Saturday 18 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Shortage of talent the real crisis in Irish football

Derby's Jeff Hendrick - one of the few chinks of light for Ireland soccer fans
Derby's Jeff Hendrick - one of the few chinks of light for Ireland soccer fans
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The real joke we play on people in these moments is to sell the idea of one man as a solution.

Forget it. Any phone numbers the FAI might be fixating upon just now will be no lottery figures. Whether it is Martin O'Neill, Chris Hughton, Mick McCarthy or, heaven help us, even his Royness himself, who sits into Giovanni Trapattoni's chair, the new man will face old troubles.

Quite the most chilling reality of Tuesday night in Vienna was how the game was, literally, dominated by a single player.

Long before summoning his decisive goal, David Alaba had separated himself almost from the occasion itself by being so profoundly superior in technique, vision and execution to anybody else on the field. Alaba is a beautiful footballer, but this was depressing.

Take him out of the evening and we would, almost certainly, have borne witness to a scoreless stalemate between two haplessly limited national teams. Two teams doomed to be mere roadkill if they ever made it to Brazil.

True, Trapattoni was a stubborn old goat to the end, pointedly resisting any moves being championed by what he came to regard as a populist choir.

You certainly got the impression that Wes Hoolahan's staunchest supporters were, eventually, just tugging him further and further away from a starting position each time they railed against the team's lack of guile. Trap, just like Rafa Benitez in his final days at Anfield, adopted a contrarian view on anyone (or anything) popularly touted as offering difference to the team.

In the end, he looked tired of it all, tired of answering tactical questions by people he regarded as buffoons, tired of butchering a language that, in almost six years of opportunity, he made no attempt to master, tired of working with players he would not trust with anything but the most menial of strategies.

Trapattoni's persona was of a man who believed he had worked small, technical miracles in his time as Ireland manager, miracles that would be visible only to an educated eye.

To some extent this was delusional. Most of what Ireland achieved during his tenure was down to the application and competitive honesty of players who, against the bigger sides like Russia, German, Spain and Italy, generally looked hopeless.

For Ireland against the better teams, read Scotland, read Wales, read Northern Ireland (save that recent Russian aberration). Read abundant heat, but little light.

Brightest

Consider this. Alaba is 21, already a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, fully formed as a professional footballer. He is younger then than, say, Conor Clifford, once one of Ireland's brightest hopes when signed up by Chelsea as a 15-year-old, but now at Southend after undertaking a demoralising loan safari through England's lower leagues.

Clifford had been a star of the Dublin District Schoolboys League and won an FA Youth Cup in his early days at Stamford Bridge. Yet, logically, first-team opportunities were never going to be made available to him at Chelsea, a club financially equipped to buy some of the best young talent in world football.

Look at the club profile of the U-21 Irish team trounced 4-0 by Germany this week. Of the 11 starters in Sligo, only two are contracted to Premier League clubs. So, who are the bright young stars, the next generation coming through then? Jeff Hendrick, who has already broken into the senior squad, plays midfield with Derby in the Championship. Of the relatively new arrivals, only Ciaran Clark and James McCarthy are regulars in the Premier League.

Top English clubs now have a recruitment policy that extends far beyond Western Europe, let alone a neighbouring island. Who are the Irish at Manchester United now? City? Chelsea? Arsenal? Liverpool? Tottenham?

An intelligent, maverick manager like O'Neill might well inspire something out of the ordinary by sheer force of personality, but, in a properly constructed football environment, inspiration would be the bonus, not the imperative.

The money invested in Trapattoni's regime was quite startling and you could only listen with bemusement yesterday as the Italian's old friend, Liam Brady, surmised that someone like O'Neill was unlikely to come any cheaper. Really? Do you honestly imagine that the next manager of Ireland, whoever he might be, will – say – require an assistant on a half-million-euro salary per annum?

Admittedly, this is just a hunch, but I'd wager there are plenty of fine, successful managers out there who would happily consider the Ireland job itself for the kind of money that has fallen Marco Tardelli's way these last few years.

Irish football needs a good deal more now than just another marquee unveiling, because there is a recidivist quality to what's happening. In the end, our problems always become personalised, always narrow, always self-delusional.

But if Denis O'Brien is willing to continue his support of the game here, an investment in the FAI Academy planned for Abbotstown next September might be more worthy of his consideration than another big-name appointment.

This wouldn't, of course, sate those spinning the notion that we are just one smart tactician away from being a force in world football again. But it would, at least, send out a message that we are thinking about our future, building a place of excellence for our best young kids to grow, develop and be educated.

Just now, we seem forever enmeshed in tired, old cycles of hope and disgruntlement, ambition and fatalism. Just spinning in familiar circles. In the end, Trapattoni might well have been a problem.

But he wasn't the only one.

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