The Ireland gripped by the Saipan saga 20 years ago was very different from the one which will watch our Nations League campaign begin in Armenia next Saturday.
You could hardly get two more different characters than Roy Keane and Stephen Kenny. Yet both reflect the national zeitgeist in a way which means the debates surrounding them are about much more than football.
My own memory of Saipan is that Mick McCarthy initially seemed to have won the argument. Only after subsequent European Championship qualifier defeats to Russia and Switzerland led to the manager’s sacking did public opinion turn conclusively against him.
Eamon Dunphy’s skilful work on Keane’s autobiography also played a part. Yet its portrait of a visionary figure battling against national mediocrity was an old Dunphy preoccupation. It’s worth recalling that Jack Charlton was also portrayed as clueless in the book.
The notion that a petty clash founded on personal dislike was actually an affair where great matters of principle were at stake reflects the era in which it took place.
This was the time of the Tiger when national self-satisfaction and boastfulness were at an all-time high. Keane, refusing to accept the failure of others to live up to his high standards, seemed an exemplary figure for the kind of people who claimed to be sweeping aside the old ‘ah sure it’ll do’ mentality.
That Keane had somehow changed things for the better was a foundational myth of the Tiger age. There’s no evidence that he did. Ireland haven’t qualified for a single World Cup since and none of the subsequent managers, including Martin O’Neill with Keane as his assistant, represented any great advance on McCarthy in terms of professionalism or preparation.
The main result of Saipan was to usher in the reign of John Delaney, the sporting embodiment of the Tiger spirit in his belief that The Talent deserves as much money as possible.
Declarations that Ireland could have won that World Cup and should be aiming to win every subsequent tournament are an embarrassing relic of the age.
They belonged with breathless descriptions of the number of helicopters heading for the Galway Races, the lauding of Eddie Hobbs as a financial guru, Seán Quinn as modest folk hero and Jim McDaid as Minister for Fun and articles on how to spend your SSIA money.
Saipan even seems like a metaphor for the Government’s slavish policy towards multi-nationals. Give them what they want or else they might go home and we won’t be able to do without them.
No minister wanted to be Mick McCarthy. That Ireland seems almost as distant from the present day as the religiously obsessed 1950s.
Remember how there was no greater culture hero than the ‘entrepreneur’ and no finer aspiration for a young person than to ‘get on the property ladder’ so they could set about buying multiple houses?
Keane’s most fervent supporters loved to say his critics were ‘condoning mediocrity.’ No greater insult could be levelled in a country where an awful lot of people thought they were above average.
We all know how it ended. The ‘perfectionists’ capsized the economy and showed there were worse things than mediocrity.
Things might have picked up economically but the Tiger spirit is not going to come back.
The belief in corporate values that seemed like something from an ancient American sitcom, “Honey, the boss says if I keep working hard, in five years they might make me assistant vice-president,” would seem insane to most young people now.
Their suspicion of such values is driven in part by their experience of rack-renting landlords, the Tiger’s last great representatives. ‘Getting on the property ladder’ today often just means trying to find something resembling a reasonable rent.
The environmental movement, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and a general increase in popular radicalism also cast doubt on the idea that nothing is more important than being a ‘winner.’
Stephen Kenny is the perfect manager for these changed times. Keane was the hero of rentiers, Kenny is the hero of renters. His League of Ireland background has something to do with that.
Anyone operating in the domestic game knows the plight of low paid staff with poor job security. It’s a far cry from the millionaire laden world of the cross channel game.
Kenny is far removed from the boast and bluster which was the prevailing mode in Irish sport and life two decades ago. He is patient, understated and committed to building the team in an organic and sustainable manner.
We’re more realistic about our standing these days. Instead of talking about winning the World Cup, we emphasise that Luxembourg and Azerbaijan shouldn’t be under-estimated.
The manager’s insistence that Ireland doesn’t have to slavishly follow the English model also chimes with the current mood. That Kenny’s most important lessons were learned in European competition with Dundalk makes him an emblematic figure of an era where Brexit has made our connection with the continent more important than ever.
The secret of Kenny’s popular appeal may be that he represents a break with tired old certainties at a time when such changes also seem desirable in a political sense.
It’s striking how much the arguments against the manager’s change of style mirror those made against any kind of genuine economic reform. We can’t risk it. We’re not equipped for that kind of game. All this idealism is very well but you have to live in the real world.
Maybe playing the ball out from the back is the socialism of Irish soccer. If Kenny’s partisans seem overly defensive it’s because the thought of him failing and the old farts saying I told you so is too painful to contemplate.
An Ireland wedded for too long to that most pointless of creeds, ineffective pragmatism, feels entitled to chance the romantic route. It’s so crazy, it might just work.
The Nations League is important. Simply finishing above Armenia could well guarantee us at least a play-off at the end of the qualifiers. The team has started to build momentum and it’s crucial this is maintained before the European Championships campaign proper.
Should that happen, the team will face their toughest battles accompanied by the greatest wave of public good will for the national side since the day everything went wrong on that Japanese island.
Twenty years ago Keane epitomised the spirit of the Irish age. Today Kenny seems a more representative figure. On and off the field Irish people are looking for something new. Here we go.
Holm fight would be an insult to Taylor and to the sport in general
The idea that Holly Holm could be Katie Taylor’s opponent in Croke Park is an insult to Taylor, Irish fans and above all the sport of women’s boxing itself.
The 40-year-old American hasn’t had a boxing match since 2013, instead pursuing an MMA career where she’s lost six of her last ten bouts. A contest between her and Taylor would make the Mayweather-McGregor fight seem a model of sporting integrity by comparison.
It would also suggest that women’s boxing suffers from a lack of strength in depth. But that’s simply not the case.
American super-featherweight Mikaela Mayer and English light-welterweight Chantelle Cameron are both keen to take on Taylor. It’s unlikely either would dethrone her but they’d both provide worthy opposition, as indeed would England’s Natasha Jonas who gave her a terrific fight in Manchester last year.
Given the options available, pretending Holm is a fit opponent for Taylor brings women’s boxing into disrepute. No male fighter with that kind of record would get a shot at the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter.
Wage increases make Australia more attractive
The 94 per cent pay rise for Australian Football League Women’s players could have seismic consequences for ladies’ football here. With a new top rate which equals around €47,000 and a minimum wage of around €26,000 the deal makes the AFLW, which already has 18 Irish players, an extremely attractive prospect.
Irish women’s players should be able to make a bigger impact than their male counterparts as the fact that the ALFW only started in 2017 leaves them at less of a disadvantage. Tipperary and Brisbane Lions star Orla O’Dwyer’s achievement in making last season’s All Australian team may be a harbinger of things to come
The ALFW decision to move from a winter to a summer season means the 2022 campaign will begin in August.
This could create problems for Irish players with pre-season training commencing down under in June when the championship here has two months left to run.
Australia is a tempting destination for players with less chance of profiting from sponsorship than male footballers.