Tuesday, 4 May 2021

There's only one Alan McLoughlin

In any tribute to Alan McLoughlin, I guess there's only one place you can start. 

I'd already had a couple of false starts when it came to following Ireland away. My application for a ticket to the Euro 92 qualifier against England at Wembley had been turned down with my home ticket block booking account only opened during that campaign meaning I was way down the list. Rather than risk the guts of the week's wages that travelling over without a ticket would have cost me, a spot in front of the big screen at the RDS was a poor but still enjoyable substitute.

Like many fans, I'd spent the two years between 1992 and 1994 saving enough cash on a monthly basis that would prove to my bank manager that the two grand a young lad straight out of college was looking for to fund a trip to the USA could be safely repaid. Those savings meant that trips to Denmark and Spain were beyond me as was the Eastern European triple-header to Albania, Latvia and Lithuania. Which left the final qualifier in Belfast against Northern Ireland as an affordable and ideal game to open my away account.

The horrendous and tragic escalation of the Troubles in the North, meaning no away tickets were allocated, dashed those hopes amid a realisation that missing the game wasn't that big a deal in the broader picture. So a spot in the same boozer we'd watched the win over Latvia in, a result that deemed McGrath's on the corner of O'Connell Bridge and Westmoreland Street a 'lucky' venue would have to suffice.

I recall the basement bar being far more rammed than it had been for that Latvia game and spirits high. There was a feeling that we should have too much for a side that we'd demolished 3-0 at Lansdowne earlier in the campaign, despite our stutter against Spain when we'd blown our first chance at qualification the previous month. 

That optimism slowly drained over the course of the first half as we huffed and puffed but with Spain's lead goal against Denmark just after the hour-mark meaning a draw would suffice, the atmosphere started building again as that combination of belief and nerves once more took hold. 

So I'm sure the sinking feeling in my stomach as Jimmy Quinn volleyed Northern Ireland one-nil up on 73 minutes was matched nationwide. It was a superb goal but not one that had really been threatened and suddenly, my best-laid plans of the previous 18 months looked like they were going out the window.   

And then Alan McLoughlin stepped up.

McLoughlin had had an unusual Ireland career. Having played no part in the Italia 90 qualifiers or even in the pre-tournament friendlies, a good performance in a B international against England at Turners Cross, allied to his performances in a promotion-chasing Swindon side, had marked him out as one to watch. 

His goal that day actually cancelled out one from another player sadly no longer with us, Dalian Atkinson putting the visitors in front before a David Kelly penalty and a Niall Quinn brace saw Ireland clinch a 4-1 win over a side containing the likes of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, David Batty and Matt Le Tissier.

Yet, he was very much one for the future as the squad set off to their World Cup training camp in Malta with Gary Waddock a popular choice in the 22 with fans, after battling back from serious injury to regain his spot. 

In those pre-internet days, there was no chance of anything going viral but it's safe to say that had there been, the clips of a shell-shocked Waddock leaving the camp after being told McLoughlin would be coming in at his expense, would have been everywhere. While there was sound logic behind the decision with McLoughlin, fresh from scoring Swindon's winner in the play-off final, considered a better fit as a potential replacement for fitness doubt Ray Houghton, I remember being absolutely heartbroken for Waddock. 

But managers are paid to make tough decisions and the fact that McLoughlin would make his debut as a sub against England and get minutes against Egypt in a tournament that no one really expected Waddock to see game time in vindicated the decision. Football can be a harsh game.

Having become one of a fairly unique club of footballers who make their debut in a World Cup finals, his momentum was stopped somewhat when Swindon's promotion was denied as a result of financial irregularities and a million pound move to Southampton late in 1990 didn't really work out.   

A single appearance in the Euro 92 qualifiers, again against England, was further evidence of this stalling and friendly appearances were as good as it got during the 94 campaign until Ireland needed a hero. 

The fact that the now Portsmouth player was even on the bench that night was unusual enough, having not made the matchday squad up until that point but cometh the hour, cometh the man. 

That hero status seemed unlikely when Quinn had scored only three minutes after McLoughlin had replaced Houghton, a change that nodded to the reason he'd been brought into that 1990 squad. But three minutes can be a long time in a game and rather than losing the head, Ireland pushed forward to win a free by the right-hand corner flag for a foul on Eddie McGoldrick.   

It's fair to say that fingernails were being bitten to the quick where we were sat as the clock ticked into 76' and Denis Irwin stood over the ball. A few expletives filled the smoky air as it was headed clear by Gerry Taggart but as the header dropped at the edge of the box there was Alan waiting to unerringly guide it into the net and, as Jack Charlton would say in his presser afterwards with a grin, "justify his existence for the last two years!"

When that ball hit the net, it generated as big a reaction as I think I've ever seen in a pub for a match, up there with the Italia 90 games. I'm talking tables going over, pints sprayed everywhere, people hugging on the ground, absolute mayhem. 

Then what seemed an eternity as we waited for our final whistle and a second eternity as we waited on the whistle from Spain to confirm their ten men had held on to win against Denmark. Once that was official, over went the tables again as the entire room leapt as one to acclaim our new hero. 

"There's only one Alan McLoughlin! One Alan McLoughlin!" went the chant up O'Connell St as crowds congregated on the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. The November cold unfelt with the difference from being soaked with beer or soaked with fountain water immaterial at that stage.

So a bank loan it was and like Alan, my debut (on an Ireland trip at least) was a World Cup opener, this time at Giants Stadium to see Houghton's goal and McGrath's Italian masterclass. While that World Cup may not have matched four years previous for either Ireland or Alan, who never made it off the bench, it still generated memories that will last forever. And none of those would have happened without him.

In fact, he'd only make one more appearance under Jack in a facile win over Lichtenstein but a late-career revival saw him become a key player as Mick McCarthy attempted to rebuild our side, an older head amongst the youth introduced. 

His performances would be enough to win the FAI Senior Player of the Year award in 1996. But play-off heartache against Belgium in the 98 qualifiers and the full ninety minutes as Ireland contrived to a do a Macedonia with qualification for Euro 2000 in our grasp were as close as he came to another major finals. 

He'd retire in 1999 after being on the bench for both legs of the subsequent play-off defeat to Turkey with a creditable 42 appearances. While others may have won more caps or played more big games, few have scored a more iconic goal. In terms of sealing qualification, it's undoubtedly top of the tree and is up there with the best of the goals we've scored in tournaments.

From all accounts and from his public persona in interviews and on commentary duty, Alan McLoughlin was an absolute gentleman. The dignity and bravery with which he fought his initial illness in 2012 were inspirational.  

His dedication after that famous goal to "me wife and me little girl at home, Abby" seem so poignant now. Home may have been England but his heart bled pure green and all his family and friends have the deepest sympathy from all Ireland supporters. Unlike many Ireland fans I've seen pay tribute today, I was never lucky enough to meet the man yet I feel indebted to him.  

RIP, Alan. You'll never be forgotten.        

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Serb Your Enthusiam

So a familiar feeling in the Stephen Kenny era as the unfortunate Irish boss passed a ninth game without being on the winning side. But did we finally see some green shoots of recovery?

Regardless of one's feelings on Kenny, there is no denying that the run of luck he has had to suffer has been worse than any Irish manager has faced since Eoin Hand was denied the opportunity to manage his country at the 1982 World Cup by incompetent, if not downright corrupt, refereeing. 

What was actually a very good performance in the Euro 20 play-off defeat to Slovakia came unstuck on penalties after missing two chances that should have negated the need for a shoot-out and was overshadowed by the farcical HSE reading of Coivd regulations that deprived him of the services of Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah. And with Covid restrictions and empty stadia preventing any opportunity to try and build momentum topped off by another farce in the form of Videogate, it's fair to say that his first year in the job hasn't panned out how he would have expected or hoped.

From the supporters' point of view, there's also been an element of a phoney war to the last year of international football. Thirteen months ago most of us were preparing to head to Bratislava to lend our support to Mick McCarthy's efforts to navigate the play-off that Kenny's side eventually lost behind closed doors. Having not had the opportunity to see any of the nine games on Kenny's watch in the flesh, it's been impossible to feel part of the era to this point. 

There's been no opportunity to get behind the young players who have been introduced. No opportunity to show the manager that, despite what you'll see in certain elements of the media, he retains the support of the bulk of the hardcore Ireland fans, at least to my knowledge. Watching on TV is better than nothing but it just doesn't cut the mustard. And even watching matches that you may not have got to has taken on a surreal air with the lack of atmosphere in the stadia. It's been difficult to get excited about the start of this campaign and it's not just the run of results that's to blame for that.

Having at least got to watch the opening Nations League game in a pub with a select few friends and a €9 substantial meal, the absence of even that option meant that last night's game was watched at home with just my better half and our recently adopted rescue dog Pablo for company. An early shift in work was done by 3 and after walking the dog, it was just a case of sitting tight and waiting for the teams to come out. When ours finally leaked at around 6.20, it was probably as good as could have been cobbled together from yet another decimated squad, this time through injuries rather than the virus.

Playing three at the back isn't something really associated with Kenny's teams but, being honest, it probably suited the personnel available to him. In doing so, he delivered a riposte to those criticising his alleged lack of pragmatism, which isn't necessarily defined as reverting to hoof-ball when under pressure. 

Initial reports that Seamus Coleman would be slotted into a midfield berth to accommodate himself and Matt Doherty in the same team seemed wide of the mark to me and that feeling was borne out at kick-off when the captain slotted into the right-hand side of the back three with Ciaran Clark and Dara O'Shea. Shane Duffy's absence can't have come as a surprise to anyone given his travails at Celtic this season although, given the inexperience in having third-choice keeper Mark Travers between the sticks and the absence of John Egan, I had thought Duffy might earn a reprieve. 

I was looking forward to seeing how Josh Cullen and Jayson Molumby would work in the centre, although given the latter's lack of recent game time would probably have given Jason Knight the nod beside Cullen. But overall, no complaints.

The game started encouragingly for Ireland with a couple of early corners won but both poorly executed by Alan Browne. Serbia countered with a couple of their own as the game settled down and as we reached the quarter-hour mark, the home side seemed to be gaining the higher ground. 

However, all that went out the window after 17 minutes. Some really good possession play from Ireland worked the ball to Matt Doherty on the right and although his attempted cross was cut out, Ireland's high press meant that Browne was first to the second ball and he spread the play to Enda Stevens with a peach of a pass from the outside of his right boot. Stevens slipped a slide-rule pass into Callum Robinson's feet and the West Brom forward did very well to dig out a cross back across the goal where Browne had continued his run to. One superb leap and header to send the ball back the direction from whence it came and boom! Ireland's goal drought was over!

Having waited that long to see Ireland score any goal that my leap off the sofa was almost held back with anticipation that VAR would find something wrong with Browne's leap over the Serbian defender in the erroneous belief that it would be in use for all qualifiers, as opposed to the ridiculous situation where it's in use in some games but not in all. The fact that it was one as well-worked as that one also meant that my degree of startlement was matched by Pablo's who by now was eyeing his new master with what seemed a mixture of bemusement and disdain.

Having finally got a goal and our noses in front, the next step was ensuring that, as has happened so often in recent campaigns, with the last visit to Belgrade in 2016 a perfect example, we didn't sit back and look to cling on. And despite Serbia having the lions share of possession with Ajax's Dusan Tadic pulling the strings, Ireland were still keeping a high line and pressing hard and had managed to repel a series of corners as half-time ticked closer.

At this point of the game, it's only natural to look at the clock and pray that you'll make the break with the lead intact. Alas, this time that wouldn't happen and when the equaliser came, it really came from nothing. 

An airborne reverse pass found its way onto Tadic's head and the ex-Southampton man outjumped Ciaran Clark to flick the ball into the direction of Dusan Vlahovic. Had Dara O'Shea stepped out as Tadic rose then Vlahovic would have been miles offside but instead, he tracked the attacker's run in a foot race he had no chance of winning and the Fiorentina striker made no mistake in placing his shot across Travers. All Ireland's good work undone in an instant.

Having levelled matters, Serbia really upped the gears and, having hoped to get to half-time in front, it was actually a relief to make it in level. But overall it had been an encouraging half. The hope now was for a repeat in the second.

The early signs in the second stanza were positive again with an under pressure Connolly just failing to get a clean strike the end of a good Robinson ball across the box on 49 minutes. Serbia responded immediately with a clearly offside goal from Vlahovic but it was another incident involving Connolly a couple of minutes later that the game really swung on.

It was more a route one approach with a long ball from a Clark free-kick that Connolly set off after and after getting a bit of luck with a headed flick to take him back across Stefan Mitrovic, the Serbian defender lunged in and seemed to take a lot more of Connolly than the ball. Despite Irish claims, the ref awarded a corner and Robinson's 'screen' gesture for the ref to take another look at it added to my confusion over whether VAR was in use or not. As per usual, the corner came to nothing as replays showing a clear foul added to the sense of injustice.

A few minutes later, it was Ireland getting the benefit of no VAR after Coleman lost his footing in the box and slipped straight into Vlahovic. Again, the ref waved it away but while there's an argument that that made it one escape each, had the Ireland penalty been awarded then play wouldn't have developed in the manner it did to lead to the Serbian shout. So Kenny's ire was very understandable.

It was a few minutes afterwards that Kenny made his first change and for me, it was one that ceded the initiative that we had, with Molumby replaced by Jeff Hendrick. Hendrick has had good games for Ireland, most notably during Euro 2016, but what he adds to a midfield in terms of dynamism is beyond me. Play just seems to slow down around him and I'd have preferred to see Knight brought on at that stage. Connolly went down with cramp shortly afterwards with Shane Long on in his stead. 

To be fair, when the second Serbian goal came, it wasn't down to any of the Irish changes but I'd been worried as soon as I saw Aleksandar Mitrovic come on for the hosts around the same time. I watched a lot of the Fulham man in the Championship and, as the archetypal player that blows hot and cold, have seen both sides of him regularly. 

Any hope that this may be a night he blew cold were dispelled on 69 minutes. It was actually started by a long goal-kick from Travers which failed to find the head of Long and was headed back upfield towards Vlahovic who laid it off first-time to Tadic. Another first-time touch from Tadic played Mitrovic out wide on the right and as soon as the camera went back to show Travers enthusiastically and inexplicably stepping forward I knew we were in big trouble.

Mitrovic still had plenty to do but executed his lob perfectly but it has to go down as an absolute howler from the young keeper. There was literally no reason for him to push up as far as he did and I feel that the fact he was a bit hesitant in narrowing the angle for the first goal may have been playing on his mind. Either way, his frantic back-peddling was in vain and Mitrovic's exquisite chip was on its way to nestling in the goal before Travers' despairing dive had even left the ground.

The game was essentially over as a contest seven minutes later with Tadic central to it once again. This time it was a wayward pass from Cullen that was intercepted by Pavlovic who laid it off for Tadic to float a sublime cross onto Mitrovic's head. With the ball popped back the direction it came, there was little Travers could do to prevent us from going 3-1 down. Although legitimate questions can be asked about his starting position again, it's moot really as I don't think any keeper would have saved such a precise header.

By now, Robbie Brady, James McClean and James Collins had come in for Clark, Robinson and Browne but while McClean made the usual nuisance of himself instantly earning a corner, Brady's delivery from the set-piece was as poor as Browne's had been.

It felt like it would take a mistake to get us back into the game and one duly arrived on 86 minutes as Stefan Mitrovic underhit a header back to his keeper. With Long in no mood to give up the fight, he was onto it in a flash and hooked it back for Collins to scramble home. Could the big comeback be on?

In a word, no. Four minutes stoppage time gave hope and with a minute of it left a Brady cross was cleared for a final corner. With Travers coming up to try and make amends, a good delivery was essential but once again, it was abysmal. It's baffling to me how poor both corners Brady delivered in his time on the pitch were and criminal to pass up a final chance like that. But pass it up we did and within seconds the full-time whistle was blown. The awarding of man of the match for Alan Browne seemed fair and bar some poor dead-ball delivery, I thought he was excellent and well deserved his goal. 

Looking back at the WhatsApp group that I'm in with the lads I normally go to the away game with, my immediate thoughts after the game and after a few beers were "Lost it in midfield after Hendrick came on. Brady's corners after he came on were criminal. McClean did okay but his crossing was abysmal. Wasn't the young lads that let us down bar Travers and you'll make allowances for inexperience. Gutted not to get a point."  

In the cold light of day, I feel I can stand over that. If we're to give Kenny a chance then I feel that letting him bring through the young players and start to phase out the likes of McClean, Duffy, Hendrick and Brady is probably needed. I don't feel Brady or Hendrick ever pushed on as I'd hoped post France in 2016. Thanks for those memories but we can't wait for that to happen any longer. 

Duffy has been a warrior but probably doesn't suit how we're now trying to play. If he can regain form after what's been a horrible year on and off the pitch then he may still have a part to play but sorting his club future should take precedence for now. I've always loved McClean and he's been a wonderful servant for me and provided some golden moments. But again, I feel it's a bit-part role at best for him moving forward.    

For Kenny, it'll be game number ten on Saturday and while last night's performance may have put some much-needed credit in the bank, a first win of his reign against Luxembourg, one of the group's minnows is essential. 

I didn't agree with some of the soundbites I heard from Damien Delaney and Brian Kerr after the game in terms of the system. For me, it worked well and looking back at the game today, all of the goals can be put down to individual errors in a way. O'Shea getting dragged into that race with Vlahovic, Travers' poor positioning and Cullen looking to play a ball to Shane Long's feet instead of releasing him over the top were what caused the goals rather than an issue with the system itself.

The players also seemed happy with it judging by Alan Browne's post-match interview and with another few days work on it, retaining it for Saturday is a must, The big question is whether to retain Travers in goal or give 19-year-old Gavin Bazunu a senior debut. 

It's easy to say with hindsight but I'd have plumbed for the young Manchester City keeper last night purely down to the fact that he's played more regularly this season, albeit in League One on loan for Rochdale. While Travers can point to some Premier League experience with Bournemouth, it was a number of years ago by now and having only played limited games on loan at Swindon in the same division as Bazunu, now finds himself bench-warming after being recalled to his parent club.

It's a tough call and I'm sure Kenny will be conscious of the impact making the change now could have on Travers' confidence. But, in my opinion with a win imperative, it's a call that has to be made. Bazunu played Europa League games for Shamrock Rovers at 16 and acquitted himself well. He's had top quality coaching at Man City since moving over the water. He looks an outstanding prospect, with the potential to be better than Caoimhin Kelleher to me. Shay Given was given his senior wings at the same age, it's time to do the same.

Cut out the individual errors and a win on Saturday awaits. The only shame is we won't be there to see it. 

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. And though those of us in attendance were fairly boisterous for the 90 minutes, you can't say it was a packed Lansdowne Road roaring the team on to the needed 2-0 victory. 

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 against Russia 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 thank you for the days. 

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 https://t.co/2afD0dnj1z pic.twitter.com/dpxFBSuKeo
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.