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.

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