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Dublin: 5°C Friday 5 March 2021

Quick-fix appointment could waste a huge opportunity for Irish football

The FAI must resist the lure of a stop-gap hire for the senior manager’s role, writes John O’Sullivan.

IF FOOTBALL FANS can’t see past “mutually agreed” at this stage, they haven’t been paying attention.

Martin O’Neill appeared to fully — and bullishly — expect that he would lead Ireland through the Euro 2020 qualification campaign. He would have been taken by surprise by yesterday’s decision of the FAI board. I certainly was, and most media commentators who work around the national team seemed to be caught off-guard too.

Martin O’Neill Former Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill pictured during Monday's 0-0 draw with Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While we have had some fantastic nights under O’Neill — Shane Long’s goal against Germany, Euro 2016 and Robbie Brady’s winner against Italy, in particular. We shouldn’t forget the good times, but we shouldn’t get nostalgic and put on rose-tinted glasses about what has been an abysmal past 18 months.

Tactically we have been poor for a long time. Players have been used out of position and given minimal hands-on coaching, with lads finding out a few hours before kick-off where they were playing and what shape they would have when the game kicked off.

That wouldn’t be accepted in junior football, never mind at international level. We have had to suffer O’Neill’s repeated utterances that the fault lies with the players, stating that his players weren’t good enough, decrying the lack of a Robbie Keane while his undoubtedly demotivated players looked on.

I’ll come back to this later. We do have some quality players, but they’re being misused. Last Thursday’s game against Northern Ireland blew O’Neill’s nonsensical ‘don’t have the players’ excuse out of the water.

We know about the massive contracts that O’Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane were on. We know about the financial situation at the FAI, where the focus is on clearing the Aviva Stadium debt by 2020, even if that is to the detriment of the grassroots and domestic leagues.

Most people thought — despite the obvious issues on the field– that the FAI simply could not afford to end O’Neill’s contract. The warning signs and issues have been there for over a year, so why now?

The Republic of Ireland team huddle The Republic of Ireland players in a huddle before last week's game against Northern Ireland. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

On one hand, it’s a perfect time. We do not have a competitive game until March, so it gives the FAI board time to sit back and take a couple of months to review Irish football in its entirety, not just the senior team.

We’re currently looking for an U21 manager and now a senior manager, where there have been clear recent issues. It’s the perfect opportunity for a rethink.

On the other hand, people are cynical. Over the last few months, FAI CEO John Delaney has increasingly come under pressure as he has been dragged, in a very public way, into the mess that the national team has become.

Online petitions, critical banners being confiscated in Denmark, and the team being booed off the pitch last Thursday having been dominated by a side comprising arguably poorer players, but with a ball-playing structure and an ambitious manager, who cut his teeth in the League of Ireland.

It’s hard not to believe that at least part of the reason for the timing is Delaney feeling the heat, under pressure in his role, with his potential successor, Niall Quinn, popping up all over the media, talking a big — if hollow — game.

However, there is good news. Over the past year, our underage sides have started to compete with European powerhouses, using more and more home-based players.

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Republic of Ireland v Belgium - UEFA European U17 Championship - Group C - Loughborough University Stadium Troy Parrott is a member of the U19 team who beat Netherlands in a recent European Championship qualifier. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The U21 set-up was a narrowing of a footballing artery, with promising players being lost. We can produce players and we have some excellent ones in their late teens right now. We need to have U21 and senior managers who can continue the progress of those players and not stifle them; managers who will look after all of Irish football. We have a huge opportunity now, but the question is: will we take it?

The FAI say they’ll make the hire ‘promptly’, which suggests that they’re going to make the mistake of jumping in too quickly with a stop-gap hire, very likely to be Mick McCarthy. The proverbial safe pair of hands, with a wry sense of humour that will play to the galleries and fans and keep everyone sweet.

He’s currently available for work and was popular with certain players who would have an interest in coaching Ireland. However, would he really look down through all the age groups and build a cohesive structure? He didn’t before, I don’t think he would now.

Stephen Kenny’s name has justifiably popped up in discussions about the role and he should be considered seriously. In his favour is his proven man-management qualities, his ability to produce a football-playing structure and identify players who will perform exceptionally well within that structure.

For all the talk of Peak6 and the money currently behind Dundalk FC — and the club has consistently paid good wages — the fact is that Kenny built a squad that challenged and beat teams in the Europa League, while playing good football with players that many other managers had overlooked.

People question whether Kenny would be able to deal with the egos of Premier League and Championship players. I think he’d do a far better man-management job than either Martin O’Neill or Giovanni Trappatoni did in the past.

Stephen Kenny Stephen Kenny guided Dundalk to a League of Ireland and FAI Cup double this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He has proven repeatedly, with a constant drain of quality players out of Dundalk, that he can rebuild, adapt and maintain quality. He can prepare players for challenges that should be insurmountable; make them believe and then expect to thrive. He fulfils the basic requirement of any manager. He has repeatedly made the whole greater than the sum of its parts, which is exactly what Ireland need.

Stephen Kenny, with Lee Carsley supporting him (poached from the English FA) and Colin O’Brien promoted to the U21 role would be my choice, with Jim Crawford and Tom Mohan invited into the senior backroom team at a support level to provide continuity to the underage set-ups.

For me, it’s a no-brainer. The question is whether it would be the right time for Kenny to take a role he will inevitably hold some day.

Third seeds, relegated in the Nations League.

Is the senior job a poisoned chalice? It just might be.

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