It’s a real game of two halves for Irish football just now.
On the field, the news is good.
Off the field, it’s bad.
First, to the positives. With the team beating Gibraltar and Georgia, Mick McCarthy has accomplished his two-match target of six European Championship qualifying points, even if they were secured in hugely contrasting circumstances. In a group where we’re up against Switzerland and Denmark, dropping points against the two lower seeds would have been fatal, but now, after successive 1-0 victories, we have a decent platform from which to combat the Swiss and the Danes.
Their remarkable 3-3 draw on Tuesday was also just what we needed because we’re going to have to try and split them in the race for qualification. And they are not that far ahead of us, the Swiss and the Danes — the biggest difference between Denmark and us in the World Cup play-off was Christian Eriksen.
Our opening Euros qualifier against Gibraltar was pretty ugly and very forgettable but, in difficult conditions, Ireland got the job done.
The win against Georgia was so much more enjoyable because it came with a performance that Irish fans have been waiting for. The appreciation in the crowd’s reaction to seeing Ireland play football — getting it down, passing it quickly, looking to attack — was obvious. The last time we saw football like this from an Irish team was when we beat Italy at the Euros in France.
David McGoldrick and Conor Hourihane hardly figured under Martin O’Neill but, following their impressive performances at the Aviva, they have surely become automatic picks going forward in this group. The two Championship men were our most effective, attacking players, Hourihane with his range of passing — and, of course, his brilliant free-kick to claim the winning goal — and McGoldrick with his hold-up play and his pressing of the Georgian defenders.
The manager’s tactics were vindicated by both the performance and result, which may have surprised those who would have been concerned before kick-off about the dropping of Matt Doherty and Sean Maguire, and the recall of Glenn Whelan.
I agree with Mick that it’s great to have two top-class full-backs on the right hand side. I’m sure he was a keen observer of Ireland in the previous 18 months and is not going to go down the road of putting players in positions that they don’t play in with their clubs — like Cyrus Christie playing in a holding midfield role.
But it could be that, with more time and opportunities to experiment on the training pitch, we might yet see Doherty end up in the holding midfield role for Ireland because I think he’s good enough on the ball to play there and help us build up from the back. To bring back Glenn Whelan at 35 the other night was a big call that worked but how long can we expect Glenn to continue doing that, and against better opposition like Switzerland and Denmark?
But, for now, this has been a positive and refreshing start to the campaign. And I’m pleased for Mick McCarthy who I always felt was unfairly treated by the media and the FAI after the 2002 World Cup. I know him, I played with him and, with Mick, what you see is what you get. The players will buy into his ways and I’m confident we can go very close to qualifying in what is a very tight group. If we don’t lose in Copenhagen in June, our confidence and belief will be sky high.
The FAI and John Delaney will be praying this will happen.
In football, at times of crisis in the boardroom, there is nothing like positive results and performances to take the heat off.
I am on record as saying our former CEO should have been told to move on long before the recent financial revelations. My main criticism is that under his leadership our youth development has deteriorated drastically. When McCarthy had the manager’s job first time ‘round, he had young, emerging players like Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, and Shay Given to add to world-class players like Roy Keane and Denis Irwin.
This time he’s got nobody in that league. I know we are financially badly off compared to the English FA but not to build on the hotbed of Irish schoolboy football has been criminal. The England team is thriving because of its young players. But in terms of servicing our senior team, Delaney and his Dutch youth development project have failed completely. The average age of our starting 11 against Georgia age was 29. I think that says it all.
I’ve felt for a long time that, in the FAI, there is too much control vested in one individual and not enough accountability.
Delaney has had far too much power for too long, and held far too much influence over the rest of the FAI board.
The future of football in Ireland depends on its leadership and I’m sorry to say that, in my opinion, the people at the helm are not of the right calibre and talent.
The supporters’ protest at the Aviva on Tuesday night was understandable and demonstrated for all to see that Irish soccer fans have now finally had enough. That all this should coincide with Mick McCarthy returning to the manager’s job is a shame.
He doesn’t need all this turbulence going on off the field, as he addresses with the challenge of trying to lead Ireland to the Euros.
Qualifying for Euro 2020 would be great but, it’s a sign of how bad things have become off the pitch, that I would actually prefer change in the FAI to qualification, if the latter meant that the status quo in Abbotstown was maintained.
Obviously, that’s not something I’m hoping for. But that’s the stark reality of the situation we find ourselves in. Mick and the players can only do what everybody wants them to do — win matches and qualify. But there’s a bigger picture here and, if Ireland do qualify and no more substantial revelations emerge in the meantime, then I’d fear the current crisis will just fade away and nothing major will change. And that wouldn’t be for the good of Irish football.
However, at the speed with which the current developments are moving, there may yet be further revelations about the governance of the FAI which will bring about that much-needed change sooner rather than later.