Roy Keane played more than 300 times for Manchester United. For about eight seasons, he was the most important player on a team that dominated England and won a Champions’ League. He played under Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson (the two most influential managers in the British game), had some managerial success at Sunderland and a lot less at Ipswich Town. He is 42 years old and his main job is as a television pundit. In any other country in the world, those in charge of the sport would be begging him to be involved in any role he choose to try to help improve the game at all levels. Any other country except Ireland.
Brian Kerr managed the Irish youth teams for close to a decade. He brought an under-20 team that had one genuine talent, Damien Duff, to third place at the World Cup, a feat that will never be matched again. He led Under-16 and Under-18 teams to European titles in one magical summer. He didn’t do a great job managing the Irish senior team but his achievements with the Faroe Islands demonstrated the guy had learned a lot from that chastening experience. Kerr turned 60 earlier this year. In any other country in the world, those in charge of the sport would be begging him to be involved in any role he choose to try to help improve the game at all levels. Any other country except Ireland.
Niall Quinn’s playing career was distinguished by one impressive feature. He made the very most out of every opportunity he was ever given. Players with so much more talent never made it beyond youth teams yet Quinn played in World Cups. When Sunderland, a club he loved was in trouble, he brokered a deal to save it and served as chairman for more than four years, the type of job that gave him priceless insight into and invaluable experience of the administration of the game. In any other country in the world, those in charge of the sport would be begging him to be involved in any role he choose to try to help improve the game at all levels. Any other country except Ireland.
As the clock ticked down on Giovanni Trapattoni this past week, Keane, Quinn and Kerr came to mind. There are aspects of all three men that don’t appeal to some people but what does it say about the soccer authorities that this trio are on the outside looking in? Have they nothing to contribute to the direction of the sport in Ireland? Does Keane know anything about the standards required at international level where he was a colossus? What can Kerr tell us about grooming youngsters to compete with their peers in other nations? As the only Irishman with significant experience running a Premier League club, surely Quinn knows useful stuff about the business of modern sport?
Why are they not involved? In any other sport, you get the best people in to help you when are you down on your luck. Not the ones you like most. Not the easiest to get along with. You get in the best because they can lift everybody else around them.
Last week it was refreshing to see Greg Dyke, the chairman of the English FA, come out with a state of the nation speech about the crisis in the game in that country. Now, you didn’t have to agree with everything he had to say in order to applaud the very fact he was saying something at all. The English have often been rightly accused of ignoring the issues and exaggerating the quality of their players. Like so much else in soccer, we ape them in this regard. We also overhype the few talented kids we produce and we fail to take drastic action to improve standards when required.
Reading Dyke’s speech, I just kept wondering why John Delaney hasn’t made remarks like these. Everybody involved in soccer in Ireland at all levels will tell you that the game is in trouble. Not in terms of the numbers playing but in terms of the calibre of players coming through. Ireland was once regarded as a hotbed of talent by English clubs. After the breakthroughs of the Keanes in 1990 and 1997, the country was over-run by scouts searching for the next big thing. Lately, we hear more and more of bosses in England scrapping their Irish scouting networks. No point keeping an eye on the scene there when it’s not up to standard.
This weekend, we will all return to watching the Premier League and we will forget at least for a couple of hours about the woes of the Irish international team. But, if you care about the sport, you’ll wince when you see Irish players onscreen. Like their British counterparts, they are almost always the ones with the unreliable first touch, the love of humping the ball forward blindly (John O’Shea is the master of this one), and the fear of possession. I don’t meant to knock O’Shea. Right now, he may go down in history as the last Irish kid to make it from the youth set-up to being a regular first team starter at a major English club.
On July 20 this year, John Delaney delivered his annual speech to the FAI AGM in Wicklow, an event where delegates were also treated to him appearing no less than 58 times in one promotional video. Anyway, this seemed like the perfect occasion for the man in charge to voice concerns about Ireland no longer producing players good enough to compete at the highest level for club and country. In the course of a document that runs to almost seven pages, however, Delaney barely touched on the issue of player development. He had more important fish to fry. He devoted much more time and space to slamming the media for criticizing the FAI’s rather puzzling and labyrinthine finances. One more troubling indication of where his and the FAI’s priorities lie.