Monday 23 September 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'There's a far bigger picture - and it's one that Delaney dislikes'

FAI chief executive John Delaney embraces manager Martin O’Neill after Ireland secured qualification for the 2016 Euro finals. Photo: Sportsfile
FAI chief executive John Delaney embraces manager Martin O’Neill after Ireland secured qualification for the 2016 Euro finals. Photo: Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

"Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the fairest one of all?

And the mirror would answer: 'Lady, you are the fairest one of all.'

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the mirror was telling the truth."

'Snow White', Brothers Grimm

ON Monday afternoon, a smattering of the Irish supporters that had made their way to Denmark gathered in the Tír na nÓg bar in central Aarhus.

There they wiled away the hours belting out an album's worth of anti-John Delaney songs, all in the shadow of flags hanging from the roof that called for the chief executive's removal, the main one of which referred to his infamous quote that the League of Ireland was the FAI's 'problem child'. The giant flag argued that Delaney was the problem.

If any thought that was a good example of the toxicity in Irish soccer right now, they didn't have to wait long for one far better.

As a microcosm of what we're left with as we await a new managerial appointment, consider what happened shortly after the pub cleared out.

Those crazily-loyal fans and the giant Delaney flag made their way to Ceres Stadium, where local stewards were waiting.

A number of social media messages detailed how Danish officials were prepared with A4 sheets containing pictures of the flag in question.

It was removed and handed over to an FAI official who returned it to Irish supporters after full-time.

FAI security staff had previously said such incidents of confiscation at Lansdowne were due to a mix-up as no rules had been contravened.

If Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane did stay a little too long, that can be put down to belief and determination.

But at least they had the realisation that they couldn't offer Irish soccer any more and ultimately that's what this is all about. The largest sport across an entire nation ought to be bigger than any one man.

If you ever talk to the chief executive, he's an impressive politician in that you come looking to get to the bottom of something, and leave having never gotten to the top of it.

Around a decade back, chatting to him, there was a rush of statistics that took over the conversation.

More recently when a colleague sat with him, it was the identical routine around playing numbers. But while participation is all good, it's supposed to be a compliment to the flagship team, not an either-or, as players should come up, with money going back down.

Right now we have neither the players nor the money as our system is self-congratulatory via the quantity; however in terms of quality, it's way behind most others and going slower.

All you have to do is realise the level that top teams and top footballers play at and how almost all chance has been replaced by not just detail but by incredible strides in that detail.

Arrigo Sacchi nailed it, saying "the last 50 years in the sport have been a constant evolution from Ajax to Holland, Milan to Guardiola's Barcelona. Without evolution, the sport is dead. Without risks, you remain in the past, whereas innovation makes you change every year".

So where is our evolution? Where are our risks? Where is our innovation? Indeed, Guardiola's possession and pressing game best shows up the level of perfection.

Of course international football has less time and less chance to reach these levels, but the underlying problem is we aren't producing players to get into these systems to the point many English scouts stopped coming here some time back, and haven't returned.

It means that the conversation over the next manager is the ultimate in deflection and distraction. When machinery doesn't work, regardless of who is shift manager, the product won't be produced.

Thus, while on-field efforts might be as boring as depressing, that isn't on the players. They simply get most responsibility without any benefits; Keane and O'Neill got much responsibility with some benefits. But it's Delaney who gets the most benefit and takes next to no responsibility.

But the buck stops at the top. And the buck stops after, we reckon via the quickest of calculations, Delaney has earned north of €4.5m across his FAI tenure. Not that he's ever fully understood the fortune of his situation, as just remember his reaction upon signing his last mega deal.

"I love the job, no question about that. But it is a 24/7 job, weekends as well." It was as bad as Pádraig Flynn, although at least his words saw him cast adrift.


Look at this another way. If there's a broad agreement that even if 2016 was a step forward, we've now gone two steps back under O'Neill and Keane and therefore it was time to go, how does Delaney view his own situation?

It's 14 years since he took the chief executive job and while there have been some improvements and some regressions, is there any way we are in a better place?

The worst part is that any light at the end of this tunnel is an oncoming train.

There might be the brief jolt from whoever does take over as manager but do you really think there's enough there to turn this around and qualify for even the expanded European Championships?

After all, we completed a pass every 35 seconds against a disinterested Danish team in what amounted to a nothing-at-stake friendly.

In fact back in the Tír na nÓg post-match, the debate became about if our one shot (it was off target) was actually a shot. Little wonder the home players had thrown jibes about our adventurousness in their interviews.

And this from a middling-to-decent Denmark who, if they took out an ad in the personals, would include as their turn-ons the sight of some ankle. That's what finds us stale, dull and antiquated.

Remember what's most crucial though, for don't be fooled into thinking change is now on the way because of new faces coming to the dugout.

There's a bigger picture we keep missing and it's the one Delaney despises. It's why flags are confiscated. And why communications from London law firms made their way to papers saying it wasn't him in a video belting out a Republican rebel ballad. And why questions are non-existent at AGMs where journalists are penned away.

Those who can't face facts rarely have the ability to alter the reality. But Delaney needs to know that by now almost all criticism is fair. And by now his exit is about all we've left to cling to.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

The mirror answered: 'Lady, you are the fairest here, but Snow White is a thousand times more fair.'

This horrified the queen, who turned yellow and green with envy."

Irish Independent

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