Where does Ireland go from here?

We’ve been here before. After the failure of the Republic of Ireland to qualify for the 2006 World Cup two years ago, the arrogant, insipid, somewhat idiotic Brian Kerr was finally jettisoned from a position which he wasn’t fit for in the first place. Great stuff, now all we needed was a new, fresh approach with a willing manager who could take the side back to major finals. So John Delaney and the other head honchos at Merrion Square ended up appointing Walsall assistant manager Steve Staunton, with Sir Bobby Robson at his side.

Okay then, it’s not exactly the first choice, but hell, let’s go along with it, see where it takes us. Fast forward from that January evening at the start of last year, and Staunton is searching for another position elsewhere, after being cast aside by the same men who sought him out not so long ago, after a failure to qualify for Euro 2008, the endgame coming with a frankly embarrassing 1-1 draw with Cyprus at Croke Park, a ground of such history and tradition for all Irish sports fans. Oh yes, we’ve been here before. The names are different, the circumstances are very similar however.

So how has the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the FAI felt they had to pay off Staunton the better part of 1 million pounds and start all over again? There’s no doubting the contribution Staunton has made to Irish football over the years. He’s Ireland’s most capped player in about 80 years of international competition, the only player to appear in all three of the nation’s World Cup appearances, with a reputation as an able centre-back who always gave 100% to the cause.

His failure as head coach of the national side won’t wipe this away from the records, but the reputation has now been unfortunately tarnished in many people’s eyes. His tenure began with a fine 3-0 win against Sweden, with optimism high for ‘the Gaffer’ and his attacking style of play, despite Sweden’s strangely subdued showing on the night. However, from there on in it was pretty much all downhill, spare three straight wins against Wales and Slovakia in Euro 2008 qualifiers and a 4-0 drubbing of Denmark in Copenhagen (Again ignoring the fact that the opposition were truly awful on the night).

Defeats against Germany and the Czech Republic away in the qualifiers were expected to a certain degree, but the problem came with Cyprus. A truly humiliating 5-2 reversal in Nicosia was the beginning of the end for Staunton, with the coup de grace coming in his final match, Steve Finnan barely saving face with a last-gasp equaliser at home, with the boos ringing out loud and clear. Granted, the Cypriots are now a decent side in their own right in European football, but they are still miles behind the Irish in terms of players and facilities, so to hand four points over to them was inexcusable.

Defeats at home to Chile and Holland didn’t help, along with almost becoming only the third side to drop points to San Marino in over 15 years, a side who lost 13-0 at home to Germany previously in the qualifying campaign. Looking at the matter from a results perspective, there is a certain justification for why Staunton had to go.

However, there is always another side to the story. It can be argued that Staunton wasn’t really given a fair crack of the whip, and that 17 games in charge of any team isn’t enough time for anyone to stamp their authority on a squad or develop their own style of play and allow the players to become accustomed to the system.

There is also the issue of the group Ireland were placed in, one of the tougher ones within the entire Euro 2008 campaign. Along with Groups B and F, Group D was one to avoid, with a Germany side improving with every game after their run to the semi-finals in their own World Cup and a young and enthusiastic Czech Republic side eager to bounce back from their own bitterly disappointing showing in the finals in Germany. Throw in Slovakia, and a difficult tie in Bratislava, as well as a Welsh side who would be keen to prove their mettle against a local rival and it wasn’t exactly an easy group to come out of.

Ultimately and somewhat ironically though, it was the showing against the lesser lights in the group which did for Staunton. If Ireland had been thrown in along with Greece, Norway and Turkey, or Holland, Romania and Bulgaria, the story may well have been very different. The hounding the manager received from the Irish media made matters worse, an increasing issue with the Irish press pack in recent years.

The hacks still yearn for someone in the mould of flat-cap Jack Charlton, whose tactics mostly compromised of “Stick it up to the big lad and see what happens”. Granted, it got Ireland to a World Cup quarter final, but do that on a regular basis against the best sides in Europe today, and you won’t last long. The media persona of Staunton as a lightweight with a bit too much baggage and not enough ability to handle the job soon turned the fans against him, and the situation manifested from there, up to his eventual culling.

It is not to make excuses for the man, but to ignore these issues would also be to neglect the other side of the issue, which deserves it’s own airing. It’s now, of course, impossible to know whether persevering with Staunton would have reaped it’s benefits a la Mick McCarthy, but if the FAI were so keen to get shot of Staunton after a couple of bad results, then what was the point of giving the man a four-year contract in the first place.

Really, the blame needs to once again fall at the feet of the FAI, an all too common procedure these days. Roy Keane’s walkout on the Irish side days before the World Cup opener against Cameroon in 2002 is still an unforgivable crime in my eyes, but his savaging of the facilities at hand for the Irish side brought the issue to light. Keane commented on how the apparatus at hand for the squad was “a joke” for a side with genuine ambitions and hopes of going very far into the competition (With hindsight, an Irish side with Keane in the middle may well have beaten Spain and Korea in 2002, hell, maybe even Germany in the semis), ensuring that the issue was hammered home for the bigwigs in Dublin.

So the Genesis report came out, promising a change across the board for Irish football. We were promised new and better facilities from grassroots to national level, we were promised a stronger, more competitive League of Ireland with the teams coming out of it making strides into top European competitions and we were also promised a development of young, Irish coaches for the future and talented youth players, something which we had a real dearth of at that point.

Other than a redevelopment of Lansdowne Road funded by the Irish Rugby Football Union, none of the supposed facilities have been forthcoming. Other than Shelbourne’s run to the third qualifying round of the Champions’ League in 2004, no Irish side has made any mark in Europe and the League is still as ‘Mickey Mouse’ as it ever was, even with a unification of the FAI and League of Ireland entities and a restructuring of the league format.

But the biggest sticking issue is the complete lack of any progress with the management or youth development schemes planned within the scheme. Barring one good season out of Roy Keane at Sunderland, there have been no changes in terms of new managers coming through, while it was left for Keane to point out the lack of improvement in any of the youth teams, highlighted by a 3-0 defeat at home for the Under 21’s to their English counterparts. The fact that the one potential shining light for Ireland comes in the form of Scottish-born James McCarthy at Hamilton Academical says an awful lot for the state of that facet as well.

The simple fact of the matter is that the FAI have failed on their promises once again, and their decisions have had a detrimental effect on the state of Irish football. After more media pressure brought about the demisal of Mick McCarthy, Delaney and his talking heads moved Kerr up a notch or two to the top job in Irish football. His best competitive result was a win away to Georgia, when the most potent threat of the evening from the home side came from a fan who threw a knife at Gary Doherty. He soon fell on his sword when the FAI saw some sense, again promising the fans a “world-class management team.”

Again, it’s not to lambast the double team of Staunton and the vastly experienced and successful Robson, but first of all, they were lying through their teeth, and second of all, it was a serious gamble at a time when stability was required. Now they’ve gotten tired of Staunton’s rhetoric, they’ve bundled him out of the door, no doubt helped by the writers at RTE, when the man was not even halfway through his four-year contract.

For an outsider, it would soon become painfully clear why there has been a general breakdown in trust from the fans towards the leaders in the Irish capital. Whether that faith can ever be restored in such a shoddy outfit, led by a bunch of stuffed suits, with Delaney the standout example of them, remains to be seen. Don’t hold your breath.

The best way Delaney and his mob can start to restore faith in the system is by finally appointing a manager of known ability, someone who can lead the current crop into the finals of a major competition, be it South Africa in 2010 or maybe even to Poland and Ukraine in 2012. Since Staunton’s sacking on Tuesday night, Phillipe Troussier and Liam Brady have been the only two men to clearly state their desire to take the post, while the media have persistently linked the likes of John Aldrige, Graeme Souness and David O’Leary to the job, the latter more so than anyone else.

O’Leary is viewed as the potential saviour of Irish football, now free of any club ties, available and supposedly willing to take a serious pay cut into order to take the job. People remember the Champions’ League semi-final with Leeds, along with many other glory days for the club, but that was admittedly with serious financial backing, the likes of which he will not get in international management. His period at Aston Villa, under far tighter financial constraints, was less successful and his stock as a number one suffered as a consequence.

To appoint O’Leary would not be a bad decision, it is not to say that one bad spell at Aston Villa under Doug Ellis makes you a bad manager, but certainly if he is appointed, his managerial career will depend on how he fares with Ireland, is it a risk that the FAI are willing to make, is it even a risk O’Leary is willing to make?

From a personal standpoint though, I believe O’Leary isn’t the answer to Ireland’s problems, the solution may well lie in what would be an unglamorous, potentially even unpopular choice amongst some sections. Paul Jewell has the proven track record that is required, the man is deserving of a chance at the big time, in this case a chance to represent a country at a major European or international finals tournament, and his talents as a manager are grossly under-rated by most. A grafter rather than an entertainer, you know what you are getting with Jewell: stability.

The man has always been able to make a decent fist of the players at his disposal, getting Bradford up to the Premiership with a fairly average squad and keeping them there against all odds for one season. Then there was the spell at Wigan, moving the club up from the Second Division to the Premiership in 5 years, before defying the odds once again by surprising many in getting the Lancashire club to a mid-table finish in their first season. Of course the second season was a major downturn, but the key is that Jewell and his players managed to come away from Bramall Lane with a 2-1 win on the final day to stay up, a result no-one fancied them to achieve given their horrible form prior to the final-day encounter.

It’s proof that Jewell is the grinder that Ireland needs right now, when the side needs a point away from home to stay on track for qualification, back Jewell to earn it. When it comes to moulding a squad of limited talent into a cohesive unit that could surprise a few big names, back Jewell to mould them. When it comes to having a strong-willed character who is able to stand up and make his side be counted when it matters and to get the job done, back Jewell to do it. He’s made his mistakes, such as the ill-fated time at Sheffield Wednesday when the club was in a downward spiral, but name me a manager on that proverbial list of candidates who hasn’t had his share of bad decisions. If the FAI are looking for a man to fulfil the job they need done by their national coach at the moment, they won’t go much better than appointing Jewell, if they can persuade him into taking the role.

However, it remains to be seen whether Delaney and the men at Merrion Sqaure are willing and able to make such a move, or whether they will once again revert to a cheap and nasty option for manager of the national side (Step forward, John Aldridge). If they genuinely have Irish football and it’s best interests at heart, then moves must be taken, and taken now, to improve the whole landscape of the system currently in place.

Clubs must start taking advantage of better facilities in order to make the UEFA Cup group stages or maybe even make it into the group phase of Champions’ League. Youth tams must start qualifying for major tournaments on a major basis, and there must be a plan for these sides to be competitive in those competitions sooner rather than later. But most importantly right now, the faithful must start to believe in their national side once again.

Why are the players being booed off by their own fans in a half-empty stadium after a draw with Cyprus? Because things are just not working at the moment. Why are we looking for a thid manager in four years? Because things are just not working at the moment. How can we stop this happening again? By making things work now and in the future. Appoint the right man, make the steps that you promised to the fans, the players and the staff and make us into a nation which can be noticed once again on the international stage, not laughed at.

Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now for Irish football, or else, as RTE columnist David Sheehan put it in the wake of Staunton’s departure this week, John Delaney and his assistants may not survive another fiasco on the scale of Staunton’s departure. Never mind John Delaney, another bad move on the part of the FAI, and it might not be long before Irish football plummets into years, maybe even decades of mediocrity and obscurity.

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