An A-Z of the Irish football year in 2020

We run through what has been a fairly desperate 12 months for Irish football, on and off the pitch.

Now at the end of a year so dreary, you may ponder, weak and weary, over another Irish football year with a curious volume of forgotten lore…okay, enough with the poetry. (Ours is not a football culture easily given to it.)

Instead, let’s run through the year that was, letter-by-letter….

is for ahead of schedule, as Stephen Kenny found himself promoted to the senior job earlier than planned, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It meant he took charge of the Euros play-off with Slovakia, and Mick McCarthy left with a hefty £1 million bonus, the latest example of John Delaney’s very particular genius for negotiation. Mick is now coaching Apoel in Cyprus, as Bossman Steo considers how many mirrors he has broken to deserve the run of luck he has had so far. 

is for bail-out, which the State provided to the FAI in January to help them avoid insolvency. And it was a bail-out, in spite of Shane Ross’ very best efforts to call it everything but. 

is for Champagne Football, Paul Rowan and Mark Tighe’s comprehensive, startling, exasperating, infuriating, scandalising, and darkly funny book explaining why the FAI needed that bail-out in the first place. 

john-delaney-and-emma-english John Delaney's legacy left us all open-mouthed this year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

is for Debt-free, which John Delaney said the FAI would be by 2020. Instead, the FAI carry debts into 2020 of almost €70 million. 

is for Euro 2020, which it is still called in spite of being held in 2021. (Blame the merch.) Ireland won’t be competing thanks to the penalty shoot-out defeat in the play-off semi-final to Slovakia, and we don’t yet know for sure if they’ll partially host it. 

is for Flores, Jordan who bagged a nomination for Fifa’s Puskas Award for this astonishing volley against Shamrock Rovers in a February League game. 

is for Giovagnoli, Filippo, who arrived at Dundalk to mass scepticism on a self-professed “kamikaze mission” to take charge at the then-champions having not hitherto coached an adult team. He then led Dundalk to the Europa League group stages and the FAI Cup to earn the management gig full-time. 

shamrock-rovers-players-celebrate-with-the-sse-airtricity-league-premier-division-trophy Shamrock Rovers celebrate their title triumph. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

is for Hoops, as Shamrock Rovers established themselves once again as Ireland’s eminent football team by winning the league at a canter, without losing a game. They were knocked out of Europe in dignified circumstances by AC Milan, but missed out on a first double since 1987 with defeat to Dundalk in a thrilling FAI Cup final. 

is for Independent Directors, with the potential appointment of six of them to the FAI board causing all manner of fury and division among the FAI council during a stormy summer. That the FAI board would be reconstituted to consist of an even split of elected football directors and independent directors was one of the terms of the government bailout – you may remember our old friend, the Memorandum of Understanding – but after a fraught showdown of Council and a clatter of letters both leaked and critical, the reforms were ultimately accepted to avoid insolvency. 

is for Jack. The Great Man passed away on 10 July this year, triggering a mass release of sadness mingled with the joy of reminiscence. There was much talk of his impact and his legacy, and while the claims of his being an avatar for a new, progressive Ireland often felt overplayed, the essential truth of his legacy is thus: he made an extraordinary number of people extraordinarily happy, and there is no better life led than that. 

is for Keanes, Roy and Robbie, one a rebel and the other without a cause. Roy has slightly-too-happily embraced his one-note role as Sky Sports’ Angry Man, and there’s surely more to the man than this lame, performative outrage. Robbie, meanwhile, was not asked to be on Stephen Kenny’s staff and so remains under contract at the FAI but without a role. 

is for Liverpool, who made a great many Irish people happy by ending their 30-year wait for the league title and introducing Cork’s Caoimhin Kelleher to elite European football, who became the first Irishman to play Champions League football for the club since Robbie Keane did so 11 years earlier. 

david-mcgoldrick Farewell Didzy, we hardly knew you. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

is for McGoldrick, David who has retired from international football and left us all longing for more. Although he only scored once in 14 international appearances for Ireland, McGoldrick improved everyone he played with though the intelligence of his passing and movement along with his velcro-sticky touch. The Slovakia play-off might have been his best Irish performance. Sadly, it was also his last. 

is for Nations League, a competition that has once again been befouled by Ireland. We didn’t win a game – and scored one goal – in the 2018 edition, and were saved from relegation thanks to some administrative jiggery-pokery by our European friends and partners. They kept us by expanding three-team groups to four-teams…and still we didn’t win a game while scoring just one goal. And again, we avoided relegation.

is for O’Sullivan, Denise, who found some of her attacking instincts curbed by Vera Pauw in the Irish team but still bagged a temporary move to the Women’s Super League with Brighton and made another appearance in the Guardian’s list of the 100 best players on the planet.  

is for the People’s League, the moniker adapted by the First Division clubs protesting the inclusion of a ‘B’ team (Shamrock Rovers II) in the division. After much complaint and the mumblings of legal action, the clubs agreed to play against Rovers II for one season only, and under protest. Then along came a pandemic and everyone’s problems became a whole lot bigger. Rovers II have been allowed apply for a licence for next year’s First Division, so the issue might raise its head again in the New Year. 

niall-quinn Niall Quinn. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

is for Quinn, Niall, who endured a bruising spell as the FAI’s Interim Deputy CEO. Quinn was ultimately damaged by the public perception of his past association with fellow Visionary Group members Roy Barrett and Gary Owens, and had his good intentions for the FAI overshadowed by missteps, which included the writing-off of media questions over the propriety of Roy Barrett’s being recommended for a role as FAI Chair by Patrick Kennedy, Governor of the Bank of Ireland – the FAI’s main creditor – as “tabloid naysaying.” 

is for Restart, a tangled and drawn-out process involving the FAI and the clubs to kick-off the League of Ireland season after everything shut down for the Covid-19 pandemic. Gary Owens and Niall Quinn got a fairly hefty kicking at times. Ultimately the season was restarted and finished with very few interruptions or problems, and without the festival of careless eejitry that forced the GAA to call a halt to their club championships. It’s been an absurdly challenging year and on this front the FAI, the clubs and everyone else involved deserves great credit. 

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is for Silent, as the grounds fell even when the football returned. The government will allow fans in stadia under Level One of the Covid plans, it’s a shame more of an effort wasn’t made to allow them return under Level Three. The vaccine offers us hope for the latter half of 2021, and it’s badly-needed: football without fans isn’t quite nothing…but it’s not a whole lot more than that, either. 

is for Tape measure, which is what the FAI had out in perhaps the most egregious instance of Stephen Kenny’s bad luck so far. Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah missed out on the Euros play-off with Slovakia as they were deemed close contacts of a Covid-positive member of staff on a plane. Ultimately they were sitting less than two metres from said staff member on the flight to Bratislava – they were sitting 1.9 metres and 1.7 metres from him respectively. Oh, and as it turns out, the staff member didn’t even have Covid: the test was a false positive. Maybe Irish football should have learned by now not to take any of its positives at face value. 

is for U21s, who missed out on a place at the European Championships. Jim Crawford stepped up to take the gig in place of Stephen Kenny, but couldn’t take the side to a first-ever tournament at that level: losing two of their final games away to Italy and at home to Iceland to squander a good start. Still, the measure of success at that age group is in the number of players it equips the senior side with, and six of the squad – Connolly, Idah, Troy Parrott, Jason Knight, Lee O’Connor and Jayson Molumby –  have already made their senior debuts. 

stephen-kenny-dejected-late-in-the-game Stephen Kenny at Wembley, a bad night for a number of reasons. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

is for Videogate, a deliberately hyperbolic title given to the most curious nonsense of the Irish football year. Soon after the November camp had ended, the UK Daily Mail published a story claiming members of the squad had been scandalised by the political nature of a motivational video shown to them by Kenny in the dressing room ahead of the Wembley friendly. The FAI gave a statement to the Mail saying they were made aware of the issue and were looking into the matter “urgently”, but ultimately decided Kenny had no case to answer. The video was a few Irish goals spliced with scenes form Anglo-Irish history – at this point it’s tough to remember which is furthest buried in the mists of history – but it was, as Kenny himself said, “a non-story.” Kenny said the leak didn’t come from the players, but he did add there may be people “behind the scenes” who perhaps wanted to damage the team without going any further. You don’t have to be a keen student of history to know that this does not appear to be an ideal working environment. 

is for the Women’s National Team, who this year had world-class talents like O’Sullivan and Katie McCabe, better support from the public and the FAI, and a higher media profile, yet still couldn’t make the play-offs for the European Championships in England. It was ultimately lost away to Ukraine, an utterly confounding defeat in which McCabe missed a penalty and Ireland contrived to concede a dreadful own-goal. Progress has been made under Colin Bell and Vera Pauw, but it’s difficult not to reflect on 2020 as an enormous missed opportunity. 

is for X-factor - admittedly a contrived cliche of these A-Zs – but Stephen Kenny’s side were desperately lacking it this year. The only real X-factor element could be seen in the battering taken in the Wembley friendly, redolent of the audition scenes in which some hopeless, tempo-less dreamer shambles out only to be sharply told by those around them, Who told you it was a good idea to do this? 

is for Youth Structures, which look like they will be tested like never before thanks to Brexit, with Irish kids under the age of 18 unlikely to be allowed to move to English clubs.

is for Zero wins. Yep, it’s not been a good start for Stephen Kenny at the helm of the team that powers the rest of Irish football. Though some of the performances have been poor – Wales away, Finland at home, the first half of Bulgaria at home – much of his stint so far has been mitigated against by the chronic lack of available players. 2021 offers some fresh hope, with a World Cup qualifying group featuring Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan difficult but not quite impossible.

So roll on 2021.

It surely can’t be worse than 2020. 


About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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