10 Ways To Better Irish Football
And just like that, we’ve found ourselves in another moment for reflection in Irish football. Less than a year on since the Denmark Debacle, the new Nations League format gives us another mini-transitional moment to take stock and reflect where we’re at.
The synopsis: Much is rotting in Irish football, and the quick and easy solutions are few and far between - most are sticky, blurry, complicated and could take a decade to solve.
We look at ten places we think we should begin.
1) Define our Footballing Style and Identity.
There is so much bluster around our style of play. But we’ve never actually defined how it is we can/want to play like.
It is said that the greatest contribution that Marcelo Bielsa made to Chilean football was to actually conceive of a style of play that was intrinsically Chilean in make-up. Prior to this they had attempted to imitate a multitude of different approaches.
What we need is not a Spanish style or a Dutch one but our one: An Irish style.
This should draw on aspects like Irish culture, psyche and even genetics. Intensity, mobility and variety need to be central.
Lille was a night which embodied much of what we can offer – playing a higher line, intense pressing led by Long and McClean on the flanks, Brady and Hendrick carrying the ball forward through midfield and Murphy offering the long out-ball on the diagonal. That night we played mixed-football, football with different options, but one that embodied all of the best characteristics of the Irish game.
Tactics and formation should be adaptable but our playing style should be strong and established.
2) Imbed This Ethos in to our Youth Teams:
Our players will move abroad at some stage in their careers, to further themselves. So the time we have with them is limited.
It isn’t enough anymore to purely entrust the English leagues to develop our players and expect them to be then equipped with the skillsets to play international football. The demands are quite different. This requires much more onus on what we do with our players at underage level.
This should involve identifying youngsters with the capacity to play senior international football. Above all, the attributes required should rotate around speed: speed of movement, speed of thought, speed of technical execution.
Regular camps (be they regional or national) should be held with our underage players (including foreign born ones) where they should be indoctrinated in how Irish teams play and the ethos and importance of playing for the national team.
It could well be said that Brian Kerr’s successful underage teams in the 90’s (Euro U-16 + U-18 Champions 1998 and 3rd place in World U-20 Cup in 1997) served to entrench the likes of Robbie Keane, Richie Dunne, Damien Duff and John O’Shea with a sense of the importance and priority in wearing their national colours, as well as receiving a thorough education on the complexities of international football.
The lower leagues of English football (where most of our players come through) is less and less a suitable breeding ground for the challenges of international football.
Progress to the senior team should not solely be an award gifted to any player that comes through the shark-pool that is English league football, we need to adopt a more pro-active approach.
It is essential that we establish an educative infrastructure where our young players receive a thorough schooling in an Irish playing identity that is consistent through each group and where the value and importance of representing the national team is impressed upon them throughout the process.
With a limited playing pool, we need to do more to ensure that those who do make it through to senior international level are technically and intellectually prepared and are able to collectively achieve optimum performances and fully relish the responsibility they have been given.
3) Enact the Genesis Report
The board of the FAI has always been one of the most exclusive clubs around. Up until 2017, it was also exclusively an all-boys club, until Niamh O’Donoghue joined the ranks to represent women’s football. In 2002, the publishing of the Genesis Report threatened to rock the boat of the entire FAI corporate structure – the board of which was one of the targets. One of its recommendations was that two non-executive directors from outside football be appointed.
A suggestion that was met with applause and enthusiasm everywhere outside Abbotstown. It also suggested term limits for directors, like lower age limits – both for ensuring the freshness of management decisions, but also to create an atmosphere of opportunity and openness to inviting in people from new demographics and expertise outside of the walls of the FAI HQ and the closed-loop focus group of grey-haired/balding/already bald men. A model like this, of course, also ensured that the figure at the ultimate top of this corporate structure was voted in, in a democratic fashion, and held accountable to his/her performance and results.
Fast-forward to 2018, and what of these changes have been implemented (bearing in mind, Delaney himself said, in 2002 when he was General Secretary, that he would resign if all findings weren’t implemented)?
There continues to be no outside directors on the FAI board - and rather than limiting the term for directors, Delaney increased the age cap to 75. And guess what? That decision got through the board without any opposition.
And just to add a touch of irony to it all - John Delaney who now also sits on the UEFA Executive Committee, brags openly about the freshness of the new faces at that table – bringing new, forward-thinking, ideas to European football (plus, a further 100K into his back pocket)
Go figure, John.
4) Remove Noel King:
Does this even need explaining??!
Underage football is about player development. However, that best occurs in a winning environment. Choosing either or both as a barometer, Noel King’s 8 years in charge of our U-21’s can’t be seen as anything other than a chronic failure.
Abject performances with an abject playing style.
The fact that his second job as the FAI’s Head of International Recruitment would seem like a total conflict of interest.
His squad selections most certainly suggest this, hugely skewed towards 2nd generation 2nd rate players, plying their trade (or in some cases not) in the 4th and 5th tiers of English football.
An FAI employee for over 17 years, he’ll most likely, once again, be our interim senior team manager if and when Martin O’Neill is removed.
Can we seriously trust him with what seems like a bumper crop of U-19’s, that he will now inherit?
5) Harness the Institutional Knowledge of Irish Football:
We have vast amounts of management and administrative experience that currently contributes nothing to Irish football. Brian Kerr, Liam Brady, Packie Bonner et al have huge experience and knowledge that sits outside of Irish football, that should be front and centre of the FAI and League of Ireland operation.
We are proverbially shooting ourselves in the foot by excluding these men from our game. While ego’s and politics are of course central to the case of Kerr’s exclusion – he clearly harbours grudges against his former employers since his dismissal 13 years ago. There are a whole host of roles in which he could contribute greatly to our game be it as an administrator, manager or technical director.
Brady too has so much to contribute to our game. His considerable experience in player development, administration and international management surely should be leveraged. He has previously offered his services to the FAI and the need to overhaul player development structures in Ireland. His phone never rang.
6) Commercial Tweaks:
The strive for new revenue streams is an obvious must. And ones that fans should try to embrace (to an extent) – it’s a hugely important driver of money into the game. And whilst these revenues have been growing, and all seems healthy on the surface, some change is needed.
Since 2002, the FAI have been selling TV rights to Sky Sports – and for every euro increase in cash, falls in multiples the eyeballs of the nation. Paid-for sports TV is one of the few examples of the limitations of Competition Law. More competition generally means better consumer choice, and value. Not in paid-for sports TV. Every year households are paying more for less, and for a sport that positions itself as a working class one in Ireland, this practice is phenomenally “off-brand”. Elite football in England has alienated the working class households, both in attendance, and at home, we simply cannot afford to follow and risk losing the eyeballs of our youth. Even if it means more of the likes of Dunphy, let’s hope common sense prevails here soon. Content, as they say, “is king” – let’s not continue to make it a luxury to watch the boys in green.
With falling attendances (and many of those that do attend, are doing so for free), and lack of real grade-a games this year, the 2018 books for the FAI are set to be far from eye watering. And with the renewed declaration from Delaney to be debt free by 2020, extra strain is landing on the current revenue streams. As pointed out by Emmet Malone, this means that the FAI will be doing their utmost to call in renewals on deals early, so that they can receive upfront sign-ons – revenue that will ultimately come from the back-end of the deal. This means further injection of cash now, but the longer play here is that a) many of these deals will now go up into the mid 2020’s, and b) there’ll be very little leverage in the renegotiation due to an inability to bring a meaningful tendering process into play. So, whilst the FAI may reach that goal of being debt free, it’s purely a reputational optics play by Delaney if done in this manner. The promise that we can then reinvest every Euro into the game come 2020, is not true (we’ll have already accounted for much of the 2020/2021, etc. revenue), plus, the growth you’d achieve in by negotiating these deals at the right time, would likely make up for any interest repayments we’re offsetting in the short term. Again, a net-even. Probably, at best.
And, finally, betting - a serious bug-bearer for many fans. It’s a disease that cripples large parts of our society, and the money the FAI are taking in here is being paid out tenfold by fans, a vast majority of whom can’t afford the losses, or addiction, that this cancer so often brings. God-forbid we suggest following the GAA or FA in anything – but this is one where they have both led honourably and with the front foot. In August of this year, Aaron Rogan wrote in the Times that the FAI were to drop Ladbrokes and the whole betting market, but subsequent reports suggested they were just open to ‘the debate’.
Leave the money at the door. End it now.
7) Player Welfare Officers:
Despite the introduction of national underage leagues, we are still exporting teenagers by the boatload every year. Over 90% of these kids do not get a second contract at the clubs who sign them.
A very large amount of them return to Ireland, as “damaged goods”, psychologically traumatised by the experience and the sense of failure. At least the national underage leagues should reduce the large amount of the returned players that even fall through the cracks of the League of Ireland.
Their reasons for not ‘succeeding’ are often not related to their abilities as footballers. Ill-equipped with the life skills to survive the rat-race that is English football. Loneliness and too much time and money on their young hands, they often fall into unhealthy patterns of behaviour.
Our traditional laissez-faire approach is one of the least efficient approaches possible in terms of developing national team players.
Employing Player Welfare Officers (who deal with the human, not the footballer) both at home - to prepare these players mentally for the challenge ahead, and abroad – to constantly check on their well-being, could go a huge way to improving the success rate of our young talent.
These are our footballing assets; we simply cannot afford to continue haemorrhaging potential international players for non-footballing reasons.
8) The Role of Government:
With leverage, comes power – and as Chief Executive of the FAI, John Delaney has both. But, unlike many CEO’s of private organisations, Delaney’s power is derived from a – largely - different form of leverage. Leverage that he, and his board, gain from being the central figure and – often decision maker – of how government funds and grants are distributed. Looking at the finances over the years, the FAI have been on the receiving end of monies from Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Department of the Environment, Irish Sports Council, National Lottery under the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport – some one-off type funding from the Minister of State for Sport, and of course, all accompanied by UEFA and FIFA funds. These numbers, one can only say, dwarf what the FAI push down from profits derived from their own business operations (i.e. where any other normal CEO would gain his leverage and political capital) – much of which continues to just feed the debt that was derived from the Aviva Stadium and Delaney’s embarrassing Vantage Ticket escapade.
Last year, Sports Minister Shane Ross – referring to the Genesis Report, said “I think organisations… that get government funding and have such a large public following should have independent directors… Obviously we can put some pressure on them because they’re getting funding” – that has proven to be nothing but hot air from the Minster since, and perhaps Delaney’s pal Pat Hickey showed just how fearless he was of the government official when he said they needed to put Ross “back in his box”.
Fran Rooney, Delaney’s predecessor, and one-time holder to the same safe keys, said of the central coordination of funds: “people are afraid to criticise or vote against the management, in case their clubs lose out on lottery money”.
And there you have it. For as long as these incredibly important grants and funds – the ones that, no question, keep this sport breathing in Ireland – are governed by a single, ungoverned figure – who is equally untested and unquestioned by his own board – the more this taxpayer’s money will be used to power an undemocratic abuse of power at the helm of Irish football.
And, just a thought – but if the FAI can pawn off responsibility of the League of Ireland to a new ‘company’ that is a (form of) partnership between the FAI and the clubs – then, perhaps, why can’t we consider doing the same for our government and tax-payer hand-me-downs?
Or maybe we only pass on responsibility for things that cause us reputational damage?
But this vicious cycle of power, built off revenue that is not derived from the FAI’s own operations, needs to end. And those at the source of that revenue are our sole hope of change.
Shane Ross – from the comfort of your box, take the initiative and insist on progression, democracy and transparency in our game.
9) Bring the Wild Geese Home:
Historically most of our players left Ireland at 15/16, spent 20 years playing football abroad and then retired to life in Middle England, some involved in coaching over there and others perhaps becoming TV pundits. Their contribution to Irish football finished with the last ball they kicked.
Now we have many ex-internationals (often with Irish wives) who now live in Ireland – Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahy, Stephen Hunt, Keith Andrews, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella, Damien Delaney etc.
The FAI need to actively encourage (perhaps in tandem with a government tax incentive) and facilitate ex-Irish internationals to return to Ireland and finish their careers in the League of Ireland – most can afford the pay cut and have so much to contribute to young Irish players who are at the other end of their journey. This is an established culture in countries like Holland, Sweden, Argentina and Uruguay.
The second thing needed is to develop a clear coaching pathway for them to involve themselves in Irish football. Our underage leagues offer wonderful breeding grounds for the next generation of coaches with a view to these ex-internationals managing our underage international teams, if they so progress.
10) O’Neill’s influence has run it’s course:
There’s not a whole lot more to say that’s not already been said about this, but O’Neill’s ability to influence the direction of our senior team has now got to be seriously questioned. Many have called for him to go for way too long – and Austria and Wales away last year proved that there was still a spark left in his leadership. But Denmark always felt like it was going to be a bridge too battered to cross again.
There isn’t an obvious choice of replacement - often that can be of secondary importance – but the mood has shifted to the point of no return, and whilst majority of the team are still playing for him, their confidence, and with that, energy, are so shunted, that we’re a million miles away from the team that beat the Italians in Lille. He feels out of ideas. He is out of ideas. One win in nine is a fair reflection of that – there are countless others.
And whilst it may not be tomorrow that he leaves his post. His work and progress here feels all but done. It’s now purely a case of running the contract down to a time when the FAI can afford to ‘reach an agreement’ with him.
He spoke bullishly after the Welsh loss that we would qualify for Euro 2020, because he was “good” enough to do so – but, to what cost would that qualification be? Particularly when even mediocrity from here on in should still realistically see us get a playoff spot.
It’s not a moment to be celebrated though when it does come. O’Neill brought belief and big nights back to us when we thought we’d never see them again. Beautiful football is one thing we’ve never had, and probably never will. It’s the big nights that we’re in it for.
Lille, Cardiff, Dublin, Vienna, Bosnia et al.
He’ll go down as one of the good ones.