Robbie Brady, Matt Doherty, and Seamus Coleman. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Swiss roll into town to remind Ireland of their current state of limbo

Switzerland’s latest stop on their pre-Euros tour is in Dublin against an Irish side still unsure who their next manager will be.

WHAT WOULD OTHERWISE be a dreary international window has been transformed into a fascinating social survey: do you trust the FAI?

The FAI say they have their candidate to succeed Stephen Kenny on a full-time basis, that it is emphatically not John O’Shea, and that their existing contractual obligations preclude an announcement happening until early April. 

Canham and Co. are saying, Trust us, we got this

It is therefore a reflection of the nation’s disposition to our national football body that John O’Shea is currently subject to intense speculation that he will soon be unveiled as the next permanent Irish manager. 

The identity of the next boss has been kept so hermetically sealed that people – and journalists – are beginning to wonder whether the reason no name has leaked is because there is no name to leak.

Throw in the fact that Lee Carsley is finally officially out of the running and Eileen Gleeson is a recent example of an interim candidate who was not going to be Irish manager until she was announced as Irish manager, then the prospect of O’Shea actually being the man after all has the hue of the eminently plausible. 

There is feverish speculation among some FAI figures that O’Shea will ultimately be the permanent boss, amid a swirl of rumour that the deal with the “existing contractual obligations” candidate has collapsed. All of this remains strictly the stuff of rumour, however, with those privvy to the full details still insistent that O’Shea is an interim appointment only and that the new candidate will be unveiled as planned in April. 

To install the number three of the dismissed manager as the permanent manager after a historically long search – and writing off two of four preparatory games by insisting he was only an interim manager – would be a fiasco so great it would challenge the credibility of all involved. 

The FAI’s own instincts for self-preservation are grounds enough for believing that they wouldn’t have claimed to have had their candidate if they weren’t absolutely sure they did. Our well-spun cynicism tells us that, for this reason, they do indeed have their candidate, and that it is not O’Shea.

But ultimately, we must wait and see. 

As to whether that candidate meets the nation’s approval is another thing entirely. O’Shea is a very popular figure: he is proving an assured performer in front of the camera and appears to command the respect of the players, judging by Dara O’Shea’s pre-match comments. 

“As a group, we just want somebody who understands Irish football and who knows what it is”, replied the Burnley defender when asked if the FAI had canvassed the players on the identity of the next boss. “Obviously the manager here has probably the best experience in that sense.” 

That’s a pretty interesting answer: if the next boss has had no previous connection to Ireland – and the Poyet/Sagnol/Andersson type are those most widely floated – will they actually command the instant respect of the players? 

O’Shea, meanwhile, has neither indulged nor dismissed talk of his immediate future after tonight’s game against Switzerland, instead playing the party line of his focus being squarely on this interim arrangement. He has plainly stated he wants to be a manager, and this week is important experience in that regard. 

“This experience has only enhanced what I’d always been planning, what I’ve always wanted to”, said O’Shea. “As I also mentioned, there could be a discussion about any scenario going forward. Ultimately when you get a taste of it, enjoy it and are motivated by it, why wouldn’t you want more of it?”  

john-oshea-with-andrew-moran-and-joe-hodge John O'Shea with Andrew Moran and Joe Hodge. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

He may end up as a number two on the next Irish manager’s ticket, as he was coy on whether he felt ready to step immediately to management. Regardless, Saturday’s friendly with Belgium made for pretty good tape for his showreel. A goalless draw against an admittedly indolent Belgium was a decent result, as it is the first time since June 2022 that Ireland avoided defeat against the team ranked above them.  

O’Shea did not exactly experiment in pursuit of that result, however, picking a very Kennyesque 3-4-3, albeit one with Sammie Szmodics and a slightly more defensive emphasis. O’Shea admitted yesterday he may have done a little more experimentation this week had been installed on a permanent basis: if he is only around for this week, then it’s hard to begrudge him acting in his own best interests. 

This week’s games are half of Ireland’s opportunities for experimentation ahead of the Nations League in September, though, so the FAI have allowed them be wasted. 

And while there was much to be encouraged by against Belgium, Ireland were still pretty limited attacking-wise, and Evan Ferguson was forced to toil for long stretches of the game, much as he had under Kenny. While he missed a penalty, that shot was also Ireland’s only effort on target across the whole game. 

It would be fascinating to see Ireland go with their full artillery, and introduce Mikey Johnston to the attack along with Szmodics, Ogbene, and Ferguson. That would necessitate a change in shape, however, and likely the sacrifice of one of the three centre-backs. 

While O’Shea has said he will make tweaks to tonight’s line-up, he hasn’t forecast a change of system. Gavin Bazunu will play in goal in place of Caoimhín Kelleher: he shouldn’t necessarily be punished for Kelleher’s brilliant form. 

Jake O’Brien may come in for a debut in the back three, while there may be a desire to rotate at wing-back, where Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady were Ireland’s leading lights at the weekend. 

Jason Knight and U21 captain Joe Hodge are the only contenders to displace Josh Cullen and Will Smallbone from the base of midfield, and if there is no change in system, then there’s huge competition for the remaining three places up front. On form, Adam Idah probably deserves a start over Ferguson, while Johnston definitely deserves a starting berth. Andy Moran and Finn Azaz can add creativity, but must scrap it out for a place with Szmodics, Jamie McGrath, Chiedozie Ogbene and even Michael Obafemi. 

Ireland have real depth and good options up front now, but a back five system will always mean there are fewer opportunities to include some of those attacking players in the team. 

Switzerland are themselves coming into the game off a scoreless draw, with our former pals Denmark. Brian Kerr will need no introduction to their coach Murat Yakin: he and his brother Hakan played in all of the Swiss games against Ireland during Kerr’s tenure. 

MixCollage-25-Mar-2024-06-59-PM-5939 Then and now: Murat Yakin at Lansdowne Road in a 2002 qualifier and (right) at yesterday's pre-match press conference at the Aviva Stadium. INPHO INPHO

Murat led the Swiss to the last-16 of the 2022 World Cup – where they were thumped 6-1 by a Portugal team seemingly inspired by the benching of Ronaldo – and they qualified automatically for Euro 2024, although from a far more straightforward group than Ireland’s. All the Swiss had to do to qualify was finish ahead of Israel, Kosovo, Belarus, and Andorra. They could even afford to finish second to Romania. 

They are without goalkeeper Yann Sommer tonight, but Granit Xhaka and Manuel Akanji are in the squad. Former Liverpool attacker Xherdan Shaqiri will start, but otherwise Yakin is promising some experimentation of his own, saying yesterday that, while he wants to win, “the result is secondary.” 

A measure of Ireland’s empty summer is the fact this week’s results appear to matter so much more to us. 

Ireland (Possible XI): Bazunu; Doherty; O’Bren, Collins, O’Shea; Manning; Cullen, Smallbone; Szmodics, Johnston; Ferguson 

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