Monday 10 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 'The FAI have just tattooed 'ah sure it'll do' on the face of Irish football'

'There'd have been huge excitement surrounding an Irish team managed by Kenny.' Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
'There'd have been huge excitement surrounding an Irish team managed by Kenny.' Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

On August 2, 2016 Stephen Kenny masterminded Dundalk's famous 3-0 Europa League victory against BATE Borisov, a club who the previous season had defeated Roma and in the couple of seasons before that had beaten Athletic Bilbao and Bayern Munich. Seven days later Mick McCarthy steered Ipswich Town to defeat by League Two's Stevenage in the League Cup.

Kenny was competing against teams whose budgets massively outweighed Dundalk's. Yet he earned the League of Ireland its first victory in the Europa League group stages, beating a Maccabi Tel Aviv team who the following season defeated Villarreal. Despite being hampered by an insane domestic schedule, Dundalk twice nearly upset the mighty Zenit St Petersburg. Mick McCarthy's most notable achievement that season was getting Ipswich beaten by non-league Lincoln City in the FA Cup.

In recent seasons Dundalk have set all-time points and goalscoring records in the League of Ireland. Ipswich have spent most of that time in the bottom half of the Championship. Their 16th place two seasons ago was their worst league finish in 48 years. Last season they sacked Mick McCarthy. He's been out of a job since. Nobody was in any hurry to employ him.

At least not till this week when the FAI decided that Mick McCarthy, the man who lost to Stevenage and Lincoln, was a better choice for the Ireland job than Stephen Kenny, the man who beat BATE Borisov and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The appointment of McCarthy as Irish manager is a disastrous decision for football in this country. Above all, it's one which will only increase public cynicism about the national team at a time when the game here needed an injection of hope.

Hope would have been provided by Kenny, a manager the Irish football public would have gotten wholeheartedly behind. The Dundalk manager would have offered an alternative to the dull pragmatism indulged in by successive Irish managers. There'd have been huge excitement surrounding an Irish team managed by Kenny.

Instead we're getting Mick McCarthy. Mick. Mc. Carthy. Are you fucking kidding me?

The heart sinks. This is a man who last took charge of the team 16 years ago and has spent the time since compiling undistinguished records with Wolves and Ipswich Town. Not that his time with Ireland was exactly distinguished either. Has anyone forgotten the poisonous atmosphere which enveloped Irish football after the Saipan incident, something for which McCarthy bears at least some of the responsibility? Have they forgotten the way he left the job after boos rang around Lansdowne Road following a home defeat to Switzerland?

Yet the FAI believe he'll put Irish football back on track. This idea that you can forget the problems of the present by trying to return to the imaginary glories of the past seems a popular one at the moment. Mick McCarthy will be the Jacob Rees-Mogg of Irish football. While we're at it why not bring back Mick Byrne as physio, replace the national anthem with 'Give It A Lash Jack' and ask McCarthy at his first press conference if he's going 'to put them under pressure?'

One of the chief advantages from the FAI's point of view is that McCarthy is an Organisation Man par excellence. He won't just toe the party line, he'll vigorously defend it. John Delaney and his cohorts are probably wetting themselves at the idea of Mick barking at Tony O'Donoghue and doing that Plain Speaking Yorkshireman routine which got old a long time ago.

The idea of bringing Robbie Keane on board as part of a 'Dream Team' is so transparently and childishly cynical as to be laughable. The FAI have pulled this one twice before. Don't fancy Steve Staunton? Well, look over there it's Bobby Robson. Unconvinced about Martin O'Neill? Sure, won't he have Roy to back him up?

Now they've gone for the hat-trick. We've just spent five years watching one underemployed Keane hanging around like a spare prick at a wedding, we don't need another. Robbie Keane's main role will be to provide comic relief at press conferences. But this joke isn't funny anymore.

This is the FAI's second disastrous decision inside a year. When Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane were considering jumping ship to Stoke City, they should have been given their cards. It was obvious that O'Neill had lost interest in the Irish job following the humiliating defeat by Denmark and that it would be almost impossible for him to motivate players who'd seen him try and sneak away.

Any moderately intelligent person could see keeping O'Neill at the helm would result in catastrophe. Yet the FAI didn't just keep O'Neill in the job, they offered him a new contract which would keep him there till 2020.

Ten months later that contract has been torn up and the FAI will have to pay the outstanding money to O'Neill and Keane. Their haste in offering a new contract to a compromised manager proved to be a colossal miscalculation. It's not just money which has been wasted, it's time.

While other countries used the interregnum between the World Cup and the European Championships to rebuild, a rudderless Ireland drifted. We played nine games, won one and scored four goals. Out of 55 teams in the Nations League, only one scored fewer goals than us and only four had a worse record. Attendances slumped and so did morale as with every uninspiring performance O'Neill's team brought itself further into disrepute.

Whatever your opinion of John Delaney's performance as CEO of the FAI, there's no disputing the fact that offering O'Neill a new contract was a terrible misjudgement. A misjudgement like that should have made the Association a bit more careful next time around. Instead, they once again acted with indecent haste when a period of reflection would have been in order.

Why the hurry? We were told it would be 'embarrassing' for Irish football if we didn't have a manager when the European Championship draw is made next Sunday in Dublin. But I don't think there's a single Irish fan who'd be embarrassed about that. The only ones who might have been embarrassed were the FAI.

They seem to have an awful fear of embarrassment. That fear was probably the main motive behind the decision to award O'Neill that new contract. Caught on the hop by the revelation that our manager was playing footsie behind their back, the FAI scrambled desperately to prove this was all part of some grand strategy. The new contract was designed to divert attention from the unsatisfactory state of affairs which had developed on their watch.

Now they've saddled us with another unsuitable manager so that questions about who bears responsibility for the last disastrous year of O'Neill's reign can be swatted aside.

The decision to give Stephen Kenny the Ireland under 21 job so he can be 'groomed' for the top job when McCarthy leaves is just another diversionary move by the FAI. If you want to know what the FAI really think of the under 21 job, look who they've given it to. Noel King has held the job for the last eight years. Don Givens put in a decade of underachievement before that.

Neither man was ever considered to be a candidate for the senior job. Pretending the under 21 job represents some kind of stepping stone is perhaps the FAI's most cynical act of all. It can't disguise the way they have slighted Irish football's outstanding manager.

We were at a crossroads. Choosing Mick McCarthy condemns Irish football to gloom and mediocrity and irrelevance. At a time when Irish sport in general is looking to the future, appointing Mick McCarthy shows the FAI is determined to live in the past.

They've just tattooed 'ah sure it'll do' on the face of Irish football.

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