Saturday, 11 July 2020

How the early days of the Charlton era changed Irish football forever

A huge piece of my youth felt a little bit further away today as the news of Jack Charlton's death was confirmed.

At 15 years old when his appointment was confirmed, the Charlton era started just as I reached an age when attending games with my own friends, and even alone on occasion, became a reality. While my pulse had been quickened by the reports that Liverpool's Bob Paisley was a shoo-in for the job vacated by Eoin Hand's dismissal, for a boyhood Leeds fan, Jack Charlton's appointment was a thrilling one despite the cack-handed manner in which the FAI had arrived at the appointment.

The fact that he was a previous English Manager of the Year, even though his Middlesbrough side were a second-flight team the season he won both that league and the award, indicated that there was certainly something there in terms of managerial nous. And being honest, despite the obvious quality of some of the players, the disappointment of being cheated out of a World Cup spot in 1982 had seen two subsequent abysmal campaigns where the team was decidedly less than the sum of its parts.

A crowd of 16,500 at his first game, a springtime 1-0 defeat to Wales in March 1986 best remembered for Neville Southall breaking his ankle on a pitch ploughed up by that year's Five Nations Championship, indicated exactly where our national football team sat in the affections of the general public. The fact that some present displayed a 'Go home, Union Jack' banner which was clearly visible from our spot in the schoolboy pen indicated that there was work to do even in the hardcore support.

People often point to the victory in the Triangular Tournament that summer when Ireland travelled to Iceland and beat both the hosts and Czechoslovakia to gain their first silverware of any description as a turning point. When this was backed up by a creditable two-all draw away to World Cup semi-finalists Belgium in the opening qualifier for Euro 88, things seemed to be looking up.

But while there were full houses for home games against Scotland and the return against Belgium either side of that famous away win in Glasgow and an unlucky Sofia defeat to Bulgaria, the two nil-all daws turned the public off again.

Despite remaining in contention throughout the qualifiers a mere 18,000 turned up for a must-win game against Luxembourg in September 1987. This was the same small number who, unbelievably, had turned up that May for a glamour friendly versus Brazil. Boos actually rang around the stadium as the little known Armin Krings put the minnows one up. Luckily Frank Stapleton responded immediately before a second-half Paul McGrath goal kept the dream alive by securing the two points.

Only 26,000 showed for an even more important game against Bulgaria the following month where a win was needed to ensure the opposition weren't already qualified before their final game, a home clash with Scotland after our campaign was complete.

Who knows what would have happened had Gary Mackay not broken Bulgarian hearts and filled Irish ones with joy that November? That strike, the day after under 10,000 fans filtered into Dalymount Park to witness a 5-0 mauling of Israel, is often pointed to as the beginning of the nation's love affair with the team. But in reality, Jackie's army had still yet to mobilise.

The Euro 88 build-up was marked by Lansdowne friendlies against Romania (a 2-0 win in front of 30,000), Yugoslavia (2-0 in front of 12,000) and a farewell 3-1 win over Poland the week before the tournament that attracted only 18,500.

What happened next is history and has been commemorated in song and story since. A win against England in our first ever tournament game was the stuff real football people in the country hadn't dared to dream of but even then, there were no Italia 90-esque scenes on the streets. The fact that the game took place during a Sunday holy hour when the pubs technically remained closed offered little mitigation.

But that win started a ball rolling and by the time we'd won a game we should have lost, drawn a game we should have won and lost a game we should have drawn to agonisingly just miss out on a semi-final spot, something had changed. I can recall walking through town in the aftermath of the Holland defeat and seeing crowds dancing in the Floozy in the Jacuzzi, the old Anna Livia monument that used to be O'Connell Street's centrepiece in the pre-Spire days and is now seated at Croppies Memorial Park on the quays.

And while the homecoming didn't compare to two years later, Jackie's army was beginning to attract volunteers as the College Green ceremony saw what must have been close to 100,000 throng the city centre.

That said, the first game back on home soil, a 4-0 win over Tunisia that saw John Aldridge finally break his international duck still only saw 12,000 come through the turnstiles. A Dalymount Park friendly in February 1989 while Lansdowne Road was in Five Nations mode had an end of an era feel as the old ground heaved under the weight of a 22,000 crowd. France provided the opposition and while the nil-all draw doesn't linger in the memory, it did provide a debut for future captain Andy Townsend.

But it was the Spanish game the next month that saw the sea-change in crowds. In a taste of things to come, tickets were like hen's teeth and what would become the familiar sight of supporters queuing outside travel agents, the preferred method of distribution outside of clubs, was noticeable. Indeed, this writer, by now a student in Dundalk, missed out on a ticket through the college football team lottery and had to wangle an all-areas ground pass through a contact in Dundalk FC.

It's true to say the ground shook that day and I've no doubt that the pressure generated by thee noise had something to do with Michel putting through his own goal under pressure from Stapleton to give Ireland a vital win. The days of easily available tickets were gone, a situation only enhanced as wins against Malta, Hungary and Northern Ireland left us only needing a win away to Malta to confirm a first World Cup appearance. A John Aldridge brace in  Ta'Qali finished the job and nothing in Irish football would be the same again.

The impact Jack Charlton had on the game in Ireland can be measured by the difference in those campaigns to the ones that followed. From being something enjoyed and suffered in equal measure within football circles, his Ireland team became the torch-bearer for a newly confident nation emerging from the dark days of the 1980s.

And while it can be argued that a hardcore of just under 30,000 still makes up the regular match-going support, that’s double what it was back then and there is still no bigger ticket in town when there's something at stake.

When it comes to major tournaments, the side captivates and unites the country in a way that no other team or code does. The reputation garnered by the supporters through those early tournaments lives on to this day and put the country on the international map in a manner nothing else could have.

Whatever gripes anyone may have had about how we played, it's impossible to overstate Jack Charlton's impact on the game in this country and its place in Irish culture. For that alone, we should be thankful. RIP Big Jack and thanks for the best of times. 

Friday, 29 March 2019

New Balls Please

After such an underwhelming performance in Gibraltar, I have to admit the prospect of dropping points against a Georgia team that had dominated us possession wise both games in the last two campaigns was worrying me. We'd ridden our luck in the 1-0 win at home and the one all draw in the away leg was one of the worst performances I've witnessed on an away trip.

A three-hour delay while on the runway before flying home on Monday evening had taken the shine off a great Sunday night with Dutch and Spanish branches of our support in Malaga. After saying goodbye to all that afternoon as people began making their journeys home, we'd taken a walking tour around the city and had some dinner and a couple of straighteners to take the edge off the previous few days' excess. The plan to arrive home around 10.30 and get an early night went out the window with a computer fault just before take off and having had to taxi back to the gate for running repairs, the delay meant that it was 1.30 in the morning when we got in having spent six and a half hours on the plane.

Needless to say, this didn't help the dose of the fear the next morning although at least I didn't have to suffer getting up for work at five hours after getting to bed, unlike Mrs False First XI! Even so, I was still pretty weary when I surfaced a couple of hours later and attempted to get the Gibraltar blog written before heading over to Lansdowne Road that evening.

As it happened, events overtook me and the finalising of the blog had to wait another day. While touring Malaga the previous day, talk of protests had started to filter through on various WhatsApp groups after the further revelations around John Delaney and his recent employment change. The one that seemed to be gaining traction was the suggestion that tennis balls be thrown onto the pitch during the game but no one seemed to be aware of where it had originated. The only post mentioning it on YBIG was from someone with no posting history and there didn't seem to be much on social media about it either. Despite this, the media were determined to run with it but being in the middle of a tour meant I had to pass the chance to talk to Joe and discuss it on Liveline after a request came in.

However, when a request came in to do a piece on possible protests with Sky Sports the following day, I felt that as a committee member of the YBIG Independent Supporters Mandate, we should take the opportunity to talk about why supporters were feeling the need to protest. With them looking to get someone before 4pm, it meant leaving a couple of hours before my plan so before I got to finish my Gibraltar piece it was into a cab for a slightly different pre-match routine.

Part of our brief within the Mandate is to raise issues that concern supporters and, following what we saw as heavy-handed responses to protests before, we had put the item on the agenda when meeting with the FAI and had minuted what are appropriate means of peaceful protest and what is allowed without intervention from stewards, police or authorities present. So, after issuing a statement the previous day highlighting that again, I found myself standing in front of a camera in front of the West Stand, more than a little nerve-wracked, trying to put those points across to Sky Sports' Guy Havord!

Reach for the Sky

I've done a couple of pieces to camera over the years but it's generally been post-match when I've had a few drinks beforehand and when emotions are high which gives a bit of Dutch courage. This was a lot different but at least I had the security of seeing Guy Havord trip over his lines on the first take. Luckily enough for me seeing as he'd managed to mispronounce my name before that despite his practice beforehand!

Anyway, second time around went alright despite the nerves and after saying goodbye, I went off for food with a little adrenaline still moving through the veins. A bowl of hot chicken wings in The Gasworks settled that but having watched the 5pm bulletin with no sign of my interview, I assumed they'd gone with whatever other footage they had and thought no more about it.

After making my way up to The Beggars for the traditional pre-match preparation, I was just settling into a second pint when my phone started hopping to various piss taking texts from lads who'd spotted my mug and before long the videos started arriving to more mickey taking at the pub itself. Looking back, it shows how much I know when I said I didn't see the tennis ball protest happening!

Slagging aside, there was a good atmosphere and a bigger crowd around than the last couple of times we played Georgia. There were a few groans around when the team news came through with the recall of Glenn Whelan and the absence of Matt Doherty the main complaints. The absence of Sean Maguire was also questioned with a five man midfield behind David McGoldrick clearly the plan.

From my perspective, I've always thought Whelan was a bit of an undeserved scapegoat and appreciated the longevity of his Premier League career and the fact that he's been in great form in the Championship with Aston Villa recently. I'd have been tempted to try Doherty in right midfield again with doubts about Robbie Brady's match fitness but other than that, the team really picked itself. My only hope was we'd see more from them than we had on Saturday.

After heading to the ground, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a standard security check rather than what we'd become used to in the Singing Section since the USA game immediately after the Scotland ticketing debacle in 2014. We got through far quicker than normal and made our spot in plenty of time for the anthems and ubiquitous one-minute silence/applause that seems to come before every game these days.

Old habits die hard

The fact that the FAI had failed to inform their printers about their long-planned change of CEO raised a few laughs when people noted JD still beaming out from the Chief Executive panel in the programme but that was soon forgotten as the game started and Ireland tore into the opposition immediately.

It was clear from the off that this Ireland were a very different proposition from the team witnessed in Gibraltar three days before. Within the first ten minutes, we witnessed Jeff Hendrick pushing on with overlapping support from both Enda Stevens and Seamus Coleman, Conor Hourihane linking well with David McGoldrick, Robbie Brady getting a shot off from a good position and Hendrick and Coleman linking well again before a poor cross from the captain. The tempo was excellent, the pressing was excellent and all that was missing was the final execution with the last delivery or shot letting the good build-up down.

Paperback writer

Georgia immediately looked like they were struggling to deal with that tempo and clearly hadn't expected it.  The crowd had been lively from the kick off with a vocal outing of chants protesting mixed in with those for the team. There were also a number of banners printed on large sheets of paper which had obviously been decided as the easiest way to get them into the ground. Unlike previous occasions when such banners became visible, there were no efforts from the stewards or gardai to move in and confiscate them.

On the ten minute mark, Ireland should have been ahead. Hendrick slid in to win possession and played McGoldrick in. The Sheffield Utd striker passed it on to Hourihane who really should have picked out Robbie Brady instead of hitting a weak shot easily saved. It was a chance missed but again, really encouraging build up.

McGoldrick dug out another chance a couple of minutes later before a Brady free kick in a great position was hit straight into the wall.  Another attack came immediately resulting in another free, this time on the left. Whelan played this one short to Robbie Brady in what was a reverse image of Liam Lawrence's pass for Whelan's famous goal against Italy at Croke Park. In fact, this was about as far forward as I've seen Whelan allowed since then! Unfortunately, Brady couldn't replicate Whelan's finish of a decade before and the ball sailed over.

By now, we'd seen more chances created in twenty minutes than the entire Nations League campaign. Georgia had had a couple of break-outs but they'd been comfortably dealt with by Duffy and Keogh. Anything that was reaching Randolph, he had under control and we were still asserting ourselves and had a shout for a penalty when he tumbled under pressure from  Davit Khocholava but the ref got it right by waving it away.

What happened immediately after that was indicative of the change in mindset. Georgia attempted to clear but the ball was intercepted by centre-half Richard Keogh, stepping up beyond the opposition's side of the centre circle to take command and start another attack. This attack was again let down by a poor Coleman pass but another corner was the reward for the positivity.

As the lone man up front, McGoldrick was covering every blade of grass and actually dropping far deeper than should be expected. But when he did that, he was winning every ball and the midfield were pushing on to give him options ahead. A couple of times, he got the ball out of our ridiculously tight situations and used it well before getting back into forward positions to look for the return. I said as soon as McCarthy was appointed that McGoldrick would be a big player for him after their time at Ipswich together and he was proving it in spades here.

Back in your court

McGoldrick was involved again in what, for more reasons than one, became the decisive part of the game. It was he who was pulled down about 25 yards out as the game reached the 33rd minute. With the free in a very good position, Whelan and Hourihane stood over it as the wall lined up and the ref marked out ten yards. Now, as I said earlier, I don't know who initially mooted the idea of throwing tennis balls onto the pitch and I didn't see where the first one came from but once one came down, another forty or so followed. The majority were from the South end although more from the sides than the centre, there were a few from the North end and a small amount from East and West.

To be honest, it initially got a mixed reception even from those protesting in our area. I assume the 33rd minute was a reference to Delaney's infamous suggestion that Ireland be allowed compete as the 33rd team in the World Cup after Thierry Henry's even more infamous handball. But there was definitely a sense that disrupting the game just when we had a really good chance after a great start could be counter-productive.
As it turned out, the two-minute delay made no difference and for those protesting, what transpired afterwards really couldn't have worked out any better. Once the pitch was clear, Whelan and Hourihane took their positions again and with Whelan stepping back and Shane Duffy leaning into the wall, Hourihane stepped up to serve up an ace of a free-kick around the wall leaving Loria in the Georgian goal no chance whatsoever! One nil and Ireland had the lead they deserved.

Into the net!

Any potential negative reaction from the support was banished at that moment which may not have been the case had the two-minute break disrupted the tempo we had been playing at. The fact that this happened at 33 minutes indicates to me that there was some planning involved but given the different areas of the ground they came from I wonder whether some had just got the idea from the level of whipping up that the media had been partaking in. Either way, as protests go, it's pretty harmless in comparison to what you might see in some other countries and a slap on the wrist and a fine should see the end of it from UEFA while the publicity gained can only be a positive.

There was a little lull following the goal but the tempo lifted again coming into the last five minutes with a corner just missing Keogh. Another indication that this could be a good night for those protesting came in the four minutes stoppage time at the end of the half. Despite the fact that the time added on was legitimate and there would have been the same game time played had no protest occurred. Had Randolph not pulled off an unreal save from Valeriane Gvilia's volley, there's no doubt that a goal at that stage would have been blamed on the protest. As it happened, one nil at half time was the least we deserved.

The 57% first-half possession was a long distance from the 26% we 'enjoyed' the last time the sides met in September 2017. The fact that so much of that took place in the opposition half made for the most enjoyable 45 minutes Lansdowne had witnessed in a long time.

The second half began at a similar tempo. McClean was harrying their right-back although once again, the end product was lacking. We really should have gone two up just before the hour mark after a nineteen pass move ended with Henrick knocking the ball in from a slightly offside position.

Notwithstanding the fact that Hendrick could easily have checked his run and stayed onside without losing the chance or left the ball for Coleman behind him who could have rolled it into an empty net, to see Ireland pass the ball around like that and create a great chance was a joy.

Another call for a penalty followed as McGoldrick went down under a challenge from Solomon Kverkveliya after good work from McClean on the left. At the time I thought there was no way he would have gone down in such a good position had he not been fouled but watching the replay since the ref probably got it right.

The long ball from James McClean sees David McGoldrick clean through but the ball just runs wide #irlgeo #irevgeo #rtesoccer
Georgia worked another couple of chances but the Irish defence was holding firm and still pushing on whenever possible. Enda Stevens probably should have scored only to scuff a shot with twenty minutes to go. Moments later, McGoldrick was sent through one-on-one from a McClean ball over the top but dragged it just too wide when rounding the keeper and just couldn't hook the ball in from a very tight angle. Had he kept his run closer to the keeper he could well have gone over him but he may have had the previous penalty call on his mind and the chance passed.

Aiden O'Brien then came in for Brady who had put in a good shift but still looked a bit off the pace for me. The fact that the tempo had been so high could account for that to be fair.

McGoldrick had one last chance to grab the goal his performance deserved only for Kverkveliya to get a good block in before the clear man of the match was withdrawn to a huge ovation from the crowd. It's a long time since I've seen a striker put in that level of effort and cover that much ground in a game and the sustained applause was richly deserved. Matt Doherty was the man brought in to shore things up for the final ten and O'Brien moved inside to free up the right wing.

There was still enough time for one heart in the mouth moment when a great effort from Jaba Kankava clipped the outside of the post. Had it gone in, it really would have made an issue over the missed chances and wrong final ball options and despite our jokes that Randolph had it covered, had it been a foot the other side of the post he'd not have got near it.

Georgia took a lift from that and began to put pressure on as a visibly tiring Ireland retreated for once but once the four minutes stoppage time was announced we saw another effort from the men in green and even a sliced Whelan shot that went out for a throw-in right beside the corner flag got rapturous applause. Whelan has received a lot of criticism in the past, unfairly in my opinion, for doing what he was instructed to do by successive managers. He's that sort of player and when he has been allowed more freedom for his clubs, he's generally shown that he can play. He wasn't far off McGoldrick for man of the match in my opinion and showed a side of his game that has rarely been seen in green.

Mick McCarthy was roaring his men forward to prevent Georgia from creating anything and with them pushing again, another Hendrick interception sent McClean clear. Instead of running for the corner, he inexplicably booted the ball straight into Loria's arms in another example of poor final decision making much to the rage of all present.

As Georgia had a final push, we got numbers back and blocks from Keogh and Doherty saw the final danger off and when Hourihane finally got released, he headed for the left wing and under pressure rolled the ball down the touchline to eat up the final few seconds to confirm the win and the three points.

Table (Tennis)

The win wasn't the biggest thing to take from this. Had it been a scrappy 1-0, after similar in Gibraltar, then despite being in the same position points wise, legitimate questions would still be being asked and there'd be little sense of change. As it is, the astonishing comeback from Denmark from 3-0 down on 85 minutes to grab a draw leaves us top of the group and with a new sense of optimism and purpose. The fact that the two most influential players on the park in McGoldrick and Whelan wouldn't have been involved without that change in management adds another dimension to the win.

But let's not get overly carried away. This was a team who we seem to have the hex on and there's certainly harder battles ahead. Both Switzerland and Denmark will be far harder tests and we'll have a better idea of how we've developed after the Denmark game in June. Still, you can only beat what's in front of you and it's mission accomplished for this international break.

However, mission is far from accomplished for those of us that believe change is also necessary at board level. While the protests on Tuesday certainly kept things in the news cycle for a few extra days, this feels like only the beginning. With an Oireachtas Committee hearing due to occur on April 10th, this momentum needs to be continued. If you have concerns over recent and not so recent revelations then raise issues with those politicians involved or with the media. If there's one thing politicians like it's a bandwagon and if they feel the wind is blowing a certain direction, you can be sure they'll tilt their sails that way.

Having seen the landscape move in terms of what we witnessed on the pitch, let's see how it looks when we return in June.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Gone With The Wind?

Where to start with the last week in Irish football? Is it a case that the winds of change that appear to be blowing in the direction of the FAI are of similar strength to the gale blowing across Gibraltar Airport and the Victoria Stadium that reduced Saturday's game into the realms of farce? Or is this a situation that will blow over with a quick board reshuffle and change of job title?

From this fan's perspective, the start of a new campaign usually offers the possibility of change. New locations to visit and new players to watch are almost always guaranteed and on those occasions when there's new management that throws another variable into the mix. In fact, the lack of new locations plus a lack of available time off had meant that I passed on the return visits to Wales and Denmark in the Nations League.

So when the draw for the European Championship qualifiers proper was made, a trip to Gibraltar, a place I'd be unlikely to visit otherwise, was an attractive proposition. With flights to Malaga booked early, the whole phoney war about whether or not the game might be moved to Faro where I'd already seen us play the same opposition in the Euro '16 qualifiers caused a bit of concern but once the game was confirmed to go ahead on the Rock, I'd been looking forward to getting some Mediterranian springtime sun into the bones.

Our flights to Malaga the day before the game went off uneventfully and there'd been a minibus arranged to transport a few other like-minded souls from YBIG that had arrived in through various routes from Malaga down to La Línea de la Concepción, the town on the Spanish side of the border. With Gibraltar still a disputed territory, taxis can't cross the border so it was left to us to wander across what's essentially an airport runway in the shadow of the Rock itself to the town once we'd gone through border control.

The Rock and the Runway

To be honest, once we'd stepped off the bus, I'd already realised that the prospect of that springtime sun was looking remote but by the time we started walking over and got our first blast of the wind that was forecast to hang around for the weekend, I pretty much gave up on it there and then. I'm not kidding, it could nearly lift you off your feet! The road into the town genuinely doubles as the airport runway so it's as open to the elements as can be and the temperatures that had been in the twenties the previous week were nowhere to be seen.

The fact that we were booked to stay on a boat docked in the Marina also added an extra layer of intrigue to our arrival and after meeting a few of our advance guard who'd been making their way from various locations around Europe in a bar called The Ship, appropriately enough, we were shown to where we were berthed and gingerly made our way across a gangplank that seemed very insecure and onto a boat that seemed a lot smaller than the yachts pictured on the website we'd booked it through!

Insecure is a word that could also have been used to describe the position of one John Delaney, the erstwhile CEO of the FAI over the previous week. Revelations that he had taken a trip to the high court to try and prevent the publication of Mark Tighe's piece detailing a payment of €100,000 from Delaney into the association's accounts and back again in 2017 had created a storm of another kind which hadn't abated all week.

Legitimate questions relating to why an association which had reported a turnover of over €50m the previous year couldn't source credit of €100,000 through its regular banking sources hadn't been answered with any clarity by the multiple press statements issued on an almost daily basis by the FAI. Rumours relating to his future had also been circulating all week but exactly what might follow was clear as mud.

Those issues, along with Declan Rice's ill-advised tweets coming to light and Jon Walter's retirement were dominating the bar-room discussions when we made our way back to The Ship with what can safely be called differing attitudes towards each player the order of the day.

There was also plenty of general chit chat about the history of the place with some of the locals. There's an interesting attitude there with a clear dislike of Spain despite the fact that some of the people we spoke to had a Spanish parent. But the attitude to Britan is fairly nuanced as well with more than one telling me that they'd sooner be independent but have to depend on the UK to prevent Spain just rolling them over.

We then headed up to the town to try and find some food and finished off in a local bar for a nightcap before another wobbly trip over the gangway and into bed.

Not so Kool and the Gang-plank

With three couples and two kids staying on the yacht (and there's a whole other story I could write about that boat) and a fairly heavy swell in the Marina, there were more than a few moments where sleep was interrupted by the bobbing up and down and noises of masts and ropes being blown against each other but once we were up, we had the afternoon to take in a bit more of the locality.

It's definitely a bit of an unusual experience to be walking around an area geographically in the south of Spain with orange trees and all the fauna associated with that area visible but to see bright red postboxes and coppers with traditional bobby's caps on them. Especially when a cable car up one part of the Rock brings you to a wildlife park complete with a tribe of macaque monkeys lording it over the place.

As adjectives go, cheeky is an understatement when it came to these characters. In our hour wandering around, we saw an ice cream and a bag of crisps getting pilfered from unsuspecting fans and calmly polished off! Having experienced similar on a visit to the Nagano Snow Monkey Park during the Japan World Cup, the victims of such larceny had my sympathy!

Unfinished Monkey Business

Having managed to take in the vista without getting blown off the sides, we managed to safely navigate the cable car journey back down and made our way back to the marina where a fan zone had been set up with big screens for those without tickets to watch the game. The usual faces were present and correct and the 6pm kick-off made a nice change from the more regular continental 8.45.

View from a hill

A couple of hours of mingling passed quickly before it was game time and a misunderstanding relating to my request for a media pass meant that my ticket was for the opposite stand to the bulk of the Irish support. A cheeky attempt to gain entry to the East resulted in me being incorrectly told my ticket had already been used which caused a bit of concern but after telling Louise to head in with everyone else, I managed to get in at the other end of the ground and found a spot beside a Gibraltar fan and his family.

More Kool and the Gang

Team-wise, I was happy enough with the eleven named and the decision to try and accommodate Matt Doherty on the right. As the form Irish player in the Premier League this season, he deserved a chance but dropping the captain for him wasn't a realistic proposition. Given the quality of the opposition then this should have been as good an opportunity as any to try him there in the absence of any friendlies.

I'd thought from as soon as Mick McCarthy was appointed that David McGoldrick would be one to benefit given their history together at Ipswich so it was no surprise to see him named. Sean Maguire has been unlucky with injuries every time he's looked like breaking through so I was glad to see him get a chance. Conor Hourihane has been in good form for Aston Villa as has Enda Stevens for Sheffield United so both warranted inclusion and the rest of the team looked solid. The team certainly looked good enough to win comfortably.

However, looking and doing are two different things and it became clear early on that the conditions were going to play far more of a part than originally thought. The hosts played with the wind and actually started better with a very optimistic shout for a penalty after a Liam Walker shot was blocked by Shane Duffy's upper body. A free kick from the same player that flew over Darren Randolph's goal soon followed before Ireland got any sort of foothold and the sight and noise of the 6.05 Easyjet flight to Luton roaring down the runway added to the sense of surreality.

In plane sight

A couple of Irish chances followed with a McGoldrick show over the bar and a goalmouth scramble finally falling to Richard Keogh but his poked effort didn't trouble Kyle Goldwin. Every time the ball went into the air the wind was catching it which meant the Irish player's decisions to make every sixth or seventh pass airborne was maddening.

My seat was directly behind the bench and that decision making was clearly infuriating McCarthy on the sideline with regular roars at the players being lost in the gale. When the ball was kept on the deck there were some reasonable passages of play but nothing really coherent enough to make a breakthrough look likely.

McCarthy's Bark

This was perfectly illustrated by a McGoldrick crossfield pass around 25 minutes in that seemed to be heading towards Keogh until the wind blew it straight into Goodwin's arms and another pass aimed towards James McClean that changed direction mid-flight to drift out.

With Ireland now dominating possession, a succession of corners followed but even controlling those was difficult with half chances for Doherty and Maguire coming and going and it was actually through a Gibraltar player that Ireland's best chance arrived. A Coleman cross swirled in the wind and Roy Chipolina lost the flight of the ball leaving Goodwin to go full length to tip his defensive header over the bar. Again, the corner came to nought.

Rock on

Coleman and Doherty were beginning to combine somewhat on the right which was where most of Ireland's pressure was building unlike McClean on the left who seemed to be having one of those off-nights. Again, he was not being helped by long balls being sent his direction and one of the few occasions he managed to get control of the ball, he had his legs taken by Lee Casciaro who was promptly booked for his trouble.

Clearly not satisfied with Casciaro's punishment, McClean then took the opportunity to exact his own retribution a minute or so later picking up a needless booking just before half time. The whistle for the break swiftly followed and worrying talk started turning to whether this could replace Jack Charlton's 1995 draw in Liechtenstein as Ireland's worst ever result.

After moving a few rows to sit with a few Irish fans for the second half, our fears nearly came closer to realisation in the first minute after the restart. Gibraltar immediately won a corner from which Roy Chipolina met perfectly with a header. Every one of us thought the net was about to bulge only for Randolph to somehow claw the ball clear. It really was a sensational save from the Bray man and one that turned out to be a game changer two minutes later.

It was Randolph again who started the decisive move of the game by weighting a lovely pass to McClean. For once, the flight of the ball was true and McClean took a lovely touch to bring the ball under control before laying it off to Hourihane. Hourihane then played a ball slightly over the top which the wind bent into the box where McGoldrick was escaping the attention of Roy Chipolina.

An unselfish pull back from McGoldrick to where Jeff Hendrick was arriving into the box was all that was needed and Hendrick calmly stroked the ball into the corner beyond the dive of Goodwin. One nil Ireland and maybe now the team could push on and put the part-timers to bed.

Well, that was the hope but it wasn't long evaporating as the game reverted to the scrappy nature of the first half before long. Gibraltar tried to push forward in the immediate aftermath without really creating anything and while Ireland were keeping the ball on the deck a little more, we weren't really creating anything either.

Coleman hit the deck in the Gibraltar area leading to a half-hearted penalty shout but nothing was given. Doherty's evening ended early as he was hooked for Robbie Brady on 56 minutes with McCarthy obviously deciding that his experiment to shoehorn Doherty and Coleman into the same XI wasn't worth persisting with. Shane Duffy ended up prone on the ground after a collision with the second Chipolina brother, Joe, during a goalmouth scramble just before the hour mark. Gibraltar tried a couple of pot shots that didn't trouble Randolph but shouldn't have been let happen regardless.

Sean Maguire exited the fray on 70 minutes to be replaced by Harry Arter. The fact that we were replacing a striker with a midfielder spoke volumes and though McGoldrick moved further forward, we seemed to be settling for 1-0 very early. Another Walker pot shot was blocked by Keogh but that 1-0 lead wasn't looking particularly secure.

A Hourihane corner on 84 minutes was caught by the wind and nearly dropped in but Goodwin punched clear as the threat from Gibraltar's little spell subsided. Duffy really should have finished things off in the last minute after getting on the end of a Hourihane free. The fact he didn't, meant the 3 minutes stoppage time were a little nervy but they were seen out comfortably. The best that could be said was that Ireland at least had the win.

While Mick McCarthy's second reign had begun with 3 points, it was becoming clear leaving the stadium that the result and poor performance wouldn't be the main story involving Irish football the following morning.

Rumours had been circulating before and during the game that yet another FAI announcement was forthcoming and that this one related to John Delaney stepping down. While nobody really thought that likely, nor did most think that what eventually emerged was likely either.

The statement when it emerged around 8pm did indeed confirm that "a new Chief Executive should be recruited."

However, it also stated that the FAI would be "creating a new role of Executive Vice-President" and that "the new role of Executive Vice-President would be a specific defined role with responsibility for a range of international matters and special projects on behalf of the FAI. It is envisaged that the current CEO would step into this new role. This would allow Irish football to continue to benefit from his extensive football experience and contacts across Europe and the rest of the world."

Ted talks

Given that a 'The money was resting in their account' flag was flown during the game, Delaney's own part of the statement seemed to be the equivalent of Fr. Joe Briefly's letter in Fr. Ted's Flight into Terror episode when various priests wrote out why they should get the only parachutes on board the doomed jet. "I think I should get the parachute because I'm great." Only this time, rather than disapproving grumbles from the rest of the priests on board, everyone seemed to agree how great John was.

In fact, he was so great that his new role would "include all Fifa and Uefa matters including membership of the Uefa Executive Committee, all FAI tournament bidding projects, international relations and support, the John Giles Foundation, membership of the Board of the Aviva Stadium, planning for the centenary of the FAI and the 50th anniversary of women’s football in Ireland in 2023 and a bid to host the UEFA Women’s Champions League final in Dublin,

“The new Executive Vice-President will also work on special projects as agreed by the Board and the new Chief Executive and will be available to the CEO for assistance.”

Now, to me, that reads eerily similar to a job spec for a CEO role. Precisely what new CEO, Rea Walshe, who is stepping up from her Chief Operating Officer role, is left to do remains to be seen. Such are the vagaries of corporate governance in Ireland, let alone Irish football.

Having digested that news on heading back to the marina for some dinner and post-match craic, another Sunday Times story dropped exposing the fact that in addition to his €360,000 salary, a rental allowance of €3,000 per month to rent out a home in Malahide initially before moving to Gráinne Seoige's house in Wicklow had been paid for three years.

While, again, there is no law against companies paying for accommodation for Chief Executives and the payments were declared for benefit in kind, it's not a good look during a period when other staff had gone through a redundancy and pay cut process. Previous CEO, Fran Rooney confirmed afterwards that he received no such allowance during his tenure.

Where things go from here remains to be seen. For us, we spent the rest of the night chatting to some sound local supporters in The Ship before heading up to a late night bar called The Hendrix to take in a couple of hours of the sort of shenanigans around singing and acting the maggot that my younger days on tour used to fully consist of. By the time it hit 2.30, enough was enough and with a trip for an overnighter in Malaga the next day in the offing, it was back across the gangway for one last time and a few hours sleep on the boat that rocked.

Where things develop on both fronts should become clearer as the week goes on. The team and management, at least, can point to a win and highlight the difficult conditions and lack of time spent working with each other before going straight into a competitive game. I don't feel that argument holds enough water personally given the opposition but the Georgia performance will tell us a lot more.

What happens at board level also remains up in the air but with that Oireachtas Committee hearing due to happen on April 10th, it's fairly certain that stories will continue to emerge between then and now. Until then, let's Rock.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Worst of Both Worlds

They say a week is a long time in politics. The last one was certainly a long time for the Irish football parish's pumper in chief, John Delaney.

It started on Monday with the final Nations League clash away to Denmark. With the game already deemed a dead rubber after Ireland's haul of a single point from the first three games, the mood among a significant section of the support was of support for change. And not just a change of management, with confidence in Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane long since evaporated but a root and branch change in Irish football.

The game petered out in the expected manner with Ireland failing to have a single shot on target and a paltry 25% possession, With a section of the support expressing their displeasure at the management by displaying O'Neill out banners, their plan to bring a well-known banner bearing the words 'Problem Child' and a "delaneyout" hashtag was scuppered at the gate.

The flag, which refers to Delaney's description of the League of Ireland, features pictures of players such as Wes Hoolahan and Stephen Ward who had graduated from the league to the senior team and had been widely shared on social media beforehand. The publicity around it had somehow come to the attention of the Danish stewards who, according to fans who attended, told them they had been given pictures of it with instructions to confiscate it when searching fans,

Duly confiscated, the planned protest was reduced to the repetition of an unflattering song namechecking Delaney which was clearly audible on television and which reportedly caused a degree of friction between elements of the Irish support. Enquiries afterwards resulted in a statement from Danish FA Communications Manager Jakob Hoyer  stating, “Our guards were asked by UEFA to ­confiscate some banners that had a political message and fans were told why they were being confiscated.”

Quote how this statement could have been described as political is unclear, as is whether word of such protests had any impact on the FAI's decision making. Either way, the following day, Martin O'Neill was called to a meeting with Delaney and FAI Honorary Secretary, Michael Cody. By the end of it he was no longer Irish manager. Given that he and his assistant were less than a year into a two-year deal worth a reported combined €2.5m, the assumption would have to be that a significant portion of that was paid to create the vacancy.

Regardless, the vacancy was now created and announced on Wednesday morning. Speculation immediately began as to who would fill it. The fact that the Under 21s role was also vacant added an extra dimension to the search and opened up the opportunity to build a strong structure for the future.

It became clear early on that there were two main candidates in the frame, ex-boss Mick McCarthy who was immediately touted by a number of ex-players and managers and Dundalk boss and media favourite, Stephen Kenny. Both men had their positives and by midweek, rumours began circulating that Kenny had been offered and rejected the Under 21 job as he felt he was ready for the senior job.

By Thursday, there were more leaks coming from the FAI than you would,d see from your average sieve with the initial message seeming to be that McCarthy would be returning on a two year deal with a further two-year extension available. An impassioned debate between Kevin Kilbane and Nathan Murphy on Off the Ball summed up the two camps

Not long afterwards, further stories emerged that Stephen Kenny was still under consideration and that McCarthy wasn't a done deal. By that stage, my opinion was that McCarthy would be brought in for the Euros with Kenny to be promised the role afterwwards. Given the importance of the U21 position, I assumed that someone else such as Lee Carsley would come into consideration for that job.

By Friday afternoon. a tweet from Virgin Media Sport stated that "Mick McCarthy has been offered a contract to return as Republic of Ireland soccer manager." Given that he has spent the previous 3 months working for the station, it was fair to assume that their source was accurate. By now, the debate had switched to whether rumours of a €1.2m salary were in any way plausible.

Fast forward 24 hours and the Independent's Dan McDonnell broke the news that Stephen Kenny was leaving Dundalk to take over as U21 manager with a brief to oversee the underage international set up as a whole. In itself, this could have been seen as a good appointment. Kenny has great local knowledge and is familiar with many of the young players coming through the U19s in particular. His overall experience and commitment to an expansive style of play ties in with the style that Ruud Dokter has been trying to implement throughout the lower age groups. Bringing a group through a tournament cycle could be seen as good preparation for potentially taking the senior job down the line and would give Kenny experience of the international game to add to the European experience he gained with Dundalk.

Where this started to fall down was when this news was combined with an apparent guarantee that Kenny would then take over as senior manager after the Euros in 2020. This was followed by a tweet from the Mail's Philip Quinn that the McCarthy camp were in the dark about this aspect, which was replied to be another McDonnell tweet stating there was no confusion from the McCarthy side who were aware of the agreement. An official announcement from the FAI confirmed all on Sunday morning. Mick McCarthy was now Ireland boss with Kenny taking over in 2020.

Despite Stephen Kenny's impressive domestic and European record, this arrangement is unsatisfactory on a number of levels. Chief of these being the duration of time Kenny will spend as U21 manager. Even the noises from the FAI indicated that the role is of utmost importance for the future of the game in the country. So why give the role to someone you have promised a different role to before even one full tournament cycle is completed?
The qualifiers for the European U21 Championships begin in September 2019. They run until October 2020 with an extra month on top of that if you qualify for a play-off. The finals will take place the following summer in a country to be announced at the UEFA Executive Committee meeting that will be held in tandem with the senior European Champions qualifiers draw in Dublin this weekend.

John Delaney himself was front and centre three weeks ago when a joint FAI / IFA bid to host the 2023 U21 Euros was launched. Reference was made to how prestigious this tournament is with it being the second biggest international competition after the Euros proper. With confidence high that the bid will be successful, building towards that tournament should be a priority.

Yet, with an opportunity available to make an appointment to at least go through to the 2021 iteration, he has given the job to a manager who will leave halfway through that tournament cycle and before the qualifiers have even finished. If Kenny, as everyone hopes, is a success at U21 level then it's nonsensical to have him leave that role just when the qualification is reaching its critical point. It's a breathtakingly short-sighted decision that creates more questions than it answers.

Who will be in charge finish the qualifying campaign for U21 Euro '21?

As it has been confirmed that his backroom staff are staying at Dundalk, who will be assisting him while he is in the role?

Will this new backroom staff also be leaving the 21s when he steps up to the senior role?

If the job, as described, also entails an overarching remit for the entire underage set-up, where is the sense in changing the individual holding that position in 20 months time?

If Kenny fosters a successful working relationship with the U21 squad, how disruptive will his leaving be?

If, on the other hand, he is unsuccessful at that level then what is the sense of then giving him the senior role?

If Mick McCarthy, as everyone hopes, is successful in the senior role then how will that squad react when the prearranged handover happens?

None of those questions were answered in the press conferences held by Delaney, McCarthy or Kenny over the last two days.

The entire process smacks of a typical Irish political stroke. Delaney clearly didn't believe that Kenny was a safe enough bet to deliver qualification for Euro 2020. With the last year wasted by his decision to award a new contract (with a hefty pay rise) to Martin O'Neill, any new manager would have no friendlies or camps to work with the players. So an experienced pair of hands was his preference.

He also clearly wanted Kenny for the U21 job but Kenny wasn't prepared to accept that role without having guarantees about getting the senior role in 2020. So having read the mood music in the media as being strongly in favour of giving Kenny the senior job, it seems clear that Delaney has tried to counter the attention that he was coming under by coming up with a cack-handed off the hoof solution that he thinks will keep everyone happy. And sacrificed the opportunity to implement a proper structure at U21 level in the process.

Stephen Kenny would still have been around in two years time and having described the Ireland manager's job as a greater honour than managing Real Madrid or Barcelona, would surely have accepted it at that point if it became available. Indeed, his experience may have been enhanced more by leading Dundalk into another European campaign, where they will be seeded in the early rounds next season.

The U21 role deserves better than a stopgap. A structure to enable that side to have a real crack at the  2023 tournament on home soil should have been put in place and that opportunity has now been missed.

The type of individual Stephen Kenny is means it’s possible that he could get a team and a proper succession in place by the time he leaves the role. But it's very difficult to embed something like that in a 20-month window.

If this latest Delaney stroke comes off, it will be more by accident than by any grand design.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

A Tale of Three Irelands

A google search for 'the unifying power of sport' returns just shy of three million results in under half a second. Yet, as much as it can unify, sport also has the potential to divide. Both sides of that coin were visible at Lansdowne Road during the last week as three separate Ireland teams took to the pitch in radically different atmospheres.

Despite being a staunch Ireland fan since I was old enough to form memories, a part of me has always thought it a shame that, unlike the vast majority of sports, there are two separate football teams on the island. The majority of people probably look at the split of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) away from the Irish Football Association (IFA) as being linked to the partition of the country in the early 1920's. But, while both splits occurred in the same general timeframe after several years of conflict, the conflict in terms of football was as a result of alleged IFA bias towards Ulster rather than the desire for independent nationhood. The final straw was the refusal of the IFA to schedule the Irish Cup semi-final replay between Glenavon and Shelbourne in Dublin and insist that the second game be played in Belfast. 

The desire of both sets of blazers for power over football on the island led to both associations claiming to be the defacto association for the island in its entirety. While the likes of the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Golfing Union of Ireland, along with governing bodies for Boxing, Hockey, Cricket etc were doing their best to promote their sports across both sides of the newly drawn border, the two football associations were butting heads with various efforts to reunify throughout the twenties and thirties falling short on sticking points that had nothing to do with the politics of the time but everything to do with perks and power.

                           Ireland kit circa 1930s/1940s           Northern Ireland kit circa 1930s/1940s 

In fact, both associations wore the same shirts and used the name of Ireland throughout the thirties and forties. They also carried on selecting players from each side of the border up until 1946 in the case of the FAI and 1950 with the IFA. The growing global nature of the game saw both Ireland's enter World Cup qualifying for the first time at this stage and after Tom Aherne, Reg Ryan, Davy Walsh and Con Martin played in qualifiers for both sides, FIFA intervened to prevent the situation happening again,

The late Con Martin with some of his caps from each Irish team

A gentleman's agreement between both sides not to pick players from outside each jurisdiction meant that relations were relatively benign and there were even talks throughout the seventies while the troubles were at their height where reunification was on the agenda. Even George Best went on the record, stating he had ‘talked to several players from the South and they all want to see a full Irish team. I know the Northern Ireland players think the same way.’

Indeed, an All-Ireland squad of 14 including seven Northern players played world champions Brazil in a famous 1973 exhibition game but that team had to take the field using a Shamrock Rovers moniker after IFA objections prevented them using Ireland as planned. In a nice touch, Con Martin's son Mick got one of the Irish goals in a 4-3 defeat.

The All-Ireland side that played Brazil in 1973

Talks continued throughout the seventies although various factors including the two sides being drawn against each other for the first time in the Euro '80 qualifiers prevented a resolution being found. Cormac Moore's excellent book, The Irish Soccer Split, provides great detail on those failed efforts.

The main argument for reunification was that a single side would be better equipped to qualify for major tournaments. This was rendered moot not long after with Northern Ireland qualifying for consecutive World Cups in 1982 (with Ireland only denied by some scandalous refereeing in a number of games) and 1986 and Ireland following suit with qualification for Euro '88 and World Cups in 1990 and 1994. With the qualification for USA '94 sealed amid a poisonous atmosphere in a Windsor Park game against the North, any talk of reunification seemed a long way off and has never been back on any agenda since.

While the atmosphere at Lansdowne last Thursday was a long way from 25 years before, the nasty edge to it was still dispiriting. From seeing pictures of Northern Ireland fans displaying Para regiment flags to the booing of both anthems to Irish fans roaring IRA slogans at 'orange bastards', it was a long way from France two summers ago where both sets of fans mingled good-naturedly. As I said in the aftermath of Thursday's game, maybe the two-year diet of Brexit, backstops and the proximity to the annual poppy fascism season has seen things regress.

It's because of the power of sport to unify that my regret about football being split on the island stems. The lines have been well drawn at this stage between both sets of supporters and it would be nigh on impossible for either group to simply subsume into the other. Reunification of the sides will only ever happen if there's reunification of the nation. I've always wanted to see that but I'm more than aware that if it's ever to happen, accommodating and welcoming the opposing tradition on the island has to be a big part of it.

Watching a packed Lansdowne Road rise to acclaim Jacob Stockdale, the son of a vicar from Newtownstewart in County Tyrone, as he grounded the winning try for a 32 county Ireland against the All Blacks on Saturday, I couldn't help but wonder how the support for a national football team would have developed had no split occurred. And whether that may have had a knock-on effect in society.

The demographics mean that it would be overly simplistic to look at the support that rugby (and indeed other sports such as hockey and cricket) draws from both sides of the divide and extrapolate that to football. While the other sports mentioned earlier have always drawn support from the middle and upper-class ABC1 base so beloved of rugby sponsors and advertisers, football's history on both sides of the border is a working-class one.

And it was within the working class communities of the North that the brunt of the troubles were felt and where identity was something people could grip onto when they had little else.

It would be ridiculous to say that had both communities followed a single team they probably wouldn't have been ghettoised by "peace walls". Or that the civil rights issues that existed in the North would have been solved by sport.

The hooliganism that blighted matches between nationalist and loyalist supported sides in the Irish League is well documented, with the demise of Belfast Celtic and the exclusion of Derry City the most high profile examples of those problems. Indeed, these highlighted the issues that remained within the IFA for years after they had caused the split in the first place.

Despite the efforts that have been made regarding inclusivity, the NI anthem and flag still give credence to the view that, to paraphrase, it's a Protestant team for a Protestant people. Yet it's extremely unlikely that those symbols would have survived to this day if the IFA had been an All-Island organisation rather than remaining one forged in the six counties. With the aforementioned gentleman's agreement long now forgotten, the Ireland team has become a de facto 32 county nationalist team understandably leaving little desire for changing those symbols within the IFA or their support.

Family links with the composer of Amhran na BhFiann make its playing a proud highlight of any Ireland game for me, both at home and abroad. But would a rugby style arrangement with a neutral song (albeit one a lot better than the godawful Ireland's Call) have been palatable to our support had it always been thus?

Looking at how both communities united behind Monaghan boxer Barry McGuigan in the eighties at the height of the troubles in another working-class sport showed that it was possible for supporters from each tradition to unite behind one force. But any individual sportsman has a finite career. In team sports players come and go but the team abides.

How might football on the island have evolved if all 32 counties were cheering a team representing all at the World Cup in 1958? Or if instead of two Ireland's splitting four consecutive World Cup's from 1982 onwards a single team had contested four in a row? Or even if the old Home Nations Championship had become an annual Four Nations tournament throughout the 20th century? A team featuring Jemnings, Giles, Brady and Best while that tournament was still one of the few live on TV couldn't have failed to quicken pulses on both sides of the border.

Tribalism is an inherent part of football but the support of a team generally transcends an individual's politics. Anything that could have shown two fans from say The Falls and Shankhill Road something they had in common rather than what divided them couldn't have done any harm. Instead, the soccer split on the island has simply given some another platform to show off their prejudices.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

It's Grim Down South

Martin O'Neill's oft-repeated excuse of Ireland not having the players to compete in the passing stakes with superior opposition was laid bare last Thursday.

Once again, our team spent the evening chasing shadows while set up in a barely discernable formation. The difference is that this time our opponents didn't have a Gareth Bale or a Christian Eriksen in their ranks and in fact had a squad unquestionably weaker than that our manager can choose from. The problem is not with the players, it's with the management.  

From the off, it was clear that this was going to be a disappointing evening. A two-year news diet of Brexit and the proximity to the annual poppy fascism gauntlet that James McClean has to shamefully endure in England has seen a hardening of attitudes in the seven years since Northern Ireland last came to Dublin, let alone the three since the last game against England. Our choice to have an extra pint and skip the anthems was vindicated by the boos we could trace from both ends during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann and God Save The Queen as we came through the turnstiles.

Add the 25th anniversary of the famous Windsor Park clash where Alan McLoughlin's goal saved Ireland's World Cup 94 qualifying campaign into the mix and the wisdom of arranging a friendly with our nearest neighbours has to be questioned.

I've watched us play the North at Lansdowne in 1989, 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2011. On none of those occasions have I witnessed the nasty edge and provo chants that were present last Thursday.  We mainly rose above it. While the abuse clearly wasn't at the level that we were subjected to in that qualifier a quarter of a century ago,  the fact that most of it came from lads that were probably still in nappies when that game was played and remember nothing of the troubles was depressing. 

Yet, what's been transpiring in the Ireland camp on and off the field is more depressing still. Every time the team has gone into camp in the last 12 months, there's been a feeling that we must have reached rock bottom. But every time, the management find new depths to plumb.

How low can we go?

After the Harry Arter and Declan Rice stories, Michael Obafemi's acceptance of a call-up should have been a good news story. Quite what Martin O'Neill was thinking in casting doubt on the Southampton youngster's commitment is beyond me. Yet, rather than talking to the player, that's precisely what he did in Monday's press conference, pointedly remarking that the player still qualifies for England and Nigeria and "has decisions to make for his future."

Well-placed sources close to the striker were reported in the media as denying this was the case on Tuesday but once again, instead of talking to the player, O'Neill doubled down on Wednesday stating that Obafemi wouldn't be travelling to Denmark for Monday's game as he wouldn't "be rushing him into making a decision" and that “I’ve spoken to (Michael)…but I think in terms of decisions for tying him down, I think that’s a bit of a distance off.”

There followed a bizarre and snidey exchange with Pundit Arena journalist Richard Barrett which I've copied here for context.

Transcript from FAI press conference, 14/11/2018

Richard Barrett: Having spoken to a source close to Michael Obafemi directly his intentions were clear that he wants to commit to Ireland. Has anything changed over the last number of days?

Martin O’ Neill: Sorry who have you spoken to?

RB: Someone very close to him.

MON: Is that right? You’re further on than me.

RB: Has anything changed?

MON: Who did you speak to?

RB: I can’t reveal that, but they said his intentions are very clear that he wants to play with Ireland.

MON: You can’t come in here and be half honest.

RB: Would it be a surprise to see him line out on Thursday?

MON: Thursday is alright, Thursday is okay and I’m hoping that he can be in and we can use six subs in a friendly game so hopefully he’d be in the squad anyway for that game so no that wouldn’t be a surprise, the next game is the one.

If he has total commitment he didn’t say that to me nor to be fair to me I didn’t press him on it because I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to his family but no, you’re ahead of the game you tell me.

RB: Are you confident?

MON: Confident on what?

RB: Confident that he will declare for Ireland?

MON: Am I confident? I’m always hopeful and I’ve always said that. I’m hopeful about Declan Rice too, hopeful you know? I can only be confident of something that I know I’m in control of or if that’s the case at least I know. I’m not in control of other people’s decisions, particularly issues like this which are very very important. I agree with you he has really enjoyed the training, he has enjoyed being brought in it seems.

As Glenn (Whelan) has mentioned he did very very well and has got a lot of encouragement, a lot of encouragement from the backroom staff but also importantly he’s got a lot of encouragement from senior players like Glenn and Seamus Coleman so that sort of feeling has got to be good and if that’s the case fine.

He might well have made his mind up even before coming over here, I’m curious as I said to you, you’re closer to him, I should bring you into the team.

On a serious note though, in regards the game on Monday, if he does declare do I go and do that then and if he suddenly goes and changes his mind then? I’m not sure on that but overall yes I’m hopeful, and I think you’re confident.

RB: Very confident

MON: Are you?

RB: Yes, I am.

MON: You should come and see me afterwards, join us for lunch.

With the manager casting doubt on Obafemi's intentions, the social media brains trust were quick to react leading to the young player getting significant and unwarranted abuse on the cesspit that is twitter in the build up. A clearly baffled Obafemi camp then released a statement on Thursday afternoon confirming the player's commitment and stating that "due to current speculation surrounding Michael Obafemi and as Michael's representatives, we would like to go on record to say that we are not in talks with either Nigeria or England, nor is it something we have ever pursued."

If that was the case, and it certainly backs up what Barrett's sources had said, then why was the manager undermining that and leaving the player exposed to the online abuse? O'Neill's disdain for social media is on the record but it's his job to manage situations like this. Rather than stage-managing what should have been a badly needed good news story, Thursday's developments made him look foolish in the extreme when a player who he said was a "distance off" making a decision made that decision within 24 hours. And in fact, denied that said decision was ever in doubt. A tweet from Obafemi shortly afterwards seemed to seal the deal.

Michael Obafemi confirms his allegiance 

Meanwhile, on pitch developments have been making O'Neill look foolish for a long time now. We lined up in what ostensibly seemed to be a 5-3-2 with Darragh Lenihan, Shane Duffy and John Egan taking the central defensive positions and Callum O’Dowda once again in an unfamiliar number 10 role. Robbie Brady made a long-awaited comeback after a year's absence and Glenn Whelan was back for a farewell bow.

The first ten minutes were passable with McClean's tap into an empty net after O'Dowda had been flagged offside the closest thing to real excitement. Needless to say, McClean's every touch was being booed by the North's fans which generated significant response from the Irish support with various profanities filling the night air.

But it wasn't long before any semblance of a shape started to desert us and we really should have been one down after 13 minutes. Our defence was nowhere to be seen as Gavin Whyte was played in with only Darren Randolph to beat. The Boro keeper spread himself really well to deflect the ball clear but really Whyte should have been given no chance.

Our only attacking outlet these days seems to be throwing Duffy up for a set-piece and hoping he gets a header on goal and that tactic nearly paid off ten minutes later with a great Brady delivery that was asking to be finished but this time Duffy mistimed his header, sending it into the ground and up high enough for Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the North's goal to tip over the bar.

A similar chance on 34 minutes that Duffy headed straight at the keeper was as much as Ireland created and the highlight of the half was the applause that Whelan got as he was subbed five minutes before the break. 

He's a player that had shipped a lot of unfair criticism during his career but the fact is that when he played, Ireland were generally a better team than when he didn't. Indeed, despite a couple of lax passes, he was still one of Ireland's better players on Thursday. Throughout his career, he did the job he was asked to, whether it was by Giovanni Trapattoni or Martin O'Neill.

Glenn Whelan's career highlight v Italy in happier times

The fact that both managers operate in a safety-first zone meant that Whelan took some unfair flak. But he is a good pro who will be missed and will always have that stunning Croke Park strike against Italy to look back on as one of the great Ireland goals.

The half petered out with the North taking control forcing Randolph to save again from Whyte and then from Stuart Dallas to ensure the half finished goalless.

Half-time saw the introduction of a young forward off the bench but after all the hoo-hah of the week, it wasn't Michael Obafemi making his debut but Portsmouth's Ronan Curtis, who has made a great impression at League One level after moving from Derry City in the summer. O'Dowda had been invisible in the 10 role and was the man to make way.

A Seamus Coleman run and shout for a non-existent penalty was as good as it got for Ireland before the usual plethora of substitutions kicked in around the hour mark.

McClean was withdrawn which dialled down the vitriol from the Northern Ireland fans and Callum Robinson also came ashore with Enda Stevens and Seanie Maguire coming on.

It made little difference to the direction the game was now flowing in. First, Michael Smith nearly took advantage of a goalmouth scramble only for Randolph to deny him. Then yet more calamitous defensive play, this time from Lenihan which gave Jordan Jones a very similar one-on-one as Whyte had in the first half. Much to everyone's relief, the outcome was the same when in real terms it had no right to be. 

Any resemblance to a recognisable shape had departed Ireland by now and with gaps appearing all over the pitch, we were succeeding in making Michael O'Neill's men look like tiki-taka experts with their best move just falling at the last hurdle before Steven Davies could get a shot off. 

Seanie Maguire's rotten luck with injuries continued as his night was cut short 13 minutes after it started with Scott Hogan coming on as Obafemi was ignored again although the injury opened up a seat on the plane to Denmark for him. Cyrus Christie followed Hogan off the bench to take up some sort of midfield position and he managed to force a corner which came to nothing as the game fizzled out for a scoreless draw. Unsurprisingly, Randolph was announced as man of the match. Without him, there's no doubt this would have ended up another defeat.

The difference in the approach of the two Ireland's and the two O'Neill's was summed up in the post-match interviews. Northern Ireland's Gavin Whyte spoke about his team's organisation and how the manager has every role drilled into them, even if they're coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Ronan Curtis revealed that no one had spoken about what was required of him until he was told to get ready at half-time.

These are two ordinary sides with average players. Both lost a World Cup play-off and will finish bottom of their Nations League group. Yet one looked organised and simply lacked a cutting edge throughout their campaign and again on Thursday. The other looks rudderless, shapeless and not only lacks a cutting edge up front but is also very shaky at the back. One camp seems happy and content while the other is beset with leaks, misunderstandings at best and arguments at worst.

 One manager is getting paid roughly €600k while the other is getting three times that with his assistant taking home a higher salary than the Northern Ireland boss. And for what?

Bar a late victory against a second-string USA side during the summer, Ireland are now winless in 10 games. The two goals scored that night remain the only goals scored at home since Shane Duffy put us ahead before our Danish capitulation a year ago. In our last 17 games, we've won 3, drawn 6 and lost 8. In terms of tactics and on field organisation and execution of a gameplan,  the football is far worse than I watch inferior players produce week in, week out at Bohs.

There's no indication that this will change despite O'Neill's bullish insistence that he will qualify us for Euro 2020 because, in his own words, he's "good". At this stage, he's just about the only one left that thinks so.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Not Quite Another Ryan's Slaughter

Considering that fingers can certainly be pointed in Darren Randolph's direction for the goal that proved to be Wales' winner Tuesday night, it's ironic that it was probably his stoppage-time save that stopped the atmosphere turning really poisonous. At least that's how it felt after George Thomas fluffed his lines when one-on-one with the Middlesboro stopper in the 93rd minute. While there were audible boos from the crowd when the ref blew up a minute later, I've no doubt a second goal for Ryan Giggs' team would have amplified them to a level that would have been far more difficult for Martin O'Neill to farcically shrug off as being aimed at the referee.

The most frustrating aspect of Tuesday for me was that the first half was undoubtedly an improvement on what we had seen against Denmark on Saturday. Yet, once Wales went ahead, the old failings came to the fore once again as our play lost any semblance of shape in our attempts to salvage something. The chaotic nature of the last twenty minutes could as easily have resulted in a two or three goal slaughter rather than an equaliser. We ended up with neither and instead took another nick in what seems like a death by a thousand cuts for this regime. 

There was still a bit of a matchday buzz around the city as we made our way over from the Northside with food and drink pit stops in Fagans, Mulligans and The Gingerman. But it was mostly coming from the Welsh fans dotted around the city and when we arrived at the Beggars, there was a lot more room than normal. 

To be fair, it was a midweek game and once it got to an hour before kick-off, there were plenty of bodies milling around. However, I do wonder if the fact that so many tickets were given away for free through schoolboy clubs meant that a good chunk of the crowd was coming in with their kids for the match alone. I've no issue with anything that encourages the next generation of fans to come along but the sheer volume of tickets rumoured to be handed out does raise questions about how fair that is to those loyal supporters who pay for the dubious privilege of watching this team. 

With Callum Robinson's cameo one of the bright points from Saturday's draw and rumours about Shane Long's level of fitness, it was no surprise to see Robinson named to start. Aiden O'Brien's performance in the Poland friendly had obviously been enough to see him given the nod in place of Callum O'Dowda who was suffering from concussion. Otherwise, it was the same team as three days before with the Cyrus Christie experiment in central midfield continuing. 

Meanwhile, the loss of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey had left Wales without their two best players. Ethan Ampadu, their Irish qualified young prospect who had done so much damage to us in Cardiff was also missing so the team Giggs sent out was hugely inexperienced with an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old and three 21-year-olds lining up. And for all the talk about the lack of Irish players playing in the Premier League, our team contained six players currently playing there compared to three for Wales.

The Welsh are a nation who know how to belt out an anthem and their rendition of Land of our Fathers was certainly rousing while the malaise around the Irish set-up seemed to have made its way into the stands with a half-hearted Amhrán na bhFiann bringing us to kick-off.

After the criticism of the overly defensive nature of Saturday's set-up, it was clear early on that our defensive line was further up the pitch, meaning that the formation looked more like the promised 3-5-2 as opposed to the five at the back that was consistently apparent against the Danes.

James McClean was getting forward well from his left wing-back position and had got stuck into both Joe Allen and David Brooks in the first six minutes before winning Ireland's first corner on eight.

The corner came to nothing but Ireland really should have taken the lead a minute later. Wales were playing the ball out at the edge of the box when a slip from Matthew Smith let Christie in on goal. A desperate swipe from Smith's trailing leg clipped the ball and forced Christie into a more central position and it may have been that which caused him to take it on first time when advancing closer on goal was the better option. Regardless, Wayne Hennessy in the Welsh goal scrambled back and the lack of pace on the shot meant he was able to push it past the post. It really was a gilt-edged chance and should have seen Ireland ahead.

A defensive error by Shane Duffy at the other end nearly let in Tom Lawrence for Wales' first chance but luckily the ref had spotted a handball and the game settled down in a bit of a nip and tuck manner again. While Wales had about 60% of the possession, neither side was in the ascendancy and it was definitely a better watch than the Denmark game. There were encouraging signs from the likes of Robinson and James McClean was looking more comfortable playing in the higher line, as was Matt Doherty.

However, comfortable saves from a Tyler Roberts shot and a Duffy header were the only real incidents of note until the 40th minute when Ireland actually managed to string a number of passes together and work the ball to Robinson in an encouraging position. Unfortunately, his shot from just outside the box was charged down by Lawrence. 

And that was pretty much it for the first half. Nothing spectacular but a step up from the weekend and the hope was the second period would see it raised another notch.

While things did move up another notch after the break, unfortunately, it was Wales that did the raising as they started doing more with the possession we always cede to the opposition. The first ten minutes were uneventful enough bar the usual McClean booking and O'Neill was the first manager to blink with the ineffective O'Brien replaced by Shane Long on 56 minutes to a fairly indifferent response from the support. But he hadn't even had a chance to settle into things before the defining moment of the game.

It was a very rash decision from Harry Arter to go to ground as it looked like Tyler Roberts would be doing well to create a chance from an overhit pass. But go to ground he did and that was the start of a series of errors. Darren Randolph's wall was all over the place and you could clearly see the gap that Wales' Joe Allen was standing in from our vantage point at the other end of the ground. 

Regardless of that gap, Harry Wilson's strike was fairly central and should have been meat and drink to the keeper even allowing for the fact that Robinson turned his back to it. Why Randolph thought it was a good idea to second guess Wilson and take a step to his left is beyond me but it left him stranded as the ball sailed in, to the delight of the Welsh fans behind that goal.

Mind the gap

Given the utter lack of a cutting edge these days (the only team Ireland have scored more than one against in a competitive game in the last two years is Moldova), it was hard to see where an equaliser would come from. But the approach that was taken to chase the game was scattergun in the extreme.

I don't know if it was the fact that he had turned his back on the ball in the wall but Robinson was hooked not long after despite looking like our biggest threat. Seanie Maguire replaced him. Given the two play together at Preston, would letting them play together not have been a better option than bringing a misfiring Shane Long on?

Long did find himself through on goal a few minutes later and was lucky he was rightly called offside considering he managed to hit the bar rather than the net with his finish. 

The longer the game went on, the more desperate we seemed to become and any semblance of structure went out the window. A couple of Hendrick efforts were blocked. Scott Hogan was introduced replacing Kevin Long which seemed to leave us playing a 2-5-3 formation.

The harum-scarum nature of the game at this stage meant we were really susceptible to counter-attacks and Arter did well to get back and block Lawrence after losing the ball himself. James Chester put a header wide when he should have buried it. Lawrence and Roberts snatched at chances.

We were still creating the odd half chance but it was aimless stuff in the main. Maguire put a header into Hennessy's hands and Duffy lashed at a chance but put it well over. A couple of long throws were launched into the box and pinged around but nothing really came close. Maguire hit another shot over the bar before McClean hit a stoppage-time effort straight at the keeper. 

Another Hendrick corner went straight into Hennessy's hands again before what looked a final attack was launched with another booming clearance from Randolph. Duffy actually won the header from the centre-forward position with Ireland seemingly playing four up front by now, Arter was caught in possession and Thomas really should have hammered the nail into the coffin but was tentative with his shot and Randolph saved with his foot. 

There was still time for another Ireland corner which Randolph came up for and the confusion he caused led to the ball bouncing back to Arter. But his shot was slashed at and his claims for a penalty smacked of the desperation that had marked our second half play. The ref wasn't buying it and promptly blew up leaving the players slumping to the turf and the fans booing roundly. The rest of our night was spent picking over the bones of the last week. And mostly moaning about it.

How low can we go?

It's not an exaggeration to say that the national team are at a very low ebb right now. And it's very difficult to see things changing in the near future. The last year's results have been the worst since the Steve Staunton era. Nine games have brought a single win and even that came with a last minute winner against a second string USA team. The five competitive games we've played have seen two scoreless draws and three defeats, two of them heavy. 

But it's the nature of the defeats that are the real worry. The competitive games have all been against teams supposedly from the same level as ourselves. The format of the Nations League is set up to ensure that. Yet, we've looked woefully short of where Denmark and Wales are despite both playing without their top players.

While the Under 19's brought some light to the situation with their win against Holland on Tuesday and will enter December's daw for the elite phase of the European Championships, there are clearly issues within Irish football as a whole. Under 21 results have been poor for a long time now and after eight years in charge, a change from Noel King should be implemented.

Unlike Wales, the Senior team has remained a distance away from the underage set up in terms of playing style etc. While results were being achieved, there was an argument that that was all that mattered. Discussion needs to happen in that regard now but that's a longer debate for another piece.

At present, any analysis has to look at how the management are fulfiling their role. Martin O'Neill himself admitted in an Off The Ball interview last August that he doesn't believe he has the players for long enough to work on systems in training. He consistently talks down the ability of the players he does have without taking any responsibility himself. Numerous ex-players such as John Giles, Keith Andrews and Gary Breen have pointed this out as a recipe for disaster.

He's admitted that he doesn't tell players they're playing until an hour before kick-off with his logic being  "Well, I've always done that for a start and I did that the night we played in the UEFA Cup final for Celtic against Porto who went on to win the Champions League the following year," 

It's a laissez-faire attitude that doesn't seem fit for purpose fifteen years on from that UEFA Cup final. Especially considering that O'Neill is the fourth highest paid international manager in Europe. It's obvious that the individual involved won't change. The last 12 months should therefore mean that the manager should be changed before the full qualifying campaign starts. Yet his salary means it would take a huge leap of faith for the FAI to do that and it's one leap I just can't see them taking.