Saturday 20 July 2019

Dion Fanning: Handy draw can't mask deep-seated problems for Irish football

Replacing O'Neill would not cure Irish football's ills

Alexander Kerzhakov holds up the name Republic of Ireland during the World Cup draw
Alexander Kerzhakov holds up the name Republic of Ireland during the World Cup draw

Dion Fanning

Martin O'Neill's interest in remaining as Ireland's manager for the World Cup campaign may be the best thing for Irish football right now. Ireland's opponents for the qualifiers were revealed at the draw in St Petersburg yesterday and while Wales, Serbia and Austria may not be among the global elite, they will worry Ireland while doing little to attract people to the Aviva.

Ireland may have benefited from Wales's place in the top ten of the FIFA rankings and their subsequent position in pot one for yesterday's draw. They aren't Germany or Spain and Ireland will hope they can beat them but there is little evidence in recent years that Ireland can beat anyone with any reputation. O'Neill will feel it could have been worse given that his side were fourth seeds but their opponents will place a greater emphasis on Ireland getting their own game right, and that challenge goes far beyond the manager.

Austria demonstrated in their games against Ireland two years ago that, at international level, one player can make a difference. David Alaba scored in both games against Trapattoni's side and that was enough. Wales have been inspired by Gareth Bale in the European Championship qualifiers while Ireland have little to get excited about in an ageing squad.

Maybe that will change in the 14 months before these games are played, 14 months when more important things will be decided, but if the decline is to be arrested, reality has to be faced.

O'Neill's remarks last weekend when he said he felt a manager really needs two campaigns may be of greater significance than the identity of the other teams in Ireland's group.

Those who shrugged at the prospect of O'Neill leaving when he was linked with the Leicester City position were reflecting the reality of his time as manager. O'Neill hasn't done a particularly impressive job but it is still good news, or at least not bad news, that he is open to staying.

If things end miserably in the autumn, he may not get that luxury, but nothing that happens then should disguise the true nature of Irish football.

It is in critical condition and the last thing it needs is another managerial search, another pursuit of the dream ticket when the truth is exposed whenever an international side takes the field.

The FAI may want to wait until this campaign is over before deciding if O'Neill should carry on but what are they waiting for? There is no saviour who can transform Irish football by taking over the senior side. Ireland have a World Cup group which could lend itself to this seductive thinking. There will be a belief that the right man can make the difference and beat Serbia or Wales, even if the precedent says no man has been able to do it recently.

O'Neill should be left to get on with things, even if that leads to a lowering of expectations. The phoney excitement of the hunt for a saviour followed by a mission statement and a slow - or quick - realisation that the mission statement is unachievable would benefit very few people.

O'Neill seemed to be the perfect man for the job when he was appointed. He might not be the manager he was when he was at Leicester or Celtic and he seems less than perfect after a disappointing first half of the campaign, but there are few alternatives.

More importantly, Ireland needs to move beyond believing the unbelievable: the idea that a man can be appointed on a Monday and all will be well with the game by Friday. O'Neill and Roy Keane were supposed to provide the antidote to the sterile days of Trapattoni, and there have been moments, but they have been very few.

O'Neill is not the manager he was but Ireland's reality is that they are only in the market for men who are not the managers they once were. A manager at his peak is unlikely to want to throw it all away to come and work for Ireland.

O'Neill talked last weekend of taking "poetic licence" when he said he had been set the target of qualification for the European Championships by John Delaney. Delaney never said that, he made clear, which, O'Neill said, was to the CEO's "eternal credit".

The FAI need to be as clear in their intention to keep O'Neill no matter what happens in the rest of this campaign. O'Neill has always been a manager who is driven by results. Last week he remarked how so much "managerial speak" can drive him "insane" and he has always been different. "I want to win from day one. And eventually who cares about other things?"

Losing, or not winning as is so often Ireland's fate, may bring a focus on other things. A play-off place will be the goal again during the World Cup campaign despite the little bit of giddiness yesterday when the draw was made. Ireland can't hope to finish higher than second but the reality is that they are likely to be missing out on another World Cup. Ireland and O'Neill can pursue it while Irish football looks beyond it through necessity.

The cycle of boom and bust hasn't worked for Ireland. Maybe Ireland have appointed the wrong managers but if O'Neill stays, the FAI should be confident enough in what they are doing to decide to appoint as his successor a manager who has been developed in Irish football.

This is not because the job should be done by an Irishman but because if the FAI are serious about developing "pathways" then they should also exist for coaches or former players to see a way to the top in Ireland. The FAI hope they will soon exist for young players and maybe the new plans of Ruud Dokter will transform Irish football but there is no point in expecting a new manager of the senior team to alter everything.

O'Neill may yet turn it around in the autumn and then Ireland will be rewarded for the appointment. "Just win and get your players running for you," was O'Neill's advice to Paul Lambert when Lambert began his career in management. Managers who believe in winning can sometimes seem bereft when they lose. There is nothing to fall back on, no managerial speak to get them off the hook.

O'Neill will stay the same and Ireland will have to put up with that. Irish football, however needs to change and consider how it is run, not just how the senior team is managed.

Ireland will look at their opponents in the World Cup campaign and believe they can do well. But Ireland has been here before and the story is so often the same. There is no point in looking for a new man, not when the evidence builds that Irish football should send every exiting manager on his way with the words, "It's not you, it's me."

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