Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Brian Kerr Era - A Retrospective

Stephen Kenny's appointment brings echoes of the last time Ireland appointed a home-based coach to the senior international job, with the remit of reinventing a stale Irish side with an injection of young, promising footballers.

I have a personal motivation for undertaking a retrospective of Brian Kerr’s Ireland tenure. I was fourteen years old when Ireland won the U16 and U18 European Championships, eighteen when Kerr got the senior job, and twenty-one when he was sacked. I spent my most formative years, the years that shaped my personality as an adult, truly believing that a great era of Irish footballing dominance was on the horizon – a generation of success to eclipse anything achieved under Jack Charlton. As a teenager, I played out those fantasies on Pro Evolution Soccer, where my genetically-modified Irish teams swept to World and European glory; Stephen McPhail threading sumptuous passes for Robbie Keane; Damien Duff and Richie Partridge cutting through defences with Maradona-like evasiveness; Richard Sadlier dominating in the air like an Irish Oliver Bierhoff. That was, I hoped, the true destiny of the Irish team in the New Millennium, and Kerr would be the man to deliver – as soon as Mick McCarthy did the decent thing and finally stepped aside. In time, those dreams and expectations would be mercilessly crushed – the triumph of harsh, worldly reality over the fantasies of a naïve, hopeless romantic.

Kerr had been around a while – a spell as assistant to Liam Tuohy in the youth setup in the mid-eighties came to an end when Tuohy clashed with Jack Charlton, and Kerr remained a critic of Big Jack’s style of play and abrasive relationship with native coaches. He had a fruitful period with St. Patrick’s Athletic in the late eighties and nineties before taking the Irish youth job, winning two titles. He was known for being that rarity in the mostly amateur Irish domestic game – an ambitious, knowledgeable professional. A semi-final appearance for Ireland in the 1997 World Youth Cup was unprecedented, made even more impressive by the fact that it wasn’t a star-studded Irish squad – Damien Duff was the only player who would go on to make a competitive senior appearance. It was a team of future journeymen and League of Ireland stalwarts that eliminated Spain, and competed so manfully against an Argentina side boasting Samuel, Riquelme, Placente, Scaloni, Cambiasso and Aimar. It spoke volumes about Kerr’s ability to take a rag-tag group and get them playing confident, constructive, winning football.

Later, he would also prove capable of taking strong, highly-rated squads, and delivering on expectation. The 1998 European Youth Champions boasted not only Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, but future caps Barry and Alan Quinn, Gary Doherty, and Stephen McPhail, as well as the highly-rated Jason Gavin and Richie Partridge, who would gain senior experience with Middlesbrough and Liverpool. From the U16 cohort, John O’Shea, Liam Miller, Andy Reid, Joe Murphy, John Thompson, Jim Goodwin and Thomas Butler would all win caps, while Colin Healy and Richie Sadlier (in the group that competed in the 1999 World Youth Cup) were also future internationals. In 2002, the Irish U-18 squad came third in the European Championships and qualified for the 2003 World Youth Cup – from that squad, Stephen Elliott, Stephen Kelly, Glenn Whelan, Kevin Doyle and Keith Fahey would eventually be capped.

It was a seemingly phenomenal stream of Irish talent, brought through by a man who could seemingly harness their abilities, create an ambitious, positive environment, and encourage them to compete to the fullest of their potential – to beat the future stars of Spain, England, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, and Germany.

While Kerr was making a name for himself, McCarthy’s senior side were struggling. The autumn of 1999 was an exasperating time – a squad which had shown itself capable of beating Croatia and Yugoslavia was reduced to a rabble by some bizarre decisions and monstrously negative football. Washed-up veterans like Cascarino and McLoughlin were stinking up the side, and when Roy Keane was injured, the midfield was patrolled by unimpressive, one-dimensional, English-born journeymen like Carsley and Holland. The immense talent of Damien Duff was reduced to hugging the touchline, hoofing crosses into the box, with Gary Kelly out of position on the other side. Turkey passing Ireland off the pitch in Lansdowne was a low point, when placed in such stark contrast to the youth teams’ excellence; it seemed farcical that Stephen McPhail was ignored despite playing well for a top-three Premiership team and UEFA Cup semi-finalist, while the incumbents – Kinsella, Carsley, McLoughlin and Holland – were all plying their trades in the English second tier.

McCarthy’s fortunes changed dramatically when he abandoned the negative tactics and tried a more progressive approach (who knew?) but even throughout the 2002 World Cup campaign, and the coming of age of Dunne, Keane and Duff, there was a sense that this was just the beginning. When Kerr eventually took the job (a prospect that seemed more likely in the fallout of Saipan), it seemed certain that the older, willing but limited senior pros would be cast aside to allow the more dynamic, pacey, technical young players to make their mark. By 2002, O’Shea was playing first-team football at Man United; Partridge and Barrett had debuted for Liverpool and Arsenal; Healy had made a European debut for Celtic; Sadlier was scoring goals in the First Division; Andy Reid had broken into Nottingham Forest’s team at eighteen; McPhail, the Quinns, Doherty and Gavin had built up a good body of Premiership experience and not looked out of place. Barrett and Healy demonstrated their potential by scoring in a post-World Cup friendly against Finland. There was also an outstanding young Shelbourne playmaker called Wes Hoolahan who looked destined for a career at a higher level, and was named in a senior squad towards the end of the year. While Saipan had divided the country, and the Far East adventure had been compromised by thoughts of what could have been, the future still looked bright.
Kevin Kilbane and Colin Healy celebrate Graham Barrett's goal for ...
Graham Barrett, with Kilbane and Healy, celebrates his first goal for Ireland
Kerr’s appointment looked like a rare sensible decision by the FAI. Names like Bryan Robson and Philippe Troussier hadn’t inspired confidence, and David O’Leary had unfinished business with Leeds. Shorn of Roy Keane, Ireland had looked tired and bereft of ideas in their home defeat to Switzerland. Without their disgraced former captain to cajole and elevate those around him, the likes of Breen, McAteer, Holland, Kinsella and Kilbane looked incapable of adding anything beyond blundering, misdirected graft. It was 1999 all over again, and the departure of McCarthy came as something of a relief. Ireland needed a coach with imagination and ambition; a belief in youth and a progressive style of football; someone who would encourage the best from his players. Kerr seemed like a perfect fit.

It was curious, then, to see the same old, same old for the game away to Georgia. A midfield of Carsley (on the right wing, bizarrely), Holland, Kinsella and Kilbane laboured to a 2-1 win in Tbilisi and an uninspiring four points against Albania, the home game won with an own goal in the last minute after a dreadful display. The 1-1 draw at home to Russia was equally dismal, and the campaign petered out with an insipid defeat in Switzerland. Kerr hadn’t made any changes, aside from bringing John O’Shea into the starting XI. It was understandable (in a way) to give players who had done so well in 2002 one more campaign to show their worth before genuinely reinventing things, but it should have been clear from the outset that some players were spent forces, or just technically not up to it. Andy Reid and Liam Miller made their debuts in the 2003/4 friendlies, while Barrett and Alan Quinn shined in an excellent 1-0 win in Amsterdam in June 2004. It seemed like this was the template for Kerr to build his team for the 2006 qualifiers. With Roy Keane committed to a return, it would have made sense to populate the other midfield places with younger, faster and technically adroit players.

One of the big quandaries was the almost-inexplicably bulletproof status of Kevin Kilbane. A weak link in the 2002 side, his hard running, aerial ability and defensive work was compromised by an infuriating propensity for wasting possession through poorly-controlled balls and wayward distribution. A James McClean prototype, one might say. Kerr kept faith with him, often relegating Duff to positions on the right and up front where he was less effective. Instead of dropping him, Kerr decided to accommodate him in central midfield, the logic being that his athleticism would prove an effective foil for Roy Keane – still a force, but a significantly less mobile player than in times past. Sometimes, it worked; other times, Kilbane’s technical limitations and headless ball-chasing were exposed even more ruthlessly than on the wing. In retrospect, Steven Reid would have been a much better central midfield partner – even the more diminutive Miller, Andy Reid or McPhail would have benefited from the freedom of playing alongside one of the world’s best defensive midfielders. It’s a great pity that Colin Healy was so badly affected by a succession of serious injuries.

The experiment seemed to be working, as Ireland topped their group in the autumn of 2004, drawing away to Switzerland and France. The latter was a particularly eye-catching performance, as Ireland passed with confidence and purpose, putting themselves in a great position with back-to-back games with Israel to come. That night in Tel-Aviv proved to be a turning point for Kerr. It was a repeat of Mick McCarthy’s Skopje nightmare in 1999, when an early lead turned the game into a battle of containment, follied by a late equaliser. Kerr’s negative tactics played into Israel’s hands, as Ireland sat back and invited pressure, which was inevitably rewarded in front of a partisan crowd. Bringing on Matt Holland for one of the strikers – as McCarthy had done six years previously – completely ceded territory and possession, and Kerr was punished. With Ireland struggling to keep possession and establish a link with the front players, surely Andy Reid – in the form of his career – would have made more sense as an extra midfielder; but he remained on the bench. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but the sense of déjà vu was overwhelming. Kerr did exactly what McCarthy had done in his worst moment.

The return game was even more unforgiveable. With Roy Keane absent, Holland and Kilbane manned the centre of midfield – an alarming prospect. However, thanks to the set-piece brilliance of Ian Harte, the vision of Reid, the dribbling of Duff, and the cheeky finishing of Robbie Keane, Ireland found themselves 2-0 up. Fatefully, the Spurs striker hobbled off injured, and Kerr was forced into a decision – straight swap, or total reshuffle. He decided to bring on Graham Kavanagh – another in our long line of limited thirty-something journeyman midfielders – and push Duff up front, allowing Kilbane to go to his natural role, wasting possession on the wing. Immediately, we had two ageing, immobile players in the engine-room and virtually no attacking threat on the left, with Duff moved from where he had been causing havoc, into an isolated role alongside a static Clinton Morrison, who was having one of his more ‘laid-back’ games for Ireland. Israel grew into the game, and while their goals were somewhat fortuitous, it was an almost-inevitable consequence of Kerr’s negative changes. While the shithousing antics of Dudu Awat provided the game with an appropriate villain, the manager’s role in two dropped points could not be ignored. A few days later, Stephen Elliott made his first competitive start for Ireland against the Faroes, and showed why he would have been a much better replacement for Keane, with a lively, pacey display.

The game against France yielded a better display, with Roy Keane giving his final masterclass for Ireland, but his midfield partner had a torrid day; Kilbane constantly ran into blind alleys, looking every bit a man out of position. Henry’s wondergoal gave France the win, and a first home competitive defeat under Kerr. It would be an uphill struggle to achieve a playoff place from there – Ireland would have to beat Cyprus and Switzerland.

The game in Nicosia foreshadowed the 2006 Staunton debacle, as Ireland were outclassed for much of the game. Only a magnificent penalty save from Given and an opportunistic finish from Elliott gave Ireland a 1-0 win, but there was little to suggest Ireland would have enough to overcome the Swiss. So it proved on a miserable Wednesday night at HQ, and Kerr didn’t help his cause by naming John O’Shea and Matt Holland in midfield, with Kilbane seconded to the left. Shorn of Duff and Roy Keane, perhaps Ireland just didn’t have the personnel to get a win, but more could have been made of the available squad. Steven Reid was sitting on the bench, surely wondering what he needed to do to get an opportunity. Liam Miller may not have excelled at Man United, but he surely would have fared better than the out-of-position O’Shea, and provided some form of passing ability and goal threat. Aidan McGeady was in the form of his life, but was still ignored when the Irish midfield needed something – anything – besides the same old huffing and puffing. There is a rough, cruel irony that the last act of Brian Kerr’s Irish career – the man who was feted as a progressive believer in youth and the Beautiful Game – was a long ball hoofed by Shay Given, hoping to find the head of Gary Doherty in a crowded Swiss penalty box, as the same tired faces from McCarthy's final game in charge - Kilbane and Holland - lumbered around in midfield to the same minimal effect they had offered in the three intervening years.

Kerr was predictably dismissed a few days later, and it was jarring to hear him, on an RTE documentary shown that Christmas, claim that ‘maybe we just didn’t have the players.’ Kerr had at his disposal a prime Given, Carr, Finnan, Harte, Dunne, O’Shea, Duff, Robbie Keane, Andy Reid, and Steven Reid. He had a 34-year-old Roy Keane, who was still a force at international level. He had young players who did well in friendlies, but were jettisoned when the serious business began, like Miller, Alan Quinn, Barrett, Elliott and McGeady. Perhaps if Kerr had showed the kind of imagination and bravery he'd demonstrated in his underage years, an opportunity could have been found for someone like Wes Hoolahan, then playing in the SPL. Kevin Doyle was scoring goals in Europe for Cork, and later the top end of the Championship for Reading, and Daryl Murphy was making waves at Sunderland and scoring freely for the U21s, while Kerr was persisting with Gary Doherty – a centre-back who hadn’t played regularly up front at club level since the age of 18, at Luton Town. Given that weaker Ireland squads have qualified for tournaments in recent history, it’s clear that it was Kerr’s decision making, conservatism, and lack of trust in his young players that sealed his fate.

Poor management is one factor; there is one other at play.

Kerr and his assistant, Chris Hughton, demanded a high level of professionalism from their players, a fact welcomed by Roy Keane, who was sick of the drinking sessions and haphazard preparation under both Charlton and McCarthy. However, the video and tactics sessions and all-round tight ship under Kerr did not meet with the approval of the players, many of whom saw their international breaks as a welcome change of pace from the day-to-day grind in an increasingly tactical and foreign-influenced English game. That reflects more on the players than Kerr, who was ahead of his time in this regard. Also, there have been murmurings about players, having attained wealth and status in their careers since their youth days, not taking Kerr seriously enough. It was instructive to hear Gary Breen – dropped by Kerr in favour of Andy O’Brien and Richard Dunne – talking recently about how players may not respond as respectfully to Stephen Kenny, as someone who is virtually unknown in England, as opposed to the likes of Trapattoni or O’Neill. If that was the attitude towards Kerr, then the fault lies with the ‘Billy Big Bollocks’ attitude of the players. Danish and Swedish players – even the big egos of Ibrahimovic and Eriksen – have always responded positively to their national coaches, even those who had never coached outside Scandinavia.

Furthermore, we have the issue of Irish players failing to make the best of their potential. Keith Foy was a promising left-back at Nottingham Forest, one of the key players in Ireland’s U16 European Champions, scoring a wonderful free-kick in the final against Italy. In an interesting interview in 2018, he admitted that the lures of going out on the town, with the status of a young professional footballer in a medium-sized English city and the temptations it brought, were too much to resist, and he quickly went from being a regular starter for Forest to a part-timer at Monaghan United. Too many Irish players succumbed to the lure of booze and birds; too few showed the professionalism required to extract the maximum from their natural talent. Why didn’t the likes of McPhail, Hoolahan and Andy Reid hit the gym a bit harder, when it was clear a lack of strength and athleticism was holding them back? Why did so many gifted players from those youth teams succumb to career-hampering injuries? This may be speculative, but could it have been substandard nutrition and fitness, and haphazard rehabbing, making them more susceptible to strains and tears, or inhibiting their recoveries?

British and Irish youth culture in the mid-2000s was one of binges and excess, and many a promising football career fell victim to it; in later years, Darron Gibson and Anthony Stokes would come to personify this wastefulness. Maybe certain players should have tried harder to give Kerr a more compelling case for inclusion. For all I’ve lamented over the years about Kevin Kilbane’s technical deficiencies, at least he made the absolute best of his talent and showed genuine determination and professionalism throughout his career, like Glenn Whelan after him.

The Brian Kerr era will always go down as an opportunity wasted. Given, Dunne, Duff and Keane should not have waited ten years to play in another international tournament, by which time they were long past their prime. Roy Keane should have had his chance of redemption in a green shirt. The stars of the underage teams between 1998 and 2002, along with their manager, should have been able to produce on the senior stage. But the perennial Irish bugbears of fear-based conservatism and poor decision-making in our management; added to a lack of confidence, determination and self-discipline at the level of the individual, ensured that our dreams would not be realised.

Stephen Kenny and his young proteges will do well to learn from the failures of our not-too-distant past.

Coming soon - the Staunton Years. Here's a sneak preview...

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A blessing in disguise as Kenny takes the reins

I had misgivings about Mick McCarthy's appointment from the beginning, as I articulated here in November 2018, and I do feel a pang of guilt right now. The global pandemic has given Ireland the manager it needs, at the unfortunate expense of a man who has served Irish football with genuine honesty, integrity and courage. At times over the past thirteen months, Ireland have played with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and grit, most evidently in the 1-1 draw away to Denmark. McCarthy brought something that was missing in the tortuous Nations League; his affable, positive nature providing a remedy for the toxicity of O'Neill and Keane's unnecessarily abrasive brand of man-management.

However, his reign was mostly a continuation of the conservatism we've seen from Irish managers since 2005. Brian Kerr had the Irish team playing passing football until he started policies of containment, which spectacularly backfired in two games against Israel. It was disappointing to see this great Irish football man, a developer of youth and practitioner of the beautiful game, end his tenure against Switzerland with John O'Shea and Kevin Kilbane in midfield, and the ball repeatedly launched towards the head of Gary Doherty. This tendency towards aimlessly direct, kick-and-rush football endured through the stylings of Staunton, Trapattoni, and O'Neill, with outbreaks of constructive, passing play (Slovakia in Croke Park in '07, Paris '09, Nantes in '16) all-too-rare. One could label these tactics pragmatic if there seemed to be any semblance of effectiveness - too often, the ball has been hoofed in the general direction of a helpless striker with no support from midfield, and possession lost. Rinse and repeat, even against weaker opposition. We've had limited midfielders picking up cap after cap, despite looking utterly terrified of receiving the ball from their back four, and completely averse to making a forward pass. The talents of Andy Reid and Wes Hoolahan went under-used and unappreciated by successive managers, while we saw a conveyor belt of blundering, ineffective journeymen picked ahead of them.

McCarthy 2.0 was little more than a continuation of what went before. The games against tiny Gibraltar showed the Irish team in a disastrous light. The game by the Rock was close to being an all-time embarrassment, comparable to the 2-1 win over San Marino in 2007. At home, all Ireland could manage before the 89th minute was an own goal, despite starting with eight Premier League players. Ireland never looked like winning any of the games against Denmark or Switzerland, and the 0-0 draw away to Georgia was as turgid and inept as anything in the worst days of O'Neill, Trapattoni and Staunton. Ireland finished a limping 3rd in a three-horse race, and the campaign must go down as a failure. The accomplishment of a playoff, through the bizarre Nations League format, had been decided before McCarthy's appointment, and has nothing to do with his results.

A recurring grumble about McCarthy's management has been his reluctance to reward young, in-form players, and his dismissive attitude towards Aaron Connolly and Jayson Molumby doesn't fit with the man who gave Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne their international debuts. There has been no move to address the glaring, debilitating weakness in Ireland's central midfield, with Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick inexplicably keeping their places despite their passive, stand-off defending and laboured use of the ball. McCarthy has constantly regarded draws in winnable games as positive results - Georgia (ranked 91st in the world) being a prime example. Irish fans are sick of this negativity, and it's time for a complete change.

On to Stephen Kenny.

Since the possibility of his reign has come to light, some commentators have talked about McCarthy's 'experience and pedigree', urging caution about replacing him with a manager who is virtually unknown outside Ireland. This is a non-issue, in my opinion. McCarthy last managed in the Premier League in 2012, his contemporaries that season including Alex McLeish, Tony Pulis, David Moyes, Paul Lambert, Alan Pardew, Neil Warnock, and, of course, Martin O'Neill. Plenty of 'experience and pedigree' there. I doubt if any Irish fan with a working brain cell would be content to pick any of those names to manage our international side - they represent a dead era in football; redundant tactics, old-school motivational methods, an inability to adapt or move with the times. Michael O'Neill - plucked from Shamrock Rovers - has made Northern Ireland into a very competitive outfit. Despite the comparative modesty of their leagues, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia and Denmark don't balk at the prospect of appointing a domestic-based coach to the national job. Neither should we.

Kenny puts faith in players, and trusts them to use the ball constructively in possession. We won't become a tiki-taka side, winning every game with delightful football. But at least we'll aspire to something better than mere blundering attrition. Plan A will not be Route One. The Under-21s have - for the first time in living memory - looked like a confident, accomplished and technically gifted side. They are our future, and Kenny has shown that he can get them playing to the best of their abilities, unlike his predecessors in the role. His Dundalk side were very competitive in the Europa League against much wealthier clubs, playing an attractive brand of football. He will not revert to the belief that Irish teams are congenitally inferior, and only capable of dragging teams down to 'our level'.

The game in Slovakia is now a shot to nothing. It's unlikely that McCarthy would have successfully negotiated it - the tactics would have been 'ten men behind the ball, try to nick something from a set-piece, or take it to penalties.' Kenny will, at least, show a different route forward, and it promises to be refreshing.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Review of the 2010s

Glad it's over, to be honest.

At the start of the decade, Ireland had narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in South Africa, and the mark of the Hand of Henry was still imprinted on our consciousness. With a relatively kind draw for the Euros in 2012, and a settled squad under Trapattoni, the challenge was to take the positives from that excellent performance in Paris, and build on a solid foundation, while trying to address the weaknesses in central midfield by integrating young, up-and-coming players like McCarthy and Meyler. That was the hope, anyway. Duff, Keane, Dunne and Given were in their thirties in 2010, and replacements would, somehow, need to be found for the cornerstones of the team.

As if forgetting the lessons from 2009, Trapattoni’s team seemed just as blunt and rigid as before, and performances actually dipped as they struggled past Armenia, Slovakia and Macedonia to get into the playoffs. The backs-to-the-wall 0-0 draw in Russia was symptomatic of Ireland's lack of ambition, but it proved to be Richard Dunne’s swansong, and finest moment in green. The 4-0 playoff win in Estonia was ugly but strangely ruthless – probably the most satisfying moment under Trap. However, the earlier defeat at home to Russia proved not to have been a mere blip, but an ominous sign that better teams were about to expose some glaring deficiencies. Ireland had always, in my living memory, been a tough team to beat. Never thrashed, even by vastly superior sides; always competitive; always raised their game for the big tournaments. The defeats in Poland in Euro 2012 were a sobering reality check; nine goals conceded with one in return.

The World Cup qualification campaign for Brazil ‘14 was poor throughout. The Germany game in Dublin was a pathetic capitulation, and the bizarre selections of journeymen like Sammon, Cox, O’Dea, Keogh and Green were never going to lift the team or fans from a period of profound trauma. Coleman, Hoolahan, McCarthy and McClean came in to inject some much-needed energy, and all showed encouraging signs - particularly in a 0-0 draw in Sweden – but it wasn’t enough. Defeats to Sweden at home and Austria away cost Trap his job. Nine goals had been shipped in the two games against Germany, and the new manager would have to face the soon-to-be World Champions again in the Euro 2016 qualifiers – the caveat being the competition’s expansion to 24 teams, which would give Ireland a fighting chance in a group containing Poland and Scotland. Martin O’Neill was a satisfactory choice for those of us who had enjoyed Celtic’s big European nights in the early 2000s, and Roy Keane was an 'interesting' appointment as assistant.

However, the new regime was to be blighted with the same juxtaposition of needless caution and eccentric selections. While there had been encouraging signs during a 0-0 friendly draw with Italy, O’Neill chopped and changed the team with each game, with some indecipherable formations resulting in disjointed performances. O'Neill's men somehow managed to escape Germany with a 1-1 draw before taking two points from three games with our main rivals. Then the unthinkable happened – Shane Long scored the only goal as Ireland beat Germany with an all-time backs-to-the-wall ambush, and Scotland lost in Georgia. We were in the playoffs, and had enough toughness and spirit to overcome a fragile Bosnian outfit. A second Euros in succession; mission accomplished.

2016 was a far better experience than four years previous, as the Sweden, Italy and France games showcased an Irish side playing with courage and no little amount of skill. Brady and Hendrick were central to the attacking effort – form which they would fail to reproduce in the years thereafter. The good vibes continued into the autumn's World Cup qualifiers, with an excellent away win in Vienna, and a good point in Belgrade.

However, O’Neill’s conservatism and the nebulous contributions of his unbalanced assistant came home to roost in 2017. Performances became crippled by fear; Wes Hoolahan was largely ignored, as the midfield became unbalanced and passive, with players often shoehorned into the side, out of position. Two points from three home games against the group rivals ruled Ireland out of automatic qualification, but McClean bought Ireland a reprieve with a winner in Wales, hugely against the run of play. Despite this show of defiance, O’Neill's tactics were found out at home to Denmark in the playoff. The 5-1 defeat was a sickening low. Losing to Spain and Germany is one thing; the manner of defeat against relatively modest opposition was a damning indictment of O’Neill’s setup.

In retrospect, O’Neill should have gone there and then, and allowed the incoming manager the Nations League games to integrate a new system and blood some talent, but the Derryman stayed on to supervise a torrid campaign, in which we learned and achieved nothing but embarrassment, as Wales exacted revenge in sickeningly dominant fashion over two games. Things could not get any worse.

Mick McCarthy’s return brought some belligerence and fight back to the setup, but a 1-0 win in Gibraltar was very close to being an all-time low for Irish international football. There was an admirable stubbornness shown in the late equalisers against Switzerland and Denmark, but the lack of creativity, subtlety and composure – symptomatic of the entire decade – foiled the attempt to qualify automatically.

We go again in March, but in retrospect, it looks silly not to have given Stephen Kenny the job in 2018, given that neither the Nations League nor qualifying group stage have been of any consequence to our current position. There was a great chance for a rebuilding job, and if we do fluke our way into the tournament, we’ll have the primitive stylings of McCarthy’s 4-5-1, with McClean, Whelan and Hendrick bringing their unique brand of huff and puff to the proceedings.

The big feature of the decade for the Irish senior international side (leaving aside the FAI politics, which I’m weary of and unwilling to engage in for the good of my blood pressure) has been the failure of consecutive managers to evolve the Irish gameplan into anything resembling 21st century European football. Even after the stymieing influence of Trapattoni and his rigid long-ball tactics, the influence of ‘man-managers’ O’Neill and McCarthy had to be questioned when Irish senior internationals so often seemed terrified on the pitch; showing a baffling inability to execute the basics expected of a professional footballer, even against the most modest of opposition.

Admittedly, the quality of the player pool has gone from bad to worse over the decade, to the point where a League of Ireland midfielder represents one of the most exciting selections among the current squad. Wes Hoolahan was underused and unappreciated, his moment in the sun all too brief. Young players who were very highly-rated at the start of the decade – McCarthy, Hendrick and Brady – only showed their talent in rare flashes, while other prodigies (ahem, Stokes, Garvan, Gibson) seemed to lack the requisite attitude to push on in their careers. Meyler and Cunningham’s careers were blighted by injuries. Pilkington was a flop, despite seeming like a great acquisition at the time. Grealish and Rice escaped, and set a precedent which will have alarm bells ringing whenever any young Anglo-Irish prospects emerge through our system.

A pet grumble of mine is that talented young Irish players, often leaving home without any real education or life experience, too frequently get caught up in the excess and comfort of the footballer’s lifestyle at a lower level in England, and don’t often push themselves to be the best they can be. Commendable exceptions include Coleman, Doherty, Duffy, Hourihane, Stevens and Egan, who overcame varying degrees of adversity to become respected Premier League performers, through hard work, perseverance, and drive.

One can only hope that the likes of Parrott, Connolly, Obafemi, Idah, Ronan, Molumby, O’Connor, Hodge, Afolabi, Knight, Kilkenny, Collins, O'Shea, Bazunu and Kelleher can avoid the pitfalls and do us proud in the 2020s, and that Stephen Kenny is the Messiah we think he is - his influence on our exciting U-21 team hints at a more enjoyable decade ahead.

High point of the 2010s: Brady’s winner against Italy, Long vs. Germany, obviously. Though personally, I roared loudest when Hoolahan gave us the lead against Sweden – after the pain of 2012, we were genuinely back in the big-time, and how satisfying it was.

Low point of the 2010s: I could say Denmark (2017) or Germany (2012), but Liam Miller’s passing in 2018 puts everything into perspective. Life is precious, so enjoy and savour it for all its triumphs, annoyances and absurdities. Being an Irish supporter certainly provides much of the latter two.

Liam Miller, 1981-2018

Friday, October 18, 2019

Getting Political

Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Their job, on paper, is to keep things simple and solid, protect the vulnerable lads at the back, and maintain a platform for the individual talents up front to do their thing. Yet they seem utterly incompetent at their basic function; constantly neglecting responsibility when the going gets tough. Those who keep selecting them over and over need to be called out for their lack of imagination, but they might ask – where are the other options in the centre?

James McClean: Sinn Féin.

Often given a free pass for his ‘pashun’ and anti-Brit sentiments, he now seems clumsy, mouthy and naïve. As an old-fashioned, direct, aggressive left-winger, he is only capable of wayward, over-hit balls from the flank, and is not suited to the highest level. Should not be considered for selection.

Jack Byrne: Social Democrats.

Seen by idealists as a Northern-European style playmaker – held back by questionable attitude and lack of consistency. Perhaps just too small to be a credible force at this level, and would need to be partnered by stronger, more pragmatic midfielders.

James McCarthy, Shane Long, Robbie Brady – PDs, Labour, Greens. 

Enjoyed some good days in the past, but out of form and favour, looking like they may never regain former status.

Identity Ireland and The National Party refuse to be associated with this analogy until Randolph, Obafemi and McGoldrick are dropped and deported to their ancestral homes. Solidarity and PBP don’t wish to be considered, as football is a hotbed of toxic masculinity and cis-male, heteronormative privilege; and a global, corporate, neo-con capitalist construct which distracts the working man from his duty to the Glorious Revolution.

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 début, 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.