O’Neill is a symptom of a broken system not the cause of it

Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS

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Let’s face it, following the ‘’Boys in Green’’ has never been pretty. It’s never been about ‘’total football’’ or a ‘’heavy metal’’ approach to the beautiful game. Indeed, Irish football has been built exclusively on hard work, honesty, passion and all the other buzz words you often hear associated with the Irish National team. On Saturday night the Republic of Ireland were held to a scoreless draw at home to Denmark in front of a totally flat Aviva Stadium crowd. The negativity towards the teams style of play both online and in the stadium itself was strong despite the fact the traits mentioned above were all present throughout the forgettable ninety-minutes. So why such criticism for a group of players that not so long ago were bringing joy and passion to an entire nation as the ‘’Boys in Green’’ and its supporters took over France and performed so admirably at the 2016 European championships?

Even Martin O’Neill’s greatest critics could not dispute losing veteran internationals such as Shay Given, John O’Shea and Robbie Keane all within a short time-frame was not going to effect the camp. The only difference between the current crop of Ireland players and the team that qualified for back back European championship finals is results. Trapattoni’s style of play was rarely slammed in the media or by supporters until its limitations were finally exposed and results went to the wayside, see any comparisons to the feelings around Martin O’Neill’s regime?

This is where the major issues within the Irish footballing structures lie. The impending retirements of Given, Dunne, Duff and Keane were among the worlds most poorly guarded secrets, we all saw it coming but what was done to prepare for their departures?

Noel King is the current Ireland under 21 manager, having been appointed eight-years ago. Image credit:  FAI.ie

Noel King is the current Ireland under 21 manager, having been appointed eight-years ago. Image credit: FAI.ie

As highlighted excellently by Twitter user @Dodge following the Republic’s under-21’s defeat against Israel earlier this week, the Irish under-21’s have finished bottom of their qualifying group five times and only managed 35 group wins in 121 games with just three victory over higher seeded sides in the past fifteen-years. Noel King has overseen this sides fortunes, or misfortunes, for eight of those fifteen years, having taken the job all the way back in 2010. Despite being able to call on the services of some highly rated youngsters over the course of those eight-years, King has failed to change the under-21’s dire international record.

Of course, while success at underage level brings a sense of positivity to the entire national set-up, as seen in recent years with England’s multiple triumphs at underage level, youth team football is all about developing future players for the senior side. And to be fair to King, there are countless players who have played under him for the 21’s before eventually going on to take to the main stage, although in most cases it was the respective players club form that earned them call-ups many years after their youth caps and not what they had or hadn’t done for King’s side in that moment. This is where we start to see cracks, and deeps ones at that, in the Irish system.

Thanks to the recent introduction of national elite standard leagues at domestic level we are finally starting to see the days of underage squads being made up of exclusively British based players coming to an end. However, old habits die-hard and if the Declan Rice and Jack Grealish sagas should have taught the Football Association of Ireland anything it is the days of picking players of dual nationality simply to try and nab them from other national set-ups needs to end.

This isn’t to say any player born outside of Ireland should never be considered for an Irish cap again just because two former Irish internationals had their head turned by England, I’m sure I don’t need to list some of Irish footballs greatest British born names to reinforce the credentials of such individuals, but call-ups (even at underage level) should be based on merit and it’s clear that has not always been the case within Irish football down through the years, to the detriment of so many promising domestic players that could’ve gone on to do great things for Irish football.

Just like O’Neill, it would be easy for the FAI to phone King up tomorrow morning and send him on his way after Irish footballs latest failing but would anything really change under the next man in? Perhaps there might be a short term bounce and improvement in results as is often the case with a change of management but will Irish football ever truly kick on? The answer to that is with the current systems in place it’s a resounding no.

Under the FAI’s watch we’ve seen our women’s national team players forced to share tracksuits and change in airport toilets, numerous domestic clubs go out of business, the catastrophe that was ‘’club Ireland’’ and claims of poor treatment towards Irish supporters in block 114 of the Aviva Stadium, who have protested against the FAI’s leadership of the game here.

What at I getting at here? Accountability! Currently the FAI’s CEO, John Delaney for those of you who are unaware of him, takes home a yearly salary well in excess of treble what the League of Ireland Champions earn in domestic prize money. I mean, if we can’t get our house in order off the pitch how can we ever expect to seriously compete on it? Yet despite the above situations, which are just a small snippet of many notable events during Mr.Delaney’s reign as CEO, there are reports circulating at present that Delaney may sign a long-term contract extension.

Of Course, supporters of the Waterford native will point to the multi-million euros worth of investment in junior clubs around the country and the fine, albeit debit ridden, modern stadium Delaney has delivered the Irish public but this does not paint a true picture of the dire state Irish football currently finds itself in.

Dutch man, Ruud Dokter was hailed as the revolutionary sent to set us up for a bright future and to his credit the sixty-three-year-old has implemented some good ideas such as the national underage leagues and a set system of play for all Irish national underage teams of 4-2-3-1, which is of course the favored system of the famous Dutch football academies. However, critics have argued you can not attempt to clone another nations football traditions and beliefs and simply drop them on Irish youngsters and expect guaranteed success. Regardless of your views on such a debate, the fact that the senior side, regardless of who they have been managed by down the gears, play a totally different style of football to this ‘’total football’’ philosophy is where the entire system put in place by Dokter falls down on itself.

In short and simple terms the entire argument over the future of Irish football comes down to the following key dilemma. At senior level, football has always been and will always be a results game. Regardless of the style of play, if Martin O’Neill was to turn this sinking ship around in the coming years and guide Ireland to Euro 2020 qualification he would instantly regain his status as a national hero. However, in the most likely even of that scenario failing to materialize and O’Neill either leaves or is removed from his position, what direction does the FAI want to take football in this country?

Currently, association football is the most played participation sport in the country ahead of GAA and rugby. When you consider the current success of the Dublin GAA team and the incredible rise of club and international rugby in Ireland over the last couple of decades it is astonishing that football is drawing in the numbers seen. As a result, this is a golden opportunity for the decision makers in Irish football to capitalize and mold a future for Irish football we have never seen before.

While it may be unpopular with your average football fan, perhaps it is time to examine the possibility of appointing a senior national team manager who will sacrifice results in his early days in order to implement a style of play previously unimaginable for Irish sides. ‘’We don’t have the players you say?’’ Tell that to Stephen Kenny and his Dundalk charges of 2016, who not only experienced historic European success against sides with vastly greater resources and continental history but did so playing a style of football that drew in previously punters previously uninterested in the fortunes of League of Ireland clubs in Europe.

Take the most technically gifted player in Noel King’s current under-21 squad and drop him into a Martin O’Neill starting eleven, (probably out of position if the Denmark game is anything to go by) do you think that player will flourish? Now take that same player and place him into a senior squad that plays the same brand of football as the under-21 squad he has been in and the under-19 squad he has been in and the under-17 squad he has been in and so on, do you think that played might fit into the system a little bit better? Of course he will! Here in lies the problem with the development of Irish players in a nutshell.

It is time for the FAI to stop looking for short term fixes to an age old problem, Irish players will not improve overnight and until some faith is shown in our senior players by a manager who believes in bringing the best out of his players and not simply focusing on stopping the oppositions best attacking traits, we are sadly doomed to an endless cycle of rare success followed by hopeless misery.

Irish football’s problems are as complex as they are many and simply removing Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane, Noel King or which ever poor soul that follows them won’t solve anything, it will only serve to paper over the cracks, something we have mastered in all walks of Irish society for generations. What’s that old definition of insanity, ‘’doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’’......Sound familiar? It’s time for change, let’s be brave and end the misery.

For more passionate debate on the Irish national team, check out Series 2-Episode 28 of Between the Stripes LOI podcast hosted by Kieran Burke & Jonathan Brier. Listen now using the Audioboom player below or alternatively, search for Between the Stripes LOI podcast on your favorite podcast platform such as Itunes, SoundCloud, Spotify & many more to find us!