Friday, November 23, 2018

Mick McCarthy again? No thanks.

It looks like the FAI are offering Mick McCarthy the job. I have massive reservations about this, for these reasons:

Mick McCarthy’s competitive managerial record, 1996-2002

With Roy Keane
Played 22, Won 12, Drew 7, Lost 3; Scored 43, Conceded 14.
Win record – 55%.
Wins against higher-ranked opposition – Croatia, Yugoslavia, Holland.
Other good results – draws away to Holland and Portugal, home win vs. Iran in playoff.
Most damaging results - Lost in Macedonia in 1997. Failed to win Euro 2000 playoff v Turkey.

Without Roy Keane
Played 18, Won 7, Drew 6, Lost 5; Scored 29, Conceded 19.
Win record – 39%.
Wins against higher-ranked opposition – none.
Other good results – draws with Germany and Spain.
Most damaging results: Failed to win France ’98 playoff against Belgium. Drew in Macedonia, throwing away automatic qualification for Euro 2000. Lost opening two games in Euro 2004 qualifiers - giving his successor, Brian Kerr, a mountain to climb.

What does this all mean?

It shows that Roy Keane had a disproportionately positive effect on this team for one player, especially after becoming captain in September 1998. It's not quite as dramatic a pattern as how the current Welsh team fares with and without Gareth Bale, (48% - 24% win records, respectively) but it's still a huge consideration. Like the present-day Welsh side, McCarthy relied on the presence of a genuinely world-class player for his side to be competitive. McCarthy's only successful qualifying campaign - for 2002 - was the only one in which Keane played all of the clutch games. The highest ranked team Ireland beat under McCarthy without Keane in a competitive game was Saudi Arabia in 2002 - a team which had lost 8-0 to Germany the week before.

However, Keane also missed far too many games to be relied upon, and as a coach, he is a massive hypocrite for criticising players like Walters and Arter for their absences.

The stats also show that without Keane, McCarthy’s win record was not much better than O’Neill’s, despite having established Premier League players like Given, Staunton, Irwin, Carr, Harte, Finnan, Cunningham, Kinsella, Holland, Carsley, McAteer, Kennedy, Kilbane, Duff, Robbie Keane and Quinn, all around for the majority of his tenure.

By comparison:
Jack Charlton's competitive win record was 42% (with the caveat that he played more tournament games than any other manager, and fewer games against genuine minnows).
Brian Kerr’s was 44% (which looks decent, but out of his sixteen games, he only played six against higher-ranked teams, failing to win any).
Stan’s was 36%.
Trap’s was 40%.
O’Neill’s was 38% - 43% if excluding Nations League games.

McCarthy is a likeable character, but if he gets the job, we'll have to hope that he has improved and matured as a tactician in his spells at Sunderland, Wolves and Ipswich. We can be misty-eyed about an Irish team that competently passed the ball at the highest level, given all that's followed in the last 16 years - but it's easy to remember that McCarthy faced savage criticism for most of his tenure. The jury was out on him in 1997, after some bizarre selections and underwhelming results against poor sides. The knives were out for him in 1999 after a series of conservative, panicky, inept performances had lead to a terrible collapse in the run-in.

His upturn in fortunes with that Irish team coincided with two things; firstly, Keane was fit, available and in the form of his career between 2000 and 2002. Also, from 2000 on, McCarthy stopped trying to be too clever,  and settled on a solid, unchanging 4-4-2. Experiments with 3-5-2, 4-5-1 and midfield diamonds had ended in failure, as players looked confused as to their roles - and that fact doesn't bode well if he gets the job for the 2020 qualifiers, in an age of much more advanced tactical flexibility. Even if you ignore his baggage as Ireland coach, he has not managed in the top flight in England since 2012, and like Trapattoni and O'Neill, there is a real fear that the modern game may have passed him by.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mark Noble tests the limit of our 'Granny-Rule' tolerance

A week on from the announcement of Martin O'Neill's first competitive Irish squad, the major controversies (as always) have centred around those in absentia. At first glance, there were no real surprises in the extended panel; having named thirty-six players, O'Neill left little room for controversy, naming a number of players who have not yet featured significantly under the new manager, such as Darron Gibson, Andy Reid and Joey O'Brien. Such an inclusive strategy should ensure that every player is aware that they are in the manager's thoughts. There will be no crude alienation of talent - a welcome contrast from the previous regime.

In the last number of days, the eligibility and commitment of two English-born players - Jack Grealish and Mark Noble - has come under scrutiny. Despite representing Ireland all the way through the youth ranks, Grealish - a promising young Aston Villa midfielder - has opened up the possibility of defection in the future by asking not to be included in the senior squad. Such a move by Ireland would, admittedly, be slightly cynical - capping him for five minutes against Georgia would tie him to Ireland for life. As an eighteen-year-old dual-national, he is entitled to take his time, and will continue to represent Ireland at U-21 level for the foreseeable future. If he eventually switches (players can only switch associations once), it will be a loss - but it's a personal choice, and good luck to him in whatever he decides. He could - as England's interest suggests - turn out to be another Ross Barkley; a young star with a big future. He could, alternatively, follow the likes of Conor Henderson and Conor Clifford into the well-trodden Irish quagmire of lower-league mediocrity. Only time will tell.

Mark Noble comes at the other end of the dual-nationality scale - a player who had expressed no interest in playing for Ireland, but is seemingly now keen on declaring, at twenty-seven. This revelation has (rather conveniently) come after his omission from England's latest competitive squad. The West Ham midfielder would have been confident of breaking into Hodgson's panel, given the retirements of Gerrard, Lampard and Carrick - however, it was not to be, and according to some sources, he could be eligible in time for the Germany game. It's a curious development, and one which will polarise opinion. Our shameless exploitation of the Granny Rule has benefited Ireland before, given the wide reach of our diaspora - where would we be without the goals and influence of Houghton, Aldridge, Townsend, Cascarino, Holland and, of course, McAteer? Happy memories notwithstanding, it has often left the Irish team with a confused melange of accents, identities and backgrounds, and an ambiguous relationship between the already-vague concept of 'Irishness' and the soccer team that represents this nation. The FAI - Find An Irishman barbs from the Charlton era are still tiresome. Even in the modern day, it is naive to think that the likes of McCarthy, McGeady, Pilkington and Westwood would have declared for Ireland had they been approached first by their native associations.

From a footballing point of view, Noble would be an asset - but only if he worked his way into the team on merit, brought his 'A' game, bought into the spirit of the Irish team, and truly embraced the privilege of playing international football, as the likes of Houghton, Aldridge et al have done. He's a good player, and has more experience and top-flight pedigree than any of our other midfielders. He would provide a much-needed goal-threat and a bit of physicality - which would be ideal alongside McCarthy. All of our other central midfield options have question-marks hanging over them. Gibson has a history of being a bit lazy/overwhelmed at this level, and is not likely to nail down a starting place with Everton. Reid isn't getting any younger. Hendrick is still unproven. Meyler is a very mixed bag - he's very physical and abrasive, but his passing can vary between impeccable and wayward. Then, of course, there's Whelan... All of them bar the latter have possible upsides (Gibson and Hendrick being potentially more talented than our mooted Anglo recruit), but Noble would be the neutral's choice, on ability, age profile, and top-level experience.

So, in theory, taking emotion out of the equation, Noble would seem to fit the bill perfectly.

However, I think we all want to see this new Irish team, under O'Neill, not just getting results, but playing with a character that Irish fans and public can get behind and identify with - a team of players who truly value playing football for their country. We want to see a team that plays with the kind of intensity, pace and aggression that we saw from O'Neill's Celtic team in the big European nights. Having a 'Saaarf Laaandan' mercenary at the heart of it, someone who has rejected and dismissed us before, who was nowhere to be found when we actually needed a player like him five years ago after Steven Reid broke down... it just does not fit in with any desirable vision for this Irish team.

However, such visions may just be utopian. Irish football is in the doldrums, and qualification for Euro 2016 is vital, in terms of maintaining interest and enthusiasm for the national team, and soccer in general in this country. The FAI's coffers are also in need of the sponsorship and TV money that qualification would bring. To qualify, we need the best possible players available, and unlike other Granny-Rule hopefuls like Richard Stearman and David McGoldrick, Noble would potentially improve the Irish team. It may well, in time, prove to be a necessary evil.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Some encouraging signs, but plenty of work for O'Neill.

With twenty-seven different players used in varying formations, and at least ten squad regulars absent through injury, it is difficult to gain any real insight, nor draw too many conclusions, from Ireland’s summer friendlies. The results have not inspired much confidence, and very few of the fringe players emerged with full credit. The clear positives from the Italian game in Craven Cottage were somewhat mitigated by a 5-1 thrashing against Portugal - another blot on the record books for a bedraggled and decimated Irish squad.

The game against Turkey was a drab affair; a typical end-of-season kickaround, with little urgency or enthusiasm on show from either team. Italy provided a more entertaining contest in London, with Ireland employing a high-pressing game which rattled their more seasoned opponents. The Italian side may have been experimental, with fringe players auditioning for a World Cup squad place, but Prandelli's team still boasted more reputable talent and pedigree than any side we will play in Euro 2016 qualification, bar Germany. Ireland’s performance was encouraging. David Meyler and Jeff Hendrick were able combatants in midfield, using their athleticism to press and harry the Italians - but they were also technically proficient enough to move the ball with more precision and adventure than we have seen from an Irish midfield in some time. Such mobility and passing ability was a huge contrast from the stodgy performances of Whelan and Wilson against Turkey, and both players should be relegated to the status of emergency back-up in central midfield. Stephen Quinn hit the bar late on, a chance missed to claim a significant scalp. 

With the likes of O’Shea and Coleman being excused from the USA tour, and Dunne, St. Ledger, O’Brien, Delaney and Clark also in absentia, the Irish defence had a slipshod look in the Costa Rica and Portugal games. Stephen Kelly won a few more caps, giving absolutely no reason why he should add any more. Richard Keogh also struggled in the two games, with Stephen Ward returning for the Portugal game to catastrophic effect. Though Shane Duffy did little wrong on his long-awaited d├ębut, Ireland looked genuinely atrocious in defence, and parts of the US tour were as bad as any performance we have seen from Ireland under Staunton or Trapattoni. The Italian, for all his flaws, realised that defending as a team was a good starting point for an international side – O’Neill and Keane still need to implement a defensive system that all players can adequately adhere to.

O’Neill and Keane will have learned from the four games – particularly with regard to the areas that need strengthening, and the players who are simply not up to international football. Defence is a worry, and with Wilson hopefully restored to left-back instead of the hapless Ward, and Coleman indispensable at right-back, an effective centre-back partnership still needs to be settled upon. O’Shea ended the season strongly for Sunderland, and will be first-choice. If Dunne starts the season well for QPR, he will rightly be in the frame, despite his advancing age - 35 in September. If St. Ledger finds a club of any decent standing, his experience will be useful, while Joey O’Brien can not be ignored if fit. Ciaran Clark has a lot to do, particularly with the arrival of Senderos at Aston Villa, but he remains one of precious few youthful options. Certainly, neither Pearce nor Keogh gave any reason in the friendlies to be considered above the more experienced incumbents, but there are a lot of ‘if’s about Ireland’s defensive options going into the new campaign. Paul McShane can probably feel confident about regaining his place in the squad in the autumn.

Though Meyler and Hendrick were good in parts, McCarthy and Gibson should start in the autumn, while Whelan and Green’s jittery performances against Costa Rica should see them slip down the pecking order. Both Gibson and Robbie Brady will hope to hit the ground running in the Oman game, as it will be their only chance to stake a claim for the starting XI before Georgia. A fit Brady would add set-piece ability and a goal threat from midfield, both badly needed. McGeady was his usual self against Italy, both dazzling and frustrating in equal measure, while McClean – despite his well-taken goal against Portugal – is still too one-dimensional and one-footed to instil confidence – something of a Kilbane-lite. Pilkington showed against Italy that he has plenty of ability, but needs to maintain consistency. With Stephen Quinn also providing a wide option, the wing is not necessarily a problem area, but goals are an issue for this team, and Brady seems the most likely player to step up and shoulder that responsibility.

The forward options are a significant worry, given the lack of goals of late. If O’Neill is to persist with a 4-5-1 formation, it is safe to assume Hoolahan will operate in the hole behind the striker – perhaps with a fit Andy Reid, Brady or Stephen Quinn providing backup. While he must now be an automatic starter, Hoolahan will need to find a decent club in the summer. Long-time admirers Aston Villa would be a good fit – otherwise, the Championship beckons, and at 32, his departure from top-tier football would surely be a one-way trip. The club careers of Stephen Hunt, Kevin Doyle and Andy Reid have never really recovered from dropping out of the top tier, and the Dubliner will need his agent to work hard this summer.

Up top, Shane Long simply needs to start scoring goals. Everything else is in place – he is fast, mobile, strong and combative, and capable of getting into good positions – finishing is the one exasperating chink in his armour. If a suitable cloning device were available to infuse Long’s positive attributes with Keane’s sniping instinct, Ireland would have a genuine top-class striker. Keane may start against Georgia, and it would certainly not be a travesty; however, there is a worry that he is living on borrowed time as an international striker. He was a passenger for long periods against Costa Rica, a missed penalty the only noteworthy contribution, and one fears that his time in the MLS could be blunting his instincts at a higher level (though it must be said, it hasn’t done Tim Cahill any harm). Doyle scored in the Costa Rica game, and should he find his goalscoring touch for a Championship club or better, he will remain an option; at 31, there is another effective campaign in him. Despite a fine finish as a sub against Turkey, Jon Walters was poor against Portugal, and his goalscoring record at club level is abysmal. Anthony Stokes could feel aggrieved for not getting more game-time alongside Hoolahan, as he is arguably the next most natural goalscorer after Keane, but you suspect that he will need to leave the SPL before his credentials are recognised.

In terms of formation, O’Neill deployed the old 4-4-2 against Costa Rica, to near-disastrous effect, proving its redundancy as a formation against any decent standard of opposition. The more flexible 4-5-1, with the high-pressing midfield tactic from the Italian game, will probably be in effect in Tbilisi. Judging on O’Neill’s selections to date, Forde should retain his place in goal, while O’Shea, Coleman and Wilson are nailed-on starters in defence. McCarthy and McGeady will start in midfield, with Gibson, Meyler, Hendrick, Brady, Pilkington and McClean fighting it out for the remaining positions. Hoolahan should start behind either Keane or Long. It is hardly a vintage Irish crop, but if their potential is harnessed, there is more than enough to be competitive in this group.

O’Neill is known as an outstanding motivator when the big day arrives, and should now know the futility of judging players solely on friendly performances in front of apathetic audiences, when players have other things on their minds. However, it takes a giant leap of faith to assume that the manager will magically coax the best out of this squad, and elevate the team’s performance to the fired-up intensity of, say, Celtic in the fondly-remembered European nights of the early 2000s. Friendlies are notoriously difficult to quantify; Brian Kerr had a superb non-competitive record, but his teams often seemed paralysed in big games against beatable opposition. Our magnificent 2002 World Cup campaign was preceded by home defeats to Greece and Scotland. Even Steve Staunton managed a 4-0 win away to Denmark before the death-throes of his horrific reign. We have but few scraps of evidence to go on. On the positive side, O’Neill’s selections have generally been without controversy. No-one has been neglected nor treated unfairly, and the players have generally been picked in suitable positions. However, the defensive system clearly needs fine-tuning, and O’Neill needs to be ruthless with certain players who have failed to take their chances. Not naming names, but we should not be selecting left-backs who are unable to defend, nor midfielders who lack the mobility or technique to play a high-pressing, fast-paced game.

The Italy game provided the most encouraging signs, but the age profile of our first-choice defensive options, lack of emerging talent in many areas, and the lack of a reliable alternative to Robbie Keane, are issues that O’Neill can do little about. The Portugal game really exposed Ireland’s vulnerability when shorn of key players in defence, and the fragile confidence of our more seasoned players, who are now sadly accustomed to bad beatings against the better sides. Though the midfield – so poor under Trapattoni – is on the way to being a more fluid and effective area, O’Neill’s biggest challenges will be to fix Ireland’s losing psychology, blunt attack and slipshod defending – jobs that, thus far, remain undone.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Summer Friendlies - Preview

With four months remaining until Ireland's first European Championship qualifier, Ireland's upcoming friendly fixtures against Turkey, Italy, Costa Rica and Portugal could be hugely significant in the tactical evolution of Martin O'Neill's Irish team. In the three friendly games to date, O'Neill has deployed a wide range of players, and utilised a number of refreshing tactical variations. However, a clear game-plan needs to be implemented over the next month - one that effectively harnesses the talents of the available players.

Looking at the list of absentees to date, it is worrying that Darron Gibson, Robbie Brady and Joey O'Brien will not get a chance to establish themselves in the preferred starting eleven. Brady has an outside chance of making it, but even if he appears in the squad for Hull in the FA Cup final, Steve Bruce may not be amenable to the prospect of his player going on an end-of-season tour after missing six months of football. Gibson is in the same boat at Everton; while he has returned to full training after his cruciate ligament injury, it appears, understandably, that Martinez would prefer the midfielder to rest until pre-season. While both players should be fit to return in the new season, their absence - along with that of Andy Reid - may discourage O'Neill from picking them in the qualifiers.

O'Brien's absence has invited scrutiny over his commitment to Ireland's cause, but it must be remembered that he only made nineteen appearances this season, owing to recurring injuries and persistent knee pain. Looking at the age profile amongst Ireland's defenders, the 28-year-old O'Brien would undoubtedly be an asset, but O'Neill must plan without him. Of the other absentees, Richard Dunne has opted to rest after a long season, and Sean St. Ledger is seemingly out-of-favour, having featured very little for Leicester this season, before being released. Kieran Westwood will also miss out on a chance to put pressure on David Forde, in an area where Ireland are uncharacteristically weak at present.

There is enough talent available for Ireland to be competitive in the upcoming games. Coleman, O'Shea, Delaney, Wilson, McCarthy, Whelan, Meyler and Long have enjoyed regular first-team football in the EPL, and should form the backbone of the side. McGeady, Pilkington, Hoolahan, Clark and Quinn will be eager to make an impact after stop-start seasons in the top flight, and it will be interesting to see how the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy fare if they get any significant game-time.

There are a number of underwhelming selections, however. Conor Sammon is recalled after scoring two goals in thirty-eight Championship appearances, while Stephen Kelly makes it despite being out of favour at Reading. Stephen Ward deserves his call-up after a good season with Brighton, but his error-strewn performance against Serbia in March will have encouraged no-one about his ceiling for improvement. Unfortunately, once injuries are taken into account, there are few - if any - players who can be considered genuinely unlucky to be omitted. The squad is not a particularly young one - the average age is twenty-seven, and includes fifteen players who will be thirty or over by the time Euro 2016 rolls around, not including the injured Dunne, St. Ledger, O'Brien and Reid. O'Neill has lamented the dearth of younger prospects staking a claim, and it continues to be a worrying issue for fans and management alike.

Tactically, O'Neill has room to experiment. Thus far, he seems to have favoured a 4-4-1-1 formation, with an attacking player - generally Hoolahan - floating centrally behind a main striker. The glut of strikers - eight in total - in the current squad could indicate a return to a more orthodox 4-4-2 at some stage. Alternatively, the maligned Trapattoni ploy of playing Cox, Doyle and/or Walters out wide could be looked at again, which is not wholly encouraging. In his Sunderland days, Keane used Daryl Murphy and Anthony Stokes as wide players, to little or no positive effect; it would be a frustrating throwback if such a policy was undertaken by Ireland in the attacking third. We were never going to use such phrases as 'tiki taka' or 'false nines' in conjunction with the Irish team, but it would help matters if the more natural attacking midfielders - McGeady, McClean, Quinn, Hoolahan and Pilkington - were used properly, instead of misusing cumbersome central strikers in those positions on the basis of their finishing and aerial ability. O'Neill has never been afraid to play direct football, but there must be a mixture of bravery along with pragmatism in the attacking set-up. It is interesting to note that Germany - an outstanding exponent of effective attacking play - only have two orthodox central strikers in their current squad.

O'Neill must also consider the balance of youth and ability in defence. Marc Wilson has not been a qualified success as a footballing centre-half, and his ability may be better-suited to left-back, at Ward's expense. O'Shea, Delaney and Clark should compete for the centre-back positions, with Seamus Coleman obviously nailed-on at right-back. In central midfield, Glenn Whelan will probably retain his position alongside McCarthy, but David Meyler's physicality and box-to-box play would provide a welcome alternative.

With the scalps of Italy and Portugal to compete for, O'Neill looking to turn this squad into a cohesive unit, and Roy Keane overseeing training and preparation, there should be no excuse for players taking these games lightly. Many of the US tours under previous managers ended in farce; hopefully, this end-of-season series will be somewhat more productive in terms of developing an Irish team for the upcoming qualifiers.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ireland vs. Latvia - Review

After the interminable, over-analysed circus of media conferences, football mercifully took centre stage on Friday night, as the Martin O'Neill reign began. Although the opposition must be taken into account when analysing such a performance, there were plenty of positives to take from Ireland's 3-0 victory over Latvia. All round, Ireland's players showed much more urgency and willingness to receive the ball, make angles, create space, link up, and move the ball forward to create chances. These factors should form the basis of any competent performance at international level - particularly given the increasing technicality of modern football - but Ireland's execution was a class apart from anything that the same players produced under Trapattoni. Even the more impressive wins against similar opposition under the Italian (Northern Ireland, Oman, Faroe Islands, Estonia, etc) were devoid of the subtlety that we saw on Friday night. For the first time at the new Aviva stadium, we saw consistent application of a modern, technical game-plan from the home side.

In possession from the back, Ireland's back four was encouraged to spread wider than usual, allowing a deep-lying midfielder to come to a 'first-receiver' position. With full-backs already in advanced positions, Ireland could create outlets and options for that first receiver (usually McCarthy) to spread the play. An intriguing development was the deployment of Wilson as a 'footballing centre-half' to assist in bringing the ball into midfield, allowing Whelan or McCarthy to push on. Ireland's problems under Trapattoni lay in the two sitting midfielders being outnumbered, receiving little help from elsewhere, as the rigidity of the 4-4-2 formation forbade any fluid movement in possession. Against Latvia, three of the back four could expect to be involved in the build-up, while Keane and Hoolahan took turns to drop back, crowding out the Latvians. Accordingly, Ireland kept possession, McCarthy and Whelan had options, and chances inevitably came. Ireland scored thrice, but could have scored more but for sloppy finishing and good goalkeeping. For a change, it seemed as though Ireland's midfield posed a genuine threat.

Obviously, against better opposition, there will be a risk of being caught on the counter attack with such a fluid gameplan. Ireland's tactic against Latvia was to press and harry high up the pitch, once possession had been lost, to stymie counter attacks at the source, and revert to a more rigid system once the ball reached the middle third. A simple system, based on tactical principles which are accepted as common practice among Europe's best sides. It was refreshing to see an Irish team carrying out these fundamentals with such aplomb, as Westwood did not have one significant save to make.

One aspect of O'Neill's pragmatism which came into notable effect was the deployment, from the start, of players playing in their correct positions. Left-footed players (Ward, McClean) on the left, right-footers (Coleman, McGeady) on the right. Ireland had a balance and natural width which really aided the quick build-up and fluidity of Ireland's attack. Unfortunately, Stephen Ward - the only Irish player to seem remotely uncomfortable on Friday - remains the only left-footed left-back available to Ireland at any decent level. An alternative needs to be promoted - or fished from the progeny of the diaspora - as quickly as possible.

Poland on Tuesday will be a tougher test, but with O'Neill set to rotate dramatically from the first-choice in order to 'give everyone a run', it may be difficult to get a real sense of where Ireland are heading in the grand scheme. The injured Pilkington, Brady and Gibson are also set to come back into the reckoning at some stage of the next year, with the likes of Stephen Quinn and David Meyler also likely to play themselves back into contention, so the starting XI against Poland could bear little resemblance to anything O'Neill may field again. Forde, Kelly, Clark, Green, Andy Reid and Walters are all in contention to start. It will be interesting to see if O'Neill persists with a similar gameplan to that of Friday night, and how effective it can be away from home against a team of similar rank.

End the Anthem Butchery

The only piece of negativity from the Latvia game, in my view, was the decision by the FAI to retain the services of model Nadia Forde, who once again butchered the National Anthem with her Americanised, egotistical, dragged-out warblings.

The singing of the National Anthem is a special moment; a bond between team and fans. It is part of the ethereal 'X-factor' of a home game - an expression of pride and the intangible common bonds of ancestry and culture that unite the players and those who have come to will them on to victory. It, in a way, defines the tribal magic of International football. It is contaminated, homogenised and infuriatingly bastardised when a solo singer leads the procession. It should be about team and fans singing  together above the music. No third party should interfere with that bond - and certainly not distract from it with narcissistic note-milking. And yes, I would say the exact same if it were a male vocalist. Contrast the singing of Amhran na bhFiann in Poznan last year, or in Croke Park in 2007 for the Ireland - England rugby game, to Forde's cringe-inducing efforts.

It has been pointed out that the FAI does have quite a strong link to Denis O'Brien these days - a man who has made some capital from promoting the likes of Forde, and other Irish models, in his media publications. O'Brien would surely need to have dealings with their agencies, to keep the 'respectable' Sunday Independent brimming with fresh masturbation aids. Call me a cynic, but there seems to be more to this than meets the eye, given how unpopular the idea of solo anthem singers has proven, and the ridicule that Forde's performance has attracted from the Irish fans.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

An intriguing appointment, but not without risks

With Martin O'Neill now confirmed as the Irish senior team manager, it comes as a relief that the search was not a long, drawn-out affair, as it was in the wake of Kerr and Staunton's departures in 2005 and 2007. The friendlies against Latvia and Poland will give the new management team a decent opportunity to set a marker, and the winter should provide an adequate 'settling in' period for O'Neill and his assistants to familiarise themselves fully with the available talent, and get to grips with their various responsibilities. There should be no excuse for the new Irish team being 'caught cold' when the Euro 2016 qualifiers come around.

From the first, O'Neill was the outstanding candidate. With more club-level pedigree and a greater reputation than the likes of McCarthy, McDermott, O'Leary, Coyle or Hughton, he was certainly the best Irish option. While other non-Irish names were reportedly in the mix, there was no outstanding, realistic candidate among them - furthermore, Trapattoni showed, in his more eccentric moments, the risks of appointing a foreign manager from left-field for one last pay-day. 

However, in saying that, O'Neill's pedigree is mostly built on his time with Celtic, where he inspired the previously hapless Bhoys to three league titles in five years. With O'Neill at the helm, Celtic enjoyed a plethora of memorable European performances, including victories over Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax and Liverpool, and reaching the UEFA Cup Final in 2003. While overtaking the hugely dominant Rangers with a smaller budget was undoubtedly a feat, Scotland is not an adequate testing ground for players or managers to shine at a higher level. Take away O'Neill's Parkhead achievements, and his record is no more impressive than that of, say, the out-of-work Tony Pulis and Alan Curbishley. O'Neill boasts a couple of trophies and regular mid-table finishes with Leicester, guiding Aston Villa to a couple of above-average finishes, and - most recently - battling relegation with Sunderland. He is a good manager at EPL level, but hardly a miracle worker or a hugely 'technical' coach.

However, O'Neill is more than qualified to manage Ireland. Lets not forget that Giles and Staunton got the gig with no managerial experience, while Hand and Kerr got their shot off the back of their League of Ireland and under-age achievements. Jack Charlton had managed in the top flight of English football for only four of his twelve years in club football (in a very 'unsophisticated' era for the game) before taking the Ireland job, and Mick McCarthy had three-and-a-half seasons with Millwall in the second tier. O'Neill's achievements in the game eclipse all of his predecessors bar Trapattoni, and the Derry man will not bring the same eccentricity or communication issues, and he will hopefully work harder to evaluate (and even reinforce) the Irish playing pool. Every managerial appointment is a risk, and every record will be scrutinized at this level - but O'Neill is a big enough character, with a strong enough record, to withstand the cynicism of the average Irish punters (i.e. denizens of the RTE Sport comments section).

Speaking of these grumblings, a lot of the more heated debate has centred on the identity of his assistant. Roy Keane remains an intensely divisive figure in Irish football - for some, an honest, uncompromising champion of ambition and professionalism, with a track record as captain of both Ireland and Manchester United to back up that reputation. On the other hand, he is a flawed character; often seeming impulsive, severe, abrasive, brooding, distant, and lacking in the kind of compassion and humanity that we see from the best managers - characteristics that were his undoing at Sunderland and Ipswich. Compare the jovial, engaging, inclusive, nice-guy personality of Jurgen Klopp to the scowling bitterness of Keane, and it's clear that top-level football management has moved on from simple 'rule by intimidation'. Furthermore, international football is not the place to fall out with players, as Trapattoni learned. There is a dignity and tact required, which O'Neill will certainly bring - it remains to be seen how Keane's 'my way or the highway' approach will fit into the requirements of his job, particularly given the fact that O'Neill will have the final say on personnel and tactics.

Keane's actual role does warrant clarification, but it is certainly an exciting and intriguing appointment, which promises to entertain - on and off the pitch. This Irish team has a core of mostly young players - such as Clark, Coleman, Wilson, Gibson, Meyler, McCarthy, Brady, and Pilkington - who have yet to really 'find themselves' as internationals, nor put down a serious, consistent marker at this level. If Keane can channel some of his ferocity, knowledge and ambition in a constructive way on the training pitch, and O'Neill brings his famed man-management skills, this crop of players could really grow as international players and thrive. One thing is for sure - there will be no strops or petulant tweeting if players are left out.

There is certainly potential for unwanted drama, with Keane on board, but hopefully the entertainment will keep to the confines of the pitch, and Ireland - like the Celtic team of 2000 - can be shaken out of their slump.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Into the Great Beyond...

In a way, Ireland's performance in Vienna summed up the World Cup qualification effort under Trapattoni - some flickering, futile glimpses of promise, outweighed by a lack of imagination and ambition, a dearth of assertiveness and confidence, and - finally - the submission of a shaky defence to yet another easily-avoidable goal. Unfortunately, the identity of the goalscorer underlined a damning deficiency in Ireland's player pool - we do not currently possess a player like Alaba or Ibrahimovic - a top-class individual who can provide that extra spark to lift their side above mediocrity. Ireland were not beaten by outstanding, technical sides playing free-flowing football. Both Sweden and Austria were vulnerable and often sloppy in their general play, and certainly beatable - had the correct Irish teams been picked, and deployed with the ambition and authority one should expect from a world-class manager. Trapattoni failed to provide this, and for an Irish team to be virtually eliminated from a playoff position with two games to spare is unacceptable. The world ranking now stands at 59 - an alarming new low. Of the previous national team managers in the modern era, only the gormless designs of Steve Staunton in 2006/7 have plumbed such depths. Trap had to go, and the prompt severance of ties was something of a relief.

In writing the epitaph to his reign, it must be noted that Trapattoni inherited a mess when he took the job in 2008, and quickly restored team spirit, purpose, organisation and discipline to the side. Ireland's away record and ability to grind out victories against the smaller nations was very commendable, especially considering the travails of other mid-ranked European sides at the same time, and it brought us to two playoffs and one qualification - a record which bettered the efforts of many traditionally strong teams in the same campaigns, like Serbia, Belgium, Turkey, Switzerland and Romania.

However, there was a certain complacency at the heart of the Trapattoni era which was eventually our undoing. It was assumed that the defence was solid and organised when it was actually quite vulnerable, particularly at set-pieces, and that didn't change. Central midfield was screaming out for a change from the very early days - a competent alternative to Steven Reid was never found, nor even sought, after his injury. Even in our successful campaign, we struggled on carrying these flaws, limping home against Macedonia and Armenia, picking up the points that Slovakia threw away, and taking advantage of the weakest draw in the history of UEFA-zone playoffs. As the likes of Duff and Given retired, and Dunne, Doyle and Keane became less influential, we started to see some really odd selections in the squad, and increasingly, the starting line-up. These situations could have been dealt with better. By 2012, Trap had taken the team as far as he could, but then, hindsight is a fine thing. Despite how it all ended, Trap remains a charismatic, dignified and genial football man, and as an Irish fan, he has my gratitude and goodwill, despite how it all ended.

During the 2002 World Cup qualifiers - Ireland's last successful campaign before Trapattoni - Ireland used twenty-six players - thirteen Premiership players, four 'Division 1' players, and nine who had played at both levels in the fourteen months of the campaign. In the current group, Trapattoni used twenty-seven players - ten EPL players, eleven Championship, three who have played both EPL and Championship, and three (Keane, McGeady and O'Dea) from 'other' leagues of varying quality. Aiden McGeady is the only Irish international to have played Champions League football in the last year. It would suggest a slight degradation in the quality of Ireland's player pool since those heady days under Mick McCarthy, but it must also be noted that expensive foreign players were not quite as prevalent in 2000/01, when clubs like Leeds and Ipswich could challenge for Europe with mostly home-grown squads. Also, in 2001, McCarthy did not have to deal with so many top-flight regulars in self-imposed exiles, such as Stephen Ireland and Darron Gibson, nor high-profile retirees in good club form, like Damien Duff and (arguably) Steven Reid. Many of those listed Championship denizens (Sammon, Keogh, Fahey, Cox, Green, Andrews and Ward) were controversial selections to begin with. The Irish player pool is not quite as horrendous as we think, and the new manager certainly should have something to work with. A good midfield can potentially be constructed from the talents of Brady, Gibson, McCarthy, McGeady, Pilkington, Quinn and Hoolahan, many of whom were ignored, mistrusted or misused by Trapattoni, in favour of lesser players. Anthony Stokes would also provide a decent striking option, so long as he stays off the pints and keeps impressing at Champions League level.

So, who is it going to be?

Of the Irish contenders, Martin O'Neill is the obvious front-runner, and rightly so. O'Neill's time at Celtic was punctuated with some stirring European performances, particularly in reaching the 2003 UEFA Cup final. Though he squandered quite a lot of money at Aston Villa, he kept them punching their weight in the top half, and they suffered quite badly upon his departure. Even at Sunderland, where he may have lost the energy required for day-to-day club management, he still pulled out some decent wins - notably at home to champions-elect Manchester City in early 2012. The sporadic nature of international football would appeal to a manager who has built his reputation on big occasions and inspirational man-management, and his genial nature would do wonders for the Irish team's communication issues and oft-frayed public relations. However, he does have his critics, particularly with regard to his preferred direct style of play, which some reckon would be a throwback to the worst elements of Trapattoni's era. It is not an unfounded criticism - the utilisation of big centre-forwards was a hallmark of his time with Leicester, Celtic and Villa, but Celtic did play some high-tempo attacking football too - one of his first games with Celtic was a frenetic 6-2 win over Dick Advocaat's Rangers.

Mick McCarthy has been mentioned, but they always say 'never go back', and he would bring a certain amount of baggage to the job - not just from Saipan, but from a history of strange tactical decisions and puzzling loyalties, most notably in the botched Euro 2000 qualifiers, when we were treated to the sight of a thirty-seven-year-old Tony Cascarino starting a playoff while Damien Duff remained on the bench. Chris Hughton is another good 'name', but he may be unwilling to leave Norwich, and his involvement as assistant manager during the tactically flawed Brian Kerr regime should not be forgotten. As for Roy Keane... well, if you thought Trapattoni was eccentric, undiplomatic and prone to alienating players, just ask Clive Clarke about the Corkman's inclusive and progressive approach to man-management. Put simply, he's too much of a headcase to be anywhere near the job.

'I liked Ralf Rangnick before he was cool, man.'
With Denis O'Brien again putting his funds towards the new manager's salary, Ireland do have options. Trapattoni was very much a left-field candidate before he was approached by the 'kingmakers' in 2008, and the FAI could yet spring another surprise, given that they are not rushing their appointment. Much depends on the job description. In Denmark, for example, Morten Olsen has been working in a wide-ranging capacity of both senior team manager and technical director, working closely with the grassroots of Danish football. This Scandinavian approach has won plenty of admirers among more well-informed Irish fans, and the right appointment could provide the far-reaching changes and continuity required by Ireland at underage and grassroots level. Unfortunately, this progressive approach to development did not stop the Danes from being hockeyed 4-0 at home to Armenia last March - it seems there is no 'magic formula' in international football. If the Irish managerial position is to be solely focused on short-term results, it's a different story - a motivator like O'Neill would do just fine - but if the brief includes wider technical development, then a more Continental influence would surely be required. Just to be a hipster about it, and because I have a slight fondness for the Germans, I'm going to throw Ralf Rangnick's name out there.

The appointment of Noel King as interim manager for the Germany and Kazakhstan games is a sensible one, as King has certainly improved the fortunes of the Irish U-21s since taking over from the much-maligned Don Givens. He tends to favour a more attractive, modern style of play, which may provide an interesting window into the ability of Ireland's players to adapt from the turgid physicality of 'Trap-ball' into something more sophisticated. At this stage, we're looking for any positive signs.