and Gibraltar, Ireland couldn't win enough to make even the top two, all because we lack the quality.

That should be the end of it.

But because everyone wins, we might get there anyway.

By now, as we wait to see who makes it to next summer, our own fans ought to roar out.

"As long as it's not f**king Ireland."

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