Early last week, the Football Association of Ireland announced that Denis O’Brien would receive a lifetime achievement award for his services to Irish football. The country’s wealthiest man, and long time friend of FAI chief executive John Delaney, is receiving the award largely due to his financing of the Irish manager’s salary throughout the Giovanni Trapattoni era and beyond.
O’Brien discontinued his backing in March, and somewhere in his palatial Algarve villa, he must be wondering if his old chum will be calling to request additional funds in order extricate the current management team of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane from the fat extended contracts they signed in the wake of the Republic of Ireland’s 5-1 play-off humiliation against Denmark last November.
That night should have sealed their faith. Trailing 2-1 and seeing their World Cup hopes fade into the distance, O’Neill decided to go for broke, removing Harry Arter and David Myler and replacing them with Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan. That left a void in midfield for Denmark’s only world class player Christian Eriksen to run riot. It was the type of change you make on Fifa when your mate is hammering you, but a tactically puzzling one from an international manager.
If that occasion felt like the natural line in the sand, the line now appears to be blowing up everything around it. The error the FAI made in retaining O’Neill and Keane looks even graver now after the debacle of Thursday’s 4-1 defeat in Cardiff and the gloom surrounding the team in general after one of the most newsworthy and depressing weeks in Irish football for many a year. Key players have fallen out with the belligerent assistant, some are refusing to play, the coach looks as if the game has passed him by, there is a scarcity of talent developing and Ireland face little prospect of qualifying for the next number of tournaments.
That is a lot to unpack, but the management team’s future is the most immediate issue. O’Neill is not in it for the long haul and didn’t even think he’d still be in charge at this stage. As far back as his first press conference in late 2013 he was asked about some promising players in the under-16 team, responding that they’d be “a fat lot of good to me”. O’Neill has achieved strong results, beating Germany, Italy, Austria and Wales in crucial matches as well as reaching Euro 2016. The problem is, he’s still dining out on those victories and the team has regressed.
What Keane is there for is anyone’s guess. Reports last week suggested he had fallen out with Arter after accusing the Cardiff midfielder of exaggerating an injury to skip training. This followed an altercation with Jon Walters, which was brought up by O’Neill in an interview last week. A leaked WhatsApp message from left-back Stephen Ward backed up the reports and were rather unedifying for Keane.
Unusually for a September press conference, O’Neill found himself batting away questions before the friendly against Poland. He didn’t defuse the situation or deny it happened, which was rather strange. “I did tell Harry that if he was having a fall-out with management, I was the right person to talk to. I won two European Cups under him but lost all arguments with my Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough. Management won.”
Secretly he must be fuming, or worse still, complicit. Either way, surely things cannot go on as they are. O’Neill and Keane have what the Independent’s Jonathan Liew beautifully coined as a ‘Clough complex’, adhering to a strongman style of working synonymous with the legendary Nottingham Forest manager.
If O’Neill continues or a new coach is put in place, they still have to deal with a dearth of talent at their disposal. This is the worst pool of players Ireland have had in 40 years, made up of largely Championship and lower Premier League journeymen. The domestic league is severely underfunded and cast aside, with no discernible link for schoolboy players if they fail in England initially.
Former Irish manager turned pundit Brian Kerr has been passionately outspoken regarding the structural problems. “We’ve had the same leadership for about 20 years now,” he told Virgin Media Sport on Sunday. “Many of them are far too old for the modern game, to even understand it, yet they’re directing operations. And right through the system, the system is failing us, we’re not producing players and it needs radical action.”
And that is the most pertinent question. Just exactly what does Delaney offer?
13 years into his interminable reign, is Irish football in much better shape than when he took over? His salary (around €360,000 per annum) earns him more than the president of the United States, while his control is equatable to Kim Jong Un. As the man presiding over this ineptitude, surely it is incumbent upon him to take some responsibility?
That is obviously not going to happen. He holds too much sway and has insulated himself from expulsion. The board is full of his cronies, relying upon him to stay in power. Like any failed democracy, the sword falls last on the most powerful. Delaney will still be in charge and little will probably change.
The future looks grim.
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