Larry Ryan.


Do we have the players? Let’s find out

We have been here before in this country, says Larry Ryan.

Do we have the players? Let’s find out

When rock bottom is in sight, when the fundamentals are not sound, the only thing to do is offer a blind guarantee.

So Martin O’Neill made some big promises this week, assured us we will be playing at Euro 2020 on his watch, because he is “good”.

It remains to be seen if we pay a ruinous price for allowing this guarantee to play itself out. Though it did bring to mind a withering line from Roy Keane’s first autobiography, deriding the pointlessness of Jack Charlton’s preferred long-ball football in the midday heat of USA ‘94.

“Nevertheless, he kept faith in himself.”

Alas, Martin’s strong show of faith in himself and Roy is compromised ever so slightly by the same circular argument we are all having.

To hold onto his job, to convince us he is still good, Martin must routinely tell us that his players are not good. But to get the players to quality for Euro 2020 as promised, he will, presumably, have to tell them something different.

The way out of this snooker would seem to be the appointment of a new manager. So why not take the opportunity to set up a laboratory test case, to conduct the perfect thought experiment? To appoint the sort of gaffer who finally answers the age-old question: Do we have the players?

The new man should probably be a charming European, with consistent facial hair and a distinctive haircut, owner of a head easily recast as an identifiable emoticon on merchandise.

Let’s call him Jurgen Sanchez Peppo.

He will laugh a lot, while maintaining his reputation as a deep thinker. He’ll have a uniform, perhaps a waistcoat, but with its buttons casually slung open to reveal a Planxty t-shirt, because he’s that sort of crazy guy. He will talk a lot about ‘accountability’ and the importance of creating a culture of integrity in a player-led environment. Ireland players will go online to record their mood swings and talk endlessly about living the values. They will sweep out the dressing rooms after training and matches.

He will get ‘the Irish’, but not in a pixieheads way. He’ll talk about playing hornpipe football. He’ll know his way round the bantz but he will banter responsibly.

There will be double sessions during international camps. But there will be reiki and yoga and sleep pods and players will hug it out before training. There will be baskets of lemons to absorb negative energy, a hypnotist for Shane Long and nobody is to be called a c**t. The players will return to their clubs spiritually nourished. The new man will never use the word himself, but journalists will describe his approach as ‘holistic’.

Jim McGuinness, naturally, will be involved, in a role nobody quite understands.

And there will be incredible attention to detail. Peppo will measure the length of the grass to the millimetre. While drones and GPS and SAP software will be consulted to calibrate Shane Duffy’s turning circle.

In sharp contrast to Arsene Wenger’s old policy, new age dentists will insert wisdom teeth in Irish players’ gums. Peppo will set about improving their natural intelligence through intensive Sudoku sessions and unpredictability exercises with Eamon Dunphy.

But it is all done with a light touch. He will often refer to the PhD in Irish mythology he studied in his spare time while guiding a lowly Portuguese team to its first Europa League qualification. He jokes that he has tasted the salmon of knowledge, making amusing burnt finger gestures. Though there will be no recall for Motherwell’s former UCD frontman Conor, the Sammon of College.

No stone is left unturned and Peppo becomes a regular at Croke Park and Semple Stadium. Limerick captain Declan Hannon is brought in as shouldering coach, providing a new string to James McClean’s bow.

Cognisant that he now lives and works in Rugby Country, the new boss moves into Joe Schmidt’s spare room until after the Japan World Cup. The only disappointment of his first year in charge is an inability to find any transferable skill from that sport.

Still, he encourages his players to commit to the process, without getting too hung up on the process. Peppo likes his hornpipes danced with hands flailing wildly, in the sean nós style.

Peppo and John Giles become inseparable and the manager begins a new PhD in philosophy, specialising in taking everything on its merits.

Meanwhile, an open door media policy brings total transparency. Tony O’Donoghue becomes one of his closest friends. Everything that happens in Ireland camp is broadcast live on Amazon Prime, except for redacted set-piece work with a highly-regarded movement consultant recruited from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Players are told the team weeks before matches, after which the boss, like Phil Neville, communicates with them every minute of every day, supplying exhaustive dossiers on the opposition, but in the form of Fifa video games, so they don’t realise they are studying.

He attends all League of Ireland matches, with his assistant Stephen Kenny, even uploading the goals to his Twitter account until RTÉ shuts him down.

His first squad includes two centre-midfielders from Bohemians under-15s. They run the show against Oman.

There will be teething problems. Peppo’s preferred formation is a flexible 5-3-3 — he considers his goalkeeper an outfield player — and he preaches the value of resting in possession. He refuses to compromise on his beliefs, even when Richard Keogh is dispossessed twice in 10 minutes attempting Cruyff turns in his six-yard box.

There are no points targets for the first two years of his reign, only the single aspiration that no opposition player describes the Irish way as “primitive”.

We shouldn’t enter the Qatar World Cup, gaining international kudos for our supposed conscientious objection.

Maybe by Euro 2024, we can make the call. If it all works out, if it brings a glorious odyssey to a plucky quarter-final defeat by Spain, then nothing in this country will be the same again. From that point on, everything in public life will be done the Peppo way, just in time for John Delaney’s presidential campaign.

And if it’s a disaster, we can decide, once and for all, that we don’t have the players. And send, with a clear conscience, for the dream team of Tony Pulis and Neil Warnock.

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox