Sport Soccer

Monday 11 December 2017

The last straw?

There is no agenda against Ireland U-21 manager Don Givens, says Daniel McDonnell. The consistent run of bad results and needless spats should be enough to see him removed

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

DIGNITY and failure seldom go hand in hand, particularly in football. There's always somebody else to blame. An agenda, a grudge or some kind of far-fetched conspiracy.

Don Givens puts across the impression that he is cut from a different cloth. He possesses an old-fashioned pride in representing his country and maintains some values that are scarcely found in the modern game, taking a dim view of the bling and bluster that now accompany it.

Consequently, there is a terrible irony in the woe that has become the staple of the U-21 manager's troubled tenure. For all that he may stand for, honour and virtue, and rally against those upstarts who lack such attributes, Givens' defence of his position is now becoming increasingly undignified.

Surely, the point must soon be reached where Givens or his employers know the defeat that's one too many.

Wednesday's loss to Armenia in Tallaght means that Ireland are over two years without a competitive win and are now hurtling towards a second successive qualifying group where they finish rock bottom. The position of U-21 manager may not be a results business, but it's a stretch to suggest that results simply don't matter. And yet, Givens' response to questions about his future is to suggest that there are people out to get him for reasons undefined.

"Sections of the press have their own agenda," he said, in response to being asked about his future in the wake of the second successive defeat to the Armenians. "I'll consider my position when somebody in the FAI comes to me. I certainly wouldn't, with all due respect to journalists, be going on them."

It would be fascinating if Givens expanded upon the possible reasons for this agenda because, in truth, he is a dream for the media as he repeatedly embraces microphones to air grievances that generally remain behind the dressing-room door.

Here is a man who opened fire on David Connolly and Stephen Ireland and provided endless column inches with individual attacks on youngsters who have stepped out of line. We were told that Richie Foran would never play for Ireland again. That Keith Treacy picks and chooses his games. That Chris McCann wouldn't give his right arm to play for his country. That Anthony Stokes plays truant. Don loads up the bullets and sells papers.

Post-Armenia, he was in trademark form when the bad boys were mentioned. "Anthony Stokes? The boy didn't turn up for his country twice," he raged. "Keith Treacy? We all know that problem. I'm sure you do." It's a terribly entertaining distraction from the bigger picture, which is the deplorable series of results achieved by Irish football's second most important team.


There is a case for the defence. In this qualifying group, Givens' team have missed chances and turned potential wins into draws or defeats. An occupational hazard is that he must frequently deal without talented performers who are fast-tracked to the senior squad, with James McCarthy required at the Emirates earlier this week.

Furthermore, he is loyal to a policy of only capping players who he feels have prospects of advancing to the senior team, which means that early developers who could get the job done now are sacrificed for the sake of development.

Fair enough. But then there's the flip side. Losing is becoming a habit and the players at his disposal are consistently under-performing. They associate international football with negative, confidence-sapping experiences.

"I don't like it when the team that I've picked plays poorly," argues their manager. The reality is that it's happening too often to be a coincidence.

While the XI who lined out in Tallaght may be short on defensive quality, Seamus Coleman aside, Owen Garvan, Sean Scannell, David Meyler, Alan Judge and Cillian Sheridan have enjoyed regular first team-action in the UK. Hindsight should prove them a better crop of U-21 players than their results suggest.

The exclusion of Treacy and Stokes makes Givens' position in the production line to the senior squad all the more puzzling. Giovanni Trapattoni has called the Hibs striker up several times in the past 12 months, and, along with Marco Tardelli, indicated that Preston man Treacy will be blooded in the summer.

Emerging talents like Shane Duffy and Kyle Naughton were actively pursued, with varying degrees of success, by Liam Brady with no indication that the Givens camp was engaged in the process.

It's all very curious. Late in 2008, bemused U-21 players were addressed by Givens, who stressed they should perform for him because Trapattoni took his recommendations seriously. Where do the lines of communication stand now? Eddie Nolan, dropped from the senior squad, should have figured alongside his peers this week.

"I'd have loved to have him here," said Givens. "I was assured he had been picked in the senior squad. That was a slight breakdown in communications."

Considering both Treacy and Stokes have been ostracised for aberrations largely related to communication breakdowns, it is an unfortunate admission.

Sure, there is a school of thought which argues that Givens' zero-tolerance attitude is justifiable. Many a fan dreams of smacking down sulking young pros who don't know their luck.

Sadly, it's a dated philosophy. Respect is a two-way street and, even when Givens has been in the right, he has caused unnecessary strife by dissecting the character of immature footballers publicly. It's an unfeasible approach for a small nation.

Across the water, in the shape of Fabio Capello, there is living evidence of a top manager who realises that you must cope with the embarrassing indiscretions of those who are desperately important to the cause.

The game would be a happier place if it was packed with well adjusted upstanding citizens like Kevin Doyle, a working example of someone who thrived under Givens' straightforward tutelage and really did use the U-21s as a stepping stone. Alas, such a vision is unrealistic and an ability to deal with the idiosyncrasies for the greater good is a far more important tool of management than any Pro Licence course.

Where will this end? Givens insists that he won't consider his position until he is approached by the FAI. Nobody is holding their breath. The fate of the U-21 team has little economic knock-on effect for Abbotstown. With attendances small, and host grounds varied, there is no real culture of fan pressure on an under-age boss. Remember, were it not for punter outrage and related financial consequences, Steve Staunton would have survived for another two years.

Givens' role in the 'football family' is secure and the fact that he was part of the headhunters who snared Trapattoni means his position at Abbotstown seems rock solid. Indeed, there wasn't even a press release to mark his last contract extension and the only agenda worth discussing is why the FAI would see logic in prolonging his regime on the QT once again.


The 60-year-old's deal expires after this qualifying campaign, and there is no coherent argument to sanction another campaign at the helm. Even if the bad results, rows and gaffes can be forgiven, there is a compelling argument for introducing fresh faces to the dugout.

The under-age teams should be an avenue for ex-Irish internationals and talented League of Ireland coaches to enter the system with a view to a long term. Ideally, it would be an evolving structure; instead it is rigid, a borderline old-boys network.

All international managers, bar Trapattoni, are supposed to be answerable to the FAI's High Performance Director Wim Koevermans, whose appointment was heralded as a revolutionary step. If the Dutchman wishes to make a real statement of intent, then he should instigate a reshuffle rather than the retention of the cosy status quo.

Clearly, Givens feels there are personal issues behind the calls for his dismissal, but that familiar managerial refrain, which suggests some form of behind-the-scenes skulduggery, is without substance in this instance.

Persistent defeats and repeated instances of disharmony are the reason he is being asked about his position and, ultimately, the media cannot save him from the most searching examination of all. We print the results.

Irish Independent

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