Sunday 9 December 2018

Vincent Hogan: 'Niall Quinn shines a light into system that is clearly broken'

 

New wave?: Niall Quinn has managed and been chairman of an English club and remained popular with supporters. Photo: Getty Images
New wave?: Niall Quinn has managed and been chairman of an English club and remained popular with supporters. Photo: Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Of all the stock villains in Irish sport, none has been more derided or resilient in recent times than John Delaney.

He's overseen the sacking of four national football managers (a cyclically remedial duty it seems) as FAI CEO and so will scarcely be surprised by a growing appetite to discuss how football is being run in this country as distinct from the narrower debate of whether someone like Sam Allardyce might throw a humanitarian glance our way.

Delaney believes he gets an unfair press, pointing to his popularity in Europe - he sits on UEFA's executive committee - as an indication of how few species tend to be more misunderstood than a prophet in his own land.

Is he doing a good job? The FAI board clearly believes so, given it continues to extend his contract and - presumably - remains smitten by his mantra of the association being debt-free by 2020. Six of the 10-man board that voted not to renew Brian Kerr's contract in January '06 remain in situ today.

When Kerr was cut loose, he castigated that board for what he termed "a short-sighted decision", one running "contrary to the much-vaunted principles of the Genesis report".

Genesis, a report commissioned to a Glasgow consultancy firm after Saipan, questioned the chain of command in the FAI. And Kerr was replaced by Steve Staunton, whose subsequent sacking drew Delaney to declare that he'd accept "the majority of responsibility" for an appointment that did not work.

That was 11 years ago.

On Newstalk last Wednesday evening, Niall Quinn was clearly loathe to personalise any criticism of the predicament Irish football now finds itself in.

Quinn is an interesting figure, having achieved the not inconsiderable feat of running a Premier League club for five years without ever losing the affection of its supporters.

Towards the end of his time as Sunderland chairman, I spent a weekend in Quinn's company, granted an access-all-areas pass to boardroom, dressing-room, everywhere. It was a remarkable experience.

Quinn's invitation came on the back of his belief that most people in football were decent, rational human beings, not some kind of arrogant subspecies.

He has seen and been a part of football in every manifestation then.

And his view of the game in Ireland this week carried a validity and coherence rising far beyond a tossed verdict on the latest succession stakes. Quinn questioned the business model of the game here.

The hopeless, doomed pursuit of endlessly taking expensive masking tape to a problem, essentially, of structural integrity.

With no football industry here, there could be - he argued - no sustainable future. At least nothing beyond the scratch-card whim of big-name appointments taking over a senior team that represented no deep-lying philosophy or culture.

Wondered

So whether it's Mick McCarthy, Stephen Kenny, Allardyce or Steve Bruce next, Quinn wondered what, if anything, would really be resolved?

And that's, surely, a pertinent question. Put it this way, between them, the combined severance packages required to compensate Staunton, Giovanni Trapattoni and, now, O'Neill, Roy Keane and Co probably run to somewhere beyond €3 million.

Yet, the appointing and sacking of managers is, largely, an exercise in optics. What is the legacy of each one? More relevantly, how can they possibly leave one when the talent being fed through to the senior squad is largely random and devoid of any discernible football style or identity?

Quinn was surprised to see O'Neill go, yet did admit of Monday's game in Denmark, "I just couldn't believe that our game didn't have some sort of plan that gave us attempts at goal. And when you see that, I think it was the final curtain."

His preference now is for the new man to be "a coach of football in Ireland, not just the senior team".

A head of coaching as distinct from head coach. Kenny perhaps.

But think about that. Quinn believes that the road to a better future for Irish football resides in a better domestic league. In other words, the so-called "problem child" that Delaney refers to has to become "your favourite child, the child you spoil rotten!"

He sees a model in which, granted tax breaks in the same way horse racing was revitalised in the '80s, League of Ireland clubs could run their own academies, educate their own players, produce footballers who - if then taken up by clubs in England - would cross the Irish Sea matured and empowered by their experiences at home.

He spoke about this recently at the PFAI dinner, because it's a bugbear of his, the way our under-age national leagues lead to cul-de-sacs; the mistrust of homegrown coaches; the inevitably slapstick way we chase success at senior level. The appetite for a quick fix in other words. And that reflex susceptibility to cynicism when someone comes looking for a better way.

"The league doesn't benefit our game," said Quinn "and that's a system doomed to failure."

Pie in the sky?

Well what exactly are we looking for post-O'Neill? Another billboard name or a changed philosophy?

Delaney's leadership of the FAI is franked by the systems that put him there. His strongest quality seems to be a political acumen. For 13 years now, he has emerged from padlocked meetings with the same, sanguine air of someone who understands implicitly how the energy of power works within the Association.

And in a domain with, as Quinn puts it, "a lot wrong", John Delaney has become the great survivor.

Bizarrely, even in Denmark last Monday night, banners demanding his removal from office were taken from Irish supporters entering the stadium in Aarhus. Quite why the Danish authorities would do such a thing is a mystery in itself.

But Delaney's salary, his apparent disinterest in the domestic league, his absence of engagement with national media, his ability to survive bad decision-making (the disastrously over-priced 10-year tickets; granting Trapattoni a third term with the dressing-room already lost; or O'Neill a grotesquely lucrative new contract after he'd been so openly negotiating with Stoke City) feed the portrayal of an administrator with Teflon skin.

For all that, he is known to be popular around the country, especially with many junior clubs.

Delaney has been hugely pro-active in connecting with rural Ireland in a way that would have been unthinkable for his predecessors. And, Board apart, that is his power base now. But does he have a vision beyond clearing the Aviva debt?

Quinn admitted on Wednesday that he knew full well how his words would probably be interpreted as just "fine talk" in a week when the business of football here was up for discussion again.

At a time most clubs here are struggling simply to survive, the idea of an independently-run league probably seems far-fetched to most and, in the FAI Board's case, maybe even hostile.

He said he'd happily be part of a Steering Group tasked with putting forward a proposal to Government to provide tax breaks for a different football model here. And he revealed Andy Townsend, intriguingly, to be of a like mind.

But a climb up the political ladder?

"To sit in and try and work your way up through the committee and the blazer feel that the FAI has, they're cast in stone in how they're structured, that doesn't appeal," he accepted.

Describing Delaney as having "different ambitions to what I would have", he suggested he'd make the League of Ireland his priority, not the Irish senior team. Coming from a man who was part of that senior team for 16 years, is he not worth listening to?

For the place Irish football finds itself today is precisely the same place it found itself in November '02, in October '05, in October '07 and September '13 when McCarthy, Kerr, Staunton and Trapattoni were being cut adrift. Still bleeding money. Still fixating on fallen leaves when the roots are creaking.

Quinn wasn't canvassing for John Delaney's job, incidentally, but it did sound as if he had a view of how it could be done better. He talked of football being just about "held together" by the undying love of volunteers. Another coronation won't change that.

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