Tuesday 24 October 2017

It shouldn't be too much to ask for some long-term thinking with next appointment

A manager from closer to home is what Irish football needs right now, not another in the Trapattoni mould, says John O'Brien

John O'Brien

WHEN you survey the list of UEFA-affiliated football nations and the men currently in charge of them, an interesting pattern quickly begins to emerge. Of the 53 European-based countries, not including Ireland where the position remains vacant following Giovanni Trapattoni's sacking last week, 14 employ foreign-born managers, a total just in excess of 25 per cent. By any reckoning, it is a not insubstantial figure.

But it doesn't tell the full story. Russia might have a downer on native-born coaches right now, preferring to lavish princely sums on the likes of Guus Hiddink and Fabio Capello to guide their fortunes, but it is the exception rather than the rule. It is true too that Austria employs a native Swiss coach while the Swiss themselves prefer a German. Yet you can conclude, at least, that no language barrier will intrude in either of those cases.

Perhaps there is something to glean from the remainder of those who look externally for guidance: the Faroes, Liechtenstein, Albania, Malta, San Marino, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Greece and Cyprus. Remove Greece and the admirable Iceland from the list and all the named countries have something in common besides employing non-native managers: none of them will come within an ass's roar of making the cut for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.

This time last week, while the faintest hopes still flickered, Ireland remained part of that list. No sooner had the Trapattoni era limped to its inevitably meek conclusion than hopeful glances were being cast towards the UK mainland and far beyond. Where was Hiddink hanging out these days? Hadn't Sir Alex become available at precisely the right time? Rene Meulensteen's name popped out from left-field. And once we'd remembered our old friend, Philippe Troussier, the race to find Trap's successor could officially begin.

Now, however dreamy some of the floated names, nobody is saying there is any disgrace in the longing for the glamour, overseas appointment in favour of the more modest, home-grown talent. Right now in Irish rugby, the five most high-profile coaching tickets in the country lie in the hands of southern hemisphere-born coaches and, if the interests of the game are being served, nobody seems inclined to raise much of a fuss about it. So why should Irish football think any differently?

And lest we forget, Ireland's most successful ever football manager was a gruff, no-nonsense-talking Geordie who came at a time when a gruff, no-nonsense-talking outsider was precisely what was required: a man not weighed down by the baggage of past failure, who didn't understand our harsh, painful history, just the primitive need to deliver results by whatever means necessary.

It would be rewriting history to suggest the legacy of the Jack Charlton years wasn't considerable. For all the caveman football, those carefree summer days of Euro '88 and Italia '90 fed the young imaginations of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff and the brilliant youth successes of the late '90s might not have come without it. For a time the illusion that Ireland could enjoy a prolonged presence as a world power was easy to sustain.

Maybe that's all history now, but the echoes between Charlton's studied aversion towards the wider Irish football community and Trapattoni's failure, or unwillingness, to engage are impossible to miss. Surely, if we are honest, we would accept that granting a manager a free pass from criticism on the basis of achieving results, by whatever means, is slightly problematic. For some, the low point of the Trapattoni years came with his employer's order to attend more club games, still a scarcely credible state of affairs when you think about it.

You don't have to be a dewy-eyed romantic to aspire for something more wholesome. There was once a time when reporters, enquiring of Brian Kerr's whereabouts, would learn that the manager had taken in a reserve and, maybe, an under 19 game on his way to a Premiership match that afternoon. Kerr didn't have to be told to do anything. The job was his passion, fussiness part of his DNA. Nor did it take the promise of a seven-figure salary to attract him to the job.

Results didn't come Kerr's way, of course, but his methods were faultless and that shouldn't be forgotten. He cared and made football people here – the grassroots as it were – feel immensely good about themselves and the work they were doing. The odd thing is, though, we ask with increasing regularity why we aren't developing more talented players, yet rarely ask why more driven coaches like Kerr aren't coming through

the fold, an oversight which urgently needs to be rectified.

Right now, we've got lucky. Trapattoni departs and the two names at the top of the list are both of this island. Despite his "no contact from the Irish FA" faux pas, Martin O'Neill remains a compelling candidate, his aura hardly diminished by those who portray him as an old-school, long-ball football Luddite. O'Neill's erudition and passion as well as his record in management entitles him to huge respect. And yes, his GAA background and obvious affinity to Ireland is a handsome bonus.

Whatever your personal feelings, the timing for Roy Keane seems good too. Whatever Keane's feelings towards FAI chief John Delaney, it's hard to see them having much bearing on his willingness to do the job if offered. The same was said when Niall Quinn was CEO at Sunderland and Keane, putting their history aside, agreed to take the job.

Whatever route they choose, however, it would be encouraging to think that the vision will extend not just to the next manager's reign but to a future beyond it. Back when Trapattoni was unveiled and Liam Brady sat at the top table, it was too tempting not to imagine a future when, having nobly performed his duty, the Italian stepped aside and handed the ceremonial torch down to his old protégé.

We were grievously wrong about that one, of course, but we still stand by the logic. Looking far afield is all very well, but the true answer, and the most joined-up thinking, ought really to begin on your own doorstep.

Sunday Independent

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