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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 23 February, 2019

7 issues the new Ireland manager must address urgently

Mick McCarthy is expected to be unveiled as the Boys in Green’s boss later today.

1. The disconnect between the fans and the Irish team

Ireland supporters Irish fans in happier times. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

THERE IS AN obvious disconnect between the Irish fans and the team at the moment.

Just over 30,000 turned up to the most recent home game against Northern Ireland and loud boos rang out at the end of that match. In key Nations League fixtures, attendances have also been underwhelming, with free tickets being given out in order to boost these figures.

Anti-John Delaney banners were confiscated from fans prior to the Denmark game in Aarhus and similar incidents have occurred in the past.

There are clearly issues with the way football has been run in this country and it has been suggested on more than one occasion this week that Martin O’Neill’s departure served almost as a distraction from these deeper problems.

A broader debate needs to be had about the way Irish football is being run, with some key figures, including Eoin Hand and Brian Kerr, criticising the association recently.

McCarthy, of course, cannot single-handedly resolve these issues and regardless of who is in charge, the problems — which have been discussed in greater detail elsewhere — are unlikely to go away any time soon.

That is not to say, of course, that the new manager can have no influence. If McCarthy can get Ireland playing good football and achieving positive results, he can help restore a feel-good factor in Irish football that will have an substantial impact at every level of the game in this country.

2. The lack of an obvious gameplan

Matt Doherty Matt Doherty was critical of the set-up under Martin O'Neill. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It has long been obvious that Ireland have not received the level of detail in preparation for games that is usually expected of a manager in the modern era.

Martin O’Neill has been frequently been described as “old-school”. By the end of his tenure, it became a running joke how frequently the Derry native would mention Brian Clough — the manager he worked under almost 40 years ago — to justify his own methods.

Ireland defender Matt Doherty did little to dispel the perception of the former Irish boss as yesterday’s man in a controversial recent interview with RTÉ 2fm’s Game On.

“Everyone thinks there wasn’t a gameplan every time, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes there was, sometimes it was less clear,” the Wolves defender said.

Compared to the set-up I have at Wolves, you could class it as old school. When you were away with Ireland, you didn’t really have that much coaching. It was more of five-a-side, or 11-a-side game, and that would be it.

“You can’t have that, especially at international football, people not really sure on what their role is the next day.”

The tendency to tell his players the team only shortly before kick-off was another contentious method, with Aiden McGeady famously unsure of exactly where he was meant to be playing during a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier away to Germany.

But to be fair to O’Neill, every manager is different and not too many people were complaining vehemently about his decisions when Ireland were achieving plenty of positive results during the first part of his tenure.

Yet perhaps experienced players such as Robbie Keane, Shay Given, John O’Shea and Wes Hoolahan were more accepting of these traditionalist methods. It is surely no coincidence that the results increasingly began to decline once these seasoned stars left the set-up.

Younger footballers, in particular, for the most part tend to expect a level of detail and precise tactical planning that is evidently not O’Neill’s forte — the modern game is all about evolution and innovation epitomised by forward-thinking coaches such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. The game has increasingly moved in this direction in the past 10-20 years. Some of football’s brightest minds are now plying their trade in the Premier League, and it is clear the English national team, to cite one obvious illustration, are reaping the benefits from the influence these coaches are having on their players at club level.

Wolves boss Nuno Espírito Santo is one such example of a well-regarded manager, and it is perhaps no coincidence that his player, Doherty, was the one to speak out about the stark contrast between the coaching he has experienced at club and international level. 

It also one reason why there is sense of disappointment in some quarters that Dundalk’s Stephen Kenny has not been chosen instantaneously as the man to lead Ireland. The Dubliner has been portrayed in the media as the more progressive and attractive choice. In the 2016-17 Europa League, while they were unsuccessful in the group stages ultimately, picking up four points from a possible 18, the Lilywhites’ achievement in simply picking up points at that level was unprecedented, and they did it while playing the type of attractive football rarely displayed by Irish teams abroad at that level in the modern era.

Some naysayers and ardent Kenny supporters have suggested McCarthy represents a continuation of sorts from O’Neill’s approach towards international football.

There are similarities between the pair. Both have managed fairly middle-of-the-road English clubs. And McCarthy, who turns 60 in February, is just seven years younger than O’Neill and like the ex-Aston Villa and Celtic coach, is renowned for his motivational skills more so than tactical acumen.

However, to paint it as a like-for-like replacement seems unfair. Unlike O’Neill, there was generally a sense of a concrete plan for each individual game when McCarthy managed the Irish side in his first spell. In contrast with the direct approach under the previous boss, meanwhile, the former Ireland international’s teams often played in an attractive fashion — in the 2002 World Cup, the Boys in Green had greater possession than both Spain and Germany in their respective encounters with these footballing giants.

That said, the Barnsley native was not immune to negativity either — concession of late goals became a recurring theme of his tenure. Costly setbacks were endured in fixtures against sides including Croatia, Holland and Macedonia, which were partially as a result of a rather rudimentary backs-to-the-wall approach once a positive outcome came into sight.

But while there is no doubt that McCarthy made mistakes during his initial Ireland stint, his supporters have argued that he is a better manager now compared with then. And while he is set to work with inferior players compared with the era of Duff and the two Keanes, O’Neill before him showed how when the mentality is right, limited players are capable of punching above their weight and overcoming supposedly superior teams such as Germany, Bosnia, Wales and Italy.

3. The team’s technical inadequacies

Aiden O’Brien and Richard Keogh Ireland have not looked like a cohesive unit in recent times. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The mantra has been for Irish players to “learn to love the ball” and there has been some evidence of this philosophy being applied with the Boys in Green’s youngsters.

Yet for the senior side, the opposite has been the case. The42‘s Eoin O’Callaghan, via Stephen Finn, recently highlighted the alarming figures behind Ireland’s World Cup qualification campaign.

“Just nine teams attempted fewer total passes than Ireland in the campaign. All of them played just 10 games. We attempted just 3182 passes in 12 games. Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova and Latvia attempted fewer passes than Ireland. Countries such as Faroe Islands, Montenegro, Estonia and Kosovo all attempted more passes than Ireland despite playing in two fewer total games.”

The stats were even worse during the Nations League campaign with only Gibraltar (35%), San Marino (31%) and Andorra (29%) having less possession than Ireland.

McCarthy, as noted above, is not beyond pragmatism when necessary and it is inevitable that Ireland will struggle to dominate against the best sides in the world.

However, there is no reason why the Boys in Green should be outplayed by sides such as Northern Ireland and Georgia, whose players are at a similar level.

McCarthy must make Ireland better to watch in order to appease the supporter unrest and frustration, as illustrated by recent flailing attendance figures.

O’Neill himself has been the loudest voice in lamenting the team’s lack of a natural goalscorer, but surely it is only when clear-cut chances are being regularly created that a definitive assessment of Ireland’s strikers can be made. The attackers have little chance, in games such as the most recent Denmark clash, when Ireland had just 25% of the ball and not a single shot on target was registered.

4. The lack of cohesion between the senior side and the underage set-up

Stephen Kenny Stephen Kenny is expected to take over as Ireland U21 manager with a view to replacing McCarthy ultimately. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This is a policy that has worked well for other nations, but there is no evidence that Ireland have a particularly coherent strategy or system in place across the board.

That all could change of course, with Stephen Kenny reportedly set to take the U21 job, but it has been a problem of late.

The underage sides have earned some excellent results in recent times, often playing eye-catching, technically accomplished football in the process.

But all these positives have been undermined by the senior team’s dreary, long-ball football.

Therefore, surely it is time for the senior boss to start a meaningful dialogue with the underage coaches.

Is it really too much to ask that every Irish team, from underage up to seniors, plays with an identical or at least similar style and formation.

Players who have looked highly promising in underage groups suddenly appear to be lost when moving to the senior set-up, with its emphasis on route-one football and apparent lack of scope for individuality and creativity.

5. The dwindling self-belief and tendency to rubbish players’ abilities

Giovanni Trapattoni Giovanni Trapattoni tended to downplay Irish footballers' abilities. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Ireland’s past two managers, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill, both demonstrated a somewhat defeatist attitude at times.

The outgoing Ireland boss continually chose to highlight his players’ flaws and the fact that several operate in the Championship or lower.

It was perhaps partially a tactic to downplay the public’s expectations and take the pressure off the team, but there are only so many times a manager can suggest that his players are inept before they start to take it to heart.

In the aftermath of O’Neill’s departure, Conor Hourihane said that Ireland’s stars were better than they were given credit for, despite the dreadful series of results recently.

“It’s very hurtful to hear people say that it’s a very poor squad or the worst in years. I don’t think that’s the case,” he told the Keith Andrews Show.

McCarthy, of course, would only look foolish if he went the opposite route and claimed he had several world-class players at his disposal when it is patently not the case.

Nevertheless, surely the incoming Irish manager could do with accentuating the positives or trying to be a little less downbeat than his predecessor.

Team morale can be tenuous at the best of times, as O’Neill found out. McCarthy needs to be more upbeat when speaking about the Irish side in future.

6. The faltering qualification campaign

Mick McCarthy Mick McCarthy is expected to be confirmed as Ireland manager today. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Part of the supposed justification for choosing Mick McCarthy over Stephen Kenny initially is that he allegedly represents the quick-fix solution.

Whereas Kenny was seen as the visionary, long-term man, McCarthy was deemed more likely to deliver immediate results. He already has six years of international management under his belt, and consequently has a strong understanding of what the Irish job entails.

At Sunderland and Wolves, he helped both clubs earn promotion to the Premier League in a relatively short space of time, while he also got an Ipswich side short of financial resources to within two games of the English top flight. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the 57-times capped former Irish international can adapt fairly swiftly to jobs and rise to whatever arduous challenges they present. 

In managing this Irish team, he faces arguably the toughest test of his managerial career so far.

The disappointing Nations League campaign means Ireland go into next week’s Euro 2020 draw as third seeds. Theoretically, the Boys in Green could be paired with France and Germany in a group from which only two countries can qualify. Should this undertaking end in failure, McCarthy and co will likely get a second bite at the cherry via the Nations League play-offs, but winning two one-off games to reach a major tournament is no mean feat in itself.

Yet perhaps equally important in the short-term is simply getting the public to care about international football again. We have explored in detail here why many fans seem to have fallen out of love with the Irish side in recent times.

While winning matches will be vital ultimately, it also crucial that there are signs of genuine progress under McCarthy. In stark contrast to the immense optimism that greeted O’Neill’s arrival, Ireland seemed a team entirely devoid of hope or confidence as his era came towards its unsatisfactory conclusion.

7. The over-reliance on English systems developing Irish players

Declan Rice Declan Rice has been the subject of much discussion this year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It felt oddly fitting that in 2018, the most talked-about Irish international was a player who was born and raised in England, received his footballing education through the English system and may well end up representing the Three Lions rather than the Boys in Green.

That is not to suggest that the Irish set-up should refrain from pursuing players such as Declan Rice. There is no doubt that Irish football has benefited significantly in the past from individuals who were born outside the Republic, nor have there been any signs that the commitment of the squad members in question was in any way lacking when they opted to wear the green jersey.

But the excessive reliance on players developed through systems outside of Ireland has been one of the many strong indictments on this country’s struggles with player development. In an U21 squad last year, for example, just five of the 19 players named were actually born in the Republic.

There is no doubt that there is some excellent work being done by underage coaches, as a number of exceptional recent results attest, but so far, the Irish senior side has yet to really bear the fruits of these labours. Seamus Coleman joined Everton 10 years ago. Since then, it is difficult to identify one truly top class homegrown player that has emerged. The national U15, U17 and U19 leagues may eventually help arrest this worrying trend, but for now, McCarthy will have to plough on with the limited tools at his disposal.

Again though, it would be unfair to identify the national team’s manager as the person primarily responsible for fixing these disconcerting shortcomings in the set-up, but there are surely small ways in which he can help.

It has been well documented that the landscape of football has changed immeasurably over the past 20 years — it is now harder than ever for Irish players to thrive at a top English club given the intense level of competition provided by players from all over the world. Martin O’Neill utilised footballers from the League of Ireland more than any Irish manager since Eoin Hand, but it was a sign of the times more than anything else, with Boys in Green stars struggling to make an impact across the water perhaps more than ever before — even in the Championship this season, recent squad call-ups including David Meyler, Aiden O’Brien and Callum O’Dowda, have not always been automatic starters for their clubs.

Consequently, there is no reason why McCarthy cannot maintain and build on the trust in the League of Ireland that O’Neill showed at times. Of the 32 countries that qualified for the 2018 World Cup, only two, Sweden and Senegal, travelled without a single domestic-based player in their party. While it would be over the top to suggest the current Irish squad should be full of home-based stars, surely there are at least a couple who are capable of making the step up.

Naming squads even with just two or three League of Ireland regulars would be a big boost to the domestic game’s image. Moreover, would it really have a negative impact if they are chosen ahead of players who are failing to play regularly for lower-level English clubs?

McCarthy cannot cure the ills of Irish football’s so-called ‘problem child,’ but he can certainly tend to them.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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