In the depths of Irish football’s winter of discontent, Niall Quinn allowed himself to briefly dream of a glorious summer.
Mick McCarthy’s team have still to negotiate two play-off matches in March in order to qualify for the Euro 2020 Finals and experience the honour of hosting games at the Aviva Stadium.
Former striker Quinn, a veteran of appearances at the finals of the World Cup on two occasions, said he would happily trade those highs to see an Irish team emerge from the FAI’s current crisis and give the country something to cheer about again in June.
“I can’t pressurise (the manager) too much, it would be very unfair,” he said, “but I would hope that Mick would see fit to maybe explain to the players what’s happening here in this country right now, the extraordinary circumstances, and find a use for it positively — let the players know that they are probably playing for their country at the most important time for a long time.
“The rest of us were on a bit of an adventure a long time ago and we got where we got and it was great fun but this is a critical time for football and, without putting pressure on them, if they were to work the oracle and bring us through, I’d give up all the accolades that we got in the ’90s and I’d gladly pass them all over.
“I just think a new government will be in situ by then and there’s nothing like showing the importance of football when our team does well or qualifies for a tournament and you see what it means to the country.
“Again, I don’t want to start putting pressure on them but, particularly in this instance, when there are games coming here, wouldn’t it be some rabbit to pull out of the hat if Mick McCarthy can achieve this? We’ll probably dream about it, then wake up and it won’t have happened in the next few months.
“But I’ll let Mick worry about that.”
Speaking after the launch of Virgin Media’s spring schedule in Dublin yesterday, Quinn revealed the inadvertent role which he feels the late Marian Finucane played in the sequence of events resulting in Roy Barrett’s appointment as the FAI’s new independent chairman.
Barrett was a member of Quinn’s Football in Ireland Visionary Group which, back in May, put forward its own plans for reforming Irish football, in the wake of the eruption of the crisis at the sport’s governing body.
Explaining how he first struck up a relationship with the FAI’s new chairman, Quinn observed: “It’s ironic and sad and poignant. I met Roy when he brought the Irish team (from the Jack Charlton era) together in September, 12 months ago. He sponsored that event and we spoke a lot about football at the time. Then it kind of went a bit quiet.
“Then I started talking about the FAI and questioning things and, looking back, it’s a quirk of fate, but Marian Finucane invited me on the show. Roy heard the show and texted me and said ‘we’ve got to do something’.
“And so even though she’s no longer with us, Roy is now the independent chairman of the FAI. In a funny way, it wouldn’t have happened without Marian.”
While Quinn welcomed this week’s appointment of Barrett and two other new independent directors, Catherine Guy and Liz Joyce, to the FAI, he categorically ruled himself out of the running for the vacant position of CEO and said he doesn’t believe he possesses the “skill-set” to fill the one remaining spot reserved for an independent director on the new-look board.
However, he did say he is open to taking up some kind of role with the association as it undergoes major reform.
“If there’s a role I can be used in, in a capacity that somehow brings trust and capability from all of the stakeholders — be it from the commercial world or from the grassroots or the elite game in this country — that I can come in and champion and use what skill-sets I have, I would gladly do it,” he said.
Previously disillusioned with the pace of FAI reform, Quinn said he had been heartened by the militant mood of delegates at the reconvened AGM at the end of December.
“They did more than ask questions, they demanded apologies,” he said.
“The mood was one of ‘we’ve had enough of the old way’. And that was great. I think that was a relief to all. And then to see Roy and the two ladies come in — it’s going the right way. But I qualify that by saying we’re technically insolvent, as (FAI executive lead) Paul Cooke let us all know. And that hasn’t changed.
“So the onus goes on now what can be achieved for the game, financially, given the terrible circumstances the game finds itself in.
“But, in another way, it feels like it is a turning point. What can be achieved now can only be achieved through very hard work and very skilled organisational processes. But the right people are there to do that.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting between Sports Minister Shane Ross and Uefa, which is seen as central to intensified attempts to resolve the FAI’s crippling financial problems, Quinn said: “The hope would be in the first instance that maybe things will go well in this meeting that will see jobs protected.”
“After that, that the League of Ireland gets its due reward in terms of being treated as the elite programme of football it should be treated as. And that right down to community level and grassroots, people feel their sport can flourish again. It’s not going to happen overnight but it feels as if the arrow has turned a bit.”
Asked to estimate a timescale for any potential recovery, Quinn replied: “Oh, jeez, I don’t know. I was at a thing last week where they said Brexit was going to take 15 years, right? (laughs) Ah, no, I wish them well at this point. I think the game that I got so much out of, I think it really deserves government to look at it favourably now.”