Ireland's Interim Head Coach John O'Shea and Jason Knight. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
talking point

What people don't like to admit about the Ireland managerial search

126 days on from Stephen Kenny’s departure, fans are still no closer to knowing the identity of his successor.

Updated at 9.52

126 DAYS have elapsed since Stephen Kenny’s reign was officially ended.

It is the longest-ever search for a new Irish manager, easily beating the previous record time of 113 days it took to appoint Giovanni Trapattoni.

And yet what was perhaps most depressing about the dour 1-0 loss to Switzerland — a team on an Ireland-esque run of form with just one win (against Andorra) in their last eight matches before last night — was that it might as well have been Stephen Kenny in the dugout.

Sure, like on Saturday against Belgium, there were subtle differences in formation and style.

But the overall pattern was decidedly familiar. The inescapable themes of the last three and a half years of Irish football reared their ugly head once more — a lengthy period of the game where the team are thoroughly outwitted, an inability to look enough of a threat in the final third, the concession of a long-range goal.

Now that these two forgettable friendlies are out of the way, Irish fans can once again focus exclusively on who the next permanent manager might be.

Will it be Willy Sagnol? Gus Poyet? John O’Shea? Might Lee Carsley be ‘back in the frame’ for roughly the 17th time?

And more importantly, which of these names has the highest chance of succeeding?

Here’s what journalists, fans and even the FAI may be reluctant to admit: it’s a complete guessing game.

No one could convincingly make the case that Gus Poyet is more likely to be a success than Willy Sagnol, or vice versa.

If you were to conduct a poll of fans or journalists, at least before he ruled himself out, Lee Carsley would have been the unanimous choice. But that means very little. Stephen Kenny was the most popular option before he got the job and the Dubliner’s ill-fated stint did not go according to plan.

Dara O’Shea this week suggested the new manager should be someone who “understands Irish football”. Yet of the four managers in history who have guided Ireland to major tournaments, two (Trapattoni and Jack Charlton) were born abroad and had no previous relationship with football in this country. 

Fans will say they want the next manager to boast an impressive CV. However, some of the most successful managers in international football in recent years barely met this criteria before taking their current jobs.

Lionel Scaloni, who guided Argentina to a World Cup triumph in 2022, had never managed a senior team before taking that job and his appointment was treated with much scepticism.

Gareth Southgate, England’s most successful manager since Alf Ramsey, only previous senior managerial experience was at Middlesbrough, where he was dismissed not long after overseeing their relegation from the Premier League.

Didier Deschamps’ most recent job before guiding France to back-to-back World Cup finals, saw him quit Marseille after a disappointing 10th-place finish in Ligue 1.

Yet the reason all three managers went on to succeed so spectacularly is not primarily down to emotional intelligence or tactical acumen. It is simply because they have many extraordinarily talented players at their disposal.

That is surely a key reason why the Ireland managerial search has been unprecedented in its length. 

In international football, coaches are prisoners to the players at their disposal.

Would a Lee Carsley-like figure look at the Ireland job and easily be able to envisage emerging with an enhanced reputation, or even one comparable to how he is perceived at present?

Teams like France, England and Argentina have world-class players in most positions.

Even a side like Poland, who scraped into the Euros last night by beating Wales on penalties, have at least one superstar (Robert Lewandowski).

Ireland have more than one potentially world-class player, but none that currently fits this description (for the sake of argument, we’ll define ‘world-class’ as a player good enough to be a regular starter for a title-challenging side in one of Europe’s big five leagues).

Yet there’s a reason people love reading articles, listening to podcasts and watching shows speculating on who the next Ireland manager will be.

It is tempting to view this individual as a kind of saviour figure — capable of extracting the team from their dreaded reality.

Deep down though, most people know these great expectations are irrational.

This yet-to-be-confirmed individual is at the mercy of the environment and players at his disposal.

The flawed grassroots system, the problematic academy structure and the paltry government funds devoted to soccer are much more relevant long-term issues than the identity of the national team manager. But those dilemmas are less fun, and more complicated, to talk about and don’t attract the same amount of attention or clicks.

Nonetheless, the prospect of a managerial appointment gives people scope to dream. It provides a quick fix and a sense of excitement that the team has struggled to deliver for years.

The manager search is a kind of escapist entertainment like ‘Barbie’ or ‘Dune’ whereas the Ireland matches are more akin to uninspired low-budget indie dramas.

In the end, though, it is just a temporary foray into fantasy to distract us from reality.

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