Appreciate Robbie Keane while you can, you’ll miss him when he’s gone

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Following Padraig Harrington’s recent, surprising, win at the Honda Classic, the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show on Today FM asked their listeners to pick ‘Ireland’s greatest sportsperson‘.

Debates of this nature don’t tend to achieve a whole lot, and comparing different sports isn’t an exact science, but they still provide an insight into the tastes and interests of Irish sports fans. The listening public settled on jockey A.P. McCoy in first place, ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, Harrington, Katie Taylor and former cyclist Sean Kelly.

The absence of any footballer was noticeable, if not unexpected. Though the perception of the Republic of Ireland team has improved since Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, the side are currently in a dogfight to qualify for Euro 2016 and the ‘Ole Ole’ brigade have seemingly moved on since the harsh realities of international football became apparent.

If one footballer was to make a list like the one on Ian Dempsey’s show, most would most likely opt for either Roy Keane or Paul McGrath. Any mention of Robbie Keane would probably be met with raised eyebrows and a series of ‘boyhood clubs’ jokes. Our site conducted a Sports Personality of the 2014 poll and Katie Taylor won, with 32.8% of the 2,665 votes, while Keane received five.

That’s five votes, not five per cent. The Ireland captain finished second last, with 0.19 per cent of votes.

Puyol and Robbie Keane 16/6/2002 DIGITALIt’d be wrong to single out some of twenty-nine others who finished ahead of Keane, but it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest most Irish sports fans would fail to recognise a few of them if they walked by them in the street.

In 2014, Keane won MLS, was named the league’s best player and scored the winning goal in the cup final, while also scoring goals for Ireland. A failure to recognise the player’s achievements conveys a greater malaise about Ireland’s record goalscorer, and perhaps public perception of football in general.

However, without seeking to enter a ‘my sport is better than yours’ trivial debate (can’t we all just get along?), the failure to contextualise and appreciate Robbie Keane’s commitment to the Irish national team, his ability and achievements is dumbfounding.

And it won’t be long before he’s a former Irish international.

Robbie Keane of  Ireland celebratesSince making his international debut in March 1998, Keane has scored 65 goals in 138 internationals and is currently the twelfth highest goalscorer in the history of international football. The only Europeans to have scored more are Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis.

Klose and Muller are World Cup winners, while the latter two played for one of the greatest sides ever, the Hungary team of the early 1950s. Puskás even played for Spain for a while.

Keane never had the luxury of switching to another international side, or team mates of that quality to set him up, yet he’s consistently scored goals across three decades of international football. Four months before his 35th birthday, Keane remains Ireland’s best chance to score a goal, yet he’s become something of a punch-line, for many, about ‘boyhood clubs’.

In addition to not adequately recognising the Dubliner’s achievements, it could be argued there’s never been a proper appreciation of just how good a footballer Keane was, and still remains.

Keane’s not a natural athlete, hence the trademark rolly-tumble goal celebration, but what he’s always possessed is great finishing ability, intelligence and wonderful movement. Keane’s 65 international goals are testament to his quality as a player, not some by-product of always starting for Ireland and beefing up his tally against cannon fodder. The striker has scored almost every key international Irish goal for over a decade.

From the last-minute World Cup goals against Spain and Germany to goals away to the Netherlands, France, and Italy, it’d be unfair to ever label him a flat-track bully. Anyway, if it was that easy to even score against the perceived minnows, the team wouldn’t still be reliant on Keane to score goals, and he wouldn’t be the top goalscorer to come from these islands.

Robbie Keane of the Republic of Ireland scores a dramatic penalty kickKeane’s movement alone deserves considerable merit, an aspect of his game his former manager Gordon Strachan was particularly impressed by. ‘Where did you learn your movement from?’ the then Coventry boss asked Keane, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’.

‘I dunno’ Keane replied. ‘I didn’t learn it off anyone, it must have been something that just came to me. It wasn’t like somebody came and grabbed me and said, “Do this, do that,” you know. In training you learn little things, different movements, like coming to get the ball and spinning off… It was just something I must have just had as a kid’.

Keane’s a street footballer, honing his skills playing football growing up on a housing estate Tallaght, where space is a valuable commodity.

The striker would’ve been pitted against bigger, stronger opponents, but football’s beauty lies that skill and spatial awareness make such physical qualities redundant. If we could somehow attach Shane Long’s legs to Keane’s brain, the Irish team post-Keane wouldn’t seem so bleak.

Wigan Athletic v Tottenham HotspurKeane’s best spell in club football was alongside Dimitar Berbatov, an equally cerebal player. The two struck up a wonderful partnership at Tottenham Hotspur, before departing for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively in 2008.

Keane’s record in the Premier League also deserves recognition and contextualising. The Dubliner scored 126 goals in the English top flight, the twelfth highest amount and ahead of players such as Didier Drogba, Nicholas Anelka and his soon to be LA Galaxy team-mate Steven Gerrard.

If an Irish player joining the Premier League now was to make 126 appearances in the English top flight, never mind scoring 126 goals, it would be seen as a considerable achievement.

Even Keane’s record in MLS seems strangely overlooked back home. Observers of the major European leagues may consider it a footballing backwater, but players with greater talent and significantly higher profiles, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, haven’t performed as well as ‘the unidentified fan’ in MLS.

Keane certainly hasn’t treated his time in LA as a semi-retirement gig.

460397826If one still doesn’t adequately appreciate Keane’s talent, or his considerable international achievements, then his commitment to the Irish team deserves merit.

In an era when the young Irish player of the year may end up playing for another country, and players seemingly treat international breaks as a nuisance, Keane consistently shows up when it’d be easier to stay at home, 5,000 miles away.

This isn’t an argument claiming Robbie Keane is Ireland’s greatest ever footballer or sports person, but more an examination of why he’s excluded from such debates, which lack obvious context.

Katie Taylor is the best in the world at what she does, it would be pure ignorance to dispute that and completely wrong. The Irish rugby team proved last weekend they are the best team in Europe and contenders for the World Cup, while Gaelic footballers and hurlers deserve considerable credit and admiration for their levels of dedication.

However, professional football is in a different stratosphere, in terms of competitiveness, to women’s amateur boxing, rugby and Gaelic games. 209 nations play international football, that’s more footballing nations than actual officially recognised countries, and, of those, 54 play in Europe, the most competitive and wealthiest football continent.

For Ireland to even be competitive is achievement, given that we are country with fewer playing resources and less developed infrastructure than a lot of those we come up against.

This isn’t an attempt to belittle other sports, but just a reminder to those who use Irish success in other sports as a tool to belittle the Irish team. Something that will likely happen if Ireland lose to Poland on Sunday, a week after the Irish Rugby team won the Six Nations.

Republic of Ireland v Gibraltar - EURO 2016 QualifierNo-one will ever better Robbie Keane’s goalscoring or appearance record for Ireland. As it becomes harder and harder for Irish players to break into teams across the water, it’s difficult to imagine anyone scoring more Premier League goals, let alone have a career spanning three decades.

And as football continues to be homogenised, we’re unlikely to see another street footballer like Keane again. Such players are becoming extinct, as academy clones continue to be mass produced.

Keane isn’t as polished as Brian O’Driscoll, as interesting as Roy Keane or as flawed as Paul McGrath. He’s just a footballer from Tallaght who’s had a brilliant career, and deserves suitable recognition. He should not be a punchline about having numerous boyhood clubs or for failing to be recognised by someone writing a picture caption in Los Angeles.

We’ll miss him when he’s gone, and, if Ireland don’t record a positive result against Poland on Sunday, that might not be too far away.

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‘Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?’ and more examples of great sportswriting:

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My article on the decline of elite Irish footballers was named the 32th best piece of sportswriting of 2014.

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O’NEILL AND STRACHAN: TWO CAREERS RUNNING ALONG THE SAME TRACK

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THEY WILL BE IN OPPOSING DUG-OUTS TONIGHT AT CELTIC PARK BUT THERE ARE EXTRAORDINARY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE IRISH AND SCOTTISH MANAGERS

Originally published on SportsJOE.ie

It’s March 2013 and Martin O’Neill’s distinguished managerial career has bottomed out. Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, has fallen to 17th in the Premier League, with seven games to play, and decide to sack the Derry native. O’Neill’s 25 years in the dugout had been built on possessing supreme man-management skills, a keen eye for a player and an ability to infuse his teams with his own restless energy. Once dubbed the ‘Duracell Bunny’, due to animated touchline actions, O’Neill, in his final months at Sunderland, appeared flat.

Rewind a few years earlier, to October 2010, and the current Scotland manager is in a near identical situation. Gordon Strachan has resigned from his post as Middlesbrough manager after less than a year in the role with the club 20th in the Championship. When the Scot took charge ‘Boro were fourth, three points off the top. He leaves them in their lowest league position in over 20 years. Strachan was so embarrassed by his performance he tore up his contract, refusing compensation.

England’s North-East had become a graveyard for two successful managerial careers. The promise both men had shown at Celtic, particularly O’Neill,  looked set to be unfulfilled as the modern game seemingly surpassed them. O’Neill and Strachan were banished to the purgatory of football punditry. However, tonight’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier between Scotland and Ireland, and return to the white hot atmosphere of Celtic Park, is perhaps the ultimate departure from sharing a TV studio with Adrian Chiles.

Both men return to the scene of some of their greatest feats in management having bounced back from failure in their last club position. Strachan and O’Neill have revived their careers in international management, and in the process presided over a mini-revival of the Scottish and Irish national teams. However, in such a tight group, one man’s career renaissance is likely to come at the other’s expense.

The slump and subsequent upturn of Strachan’s managerial career is mirrored by O’Neill’s resurgence. The Scotland manager was speaking about his counterpart last week, saying: ‘Martin is a happy eccentric and I enjoy his company’. Strachan also conceded they share similar outlook on football. ‘We use our eyes, rather than stats. Are we fatigued or not fatigued? We’re old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same things and it didn’t do him any harm. I’m not saying we are up there with him, I’m just saying being old-fashioned has served us OK’.

Being ‘old-fashioned’ is just one of the similarities between the men. From managing Celtic to playing at World Cups, winning European titles as players with provincial clubs to working with Roy Keane, Strachan and O’Neill have treaded similar footballing paths along the road to tonight’s game. The two men also played under two of football’s greatest managers and most influential characters, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson. O’Neill spent 10 years at Nottingham Forest, six of those under the guidance of Clough, winning a league title and two European Cups. While Strachan also played for Ferguson for six years at Aberdeen, part of the side which broke up the Old Firm duopoly and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Real Madrid in 1983.

Martin O'Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final

Martin O’Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final.

O’Neill and Strachan also had, at times, strained relationships with their autocratic managers. O’Neill has spoken about how Clough would never praise his performances and the two men differed over what the Derry native’s best position was. O’Neill saw himself as a central midfielder, while Clough used him primarily on the right wing. Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a memoir of Clough’s time at Forest, wrote: ‘Cloughie could never get the better of Martin O’Neill. When he was in the mood, Martin was as articulate as the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. That had Cloughie totally bamboozled.’

Strachan had a similarly complicated relationship with Ferguson, albeit their differences were more personal. The former Manchester United manager said in his 1999 autobiography that he ‘decided this man could not be trusted an inch’. Their troubled relationship continued when Ferguson followed his former player south. According to Strachan, his manager ‘took up from where he had left off with me at Aberdeen, I remember telling him, “Listen, you spoke to me like that nine years ago. It might have worked well then but it is not going to work now”. But the screaming and shouting did not cease, it just got worse and more personal’.

While Strachan played until he was 40, O’Neill was forced to retire from a knee injury in 1985, aged 32. The Derry native moved into management and, due to his work with Leicester City between 1995 and 2000, earned a reputation as one of the game’s most promising managers. O’Neill got Leicester promoted to the Premier League, won two League Cups, and established the club as an ever present in the top flight during his tenure. O’Neill then took charge of a beleaguered Celtic, who had finished 21 points off Rangers the season before his arrival.

However, he soon re-energised the club, winning his first Old Firm derby 6-2 and completing a domestic treble in his first season. Celtic would win three league titles, three Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup. The club also reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where they suffered a heart-breaking defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. When O’Neill stepped away from his position in 2005 he was the most successful, and perhaps most loved, Celtic manager since Jock Stein.

Strachan succeeded O’Neill at Celtic in 2005. While not as successful as O’Neill in English club management, the Scot had experienced relative success with Southampton. In his three years with the club, Strachan secured their Premier League survival and guided them to the 2003 FA Cup final, before resigning in 2004. Strachan was never as popular as his predecessor at Celtic Park, but was arguably as successful, as Celtic won three league titles, two Scottish League Cups and a Scottish Cup. Strachan also achieved a feat his much vaunted predecessor could not when leading Celtic to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

When both men returned to English club management they found the game had changed. O’Neill took charge of Aston Villa in 2006 and was optimistic he could revive the club’s fortunes. ‘I am well aware of the history of this football club’, he said. ‘Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream’. However O’Neill found there was a glass ceiling for Premier League clubs outside the Champions League.

Roy Keane's unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan

Roy Keane’s unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan.

Villa invested heavily but failed to better three successive sixth-place finishes. O’Neill resigned the day before the opening of the 2010-11 season, in dispute with Randy Lerner, the Villa owner, over allocation of transfer funds. Despite the club entering a downward spiral since O’Neill’s departure, Villa fans were left with a bitter taste towards the Derry native. O’Neill had spent over £120 million in his four years in charge, signing players on big wages, but was unable to crack the Premier League’s top four.

Strachan would also find club management difficult upon returning south. Despite an overhaul of the club’s squad, the Scot presided over Middlesbrough’s slide down the Championship table before resigning. Strachan was out of work for two years before taking the Scotland job. While O’Neill, after being replaced at Sunderland by managerial ‘charlatan’ Paolo Di Canio, was linked with Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace during his time out of the game. Long gone were the days when he was being interviewed for the England job or touted as next Manchester United manager.

The move into international management has revitalised both men’s careers. Both Strachan and O’Neill took charge of sides at their lowest point, two squads bereft of confidence following the stagnant spells of Giovanni Trapattoni and Craig Levein.

Ireland were ranked 70th in the world, while Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup were long gone when Strachan took charge in January 2013. Both sides go into tonight’s game on an upward trajectory following recent performances and fancy their respective chances of securing at least a place-off place.

However, qualification for one of Ireland or Scotland is likely to be secured at the other’s expense, meaning the career renaissance of both men could culminate this evening back at Celtic Park.

Strachan and O’Neill have taken similar paths to tonight’s game, but only one may have a happy return to Paradise.

Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?

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Originally published on The Guardian.

The Republic of Ireland teams that went to the World Cup finals in 1990, 1994 and 2002 were full of Premier League players. Why is the country no longer producing great footballers?

Upon arrival in cities, the first port of call for generations of Irish migrants, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

Some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.” The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, but the majority are now educated, skilled and employable. Irish migrants do not face the same hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

Playing in the Premier League represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers, as it does for millions of people around the world. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets it dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, north America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. The former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles writes in his autobiography about how he listened to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight years old, United were his favourite team and the captain, Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers looked to their neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful footballers in England. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United team, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. Last season the largest contingent of Irish players in the Premier League was at Hull City.

In the 2007-08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013-14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to the fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, but Irish football is clearly in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain, are ever dwindling and their career paths have been stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, and the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull City’s Shane Long, now of Southampton.

The paths taken by these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Republic of Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means of finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as the playing pools for England and Scotland continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long are also cases of accident rather than design. They come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams before moving to England as adults. Long was 18 when Reading signed him for a nominal fee; Coleman was 20 when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic, the transfers would have been considered low-risk transactions for the English clubs.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These players would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea, moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with the Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak picture for young Irish footballers. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new team-mates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make the first team of a top flight club, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home. Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5m – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done so in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However, football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over 200 clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However, it is strikingly obvious that, like in England, there are not enough coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 Uefa Pro licences, 183 holders of the A licence and 488 with the B licence. These qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than in Germany and Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who devote their time and effort admirably.

That said, there are also too many coaches who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a club in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant with a population of 200m, with so few creative, dynamic players in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

These players could materialise if Ireland had a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight and, of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the chief executive, has an annual salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing their debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom line is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those at the top the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings that allowed “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”.

The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

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Originally featured on Back Page Football.

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich.

He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.

THE FALL OF IRELAND’S ELITE FOOTBALLERS

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The decline in the number of Irish players in the Premier League is concerning for a nation now ranked 70th in the world.

Originally published on These Football Times 31/07/2014.

Upon arrival in cities, generations of Irish migrants’ first port of call, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

However some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. The experience of migrants encountering racism is by no means exclusive to the Irish and such discrimination is something that is largely resigned to the past.

Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, escaping unemployment rather than famine, but the majority are now greater educated, skilled and employable. In this global and largely more tolerant age, Irish migrants do not face the same level of hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

To play in the Premier League, as for millions all over the world, represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and, for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets, dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, North America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. Former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles in his autobiography recounts listening to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight-years-old, United was his favourite team, and the captain Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers have long plied their trade successfully in their Anglo neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to Belfast’s George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful and, for some, best footballers of their respective generations. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams (pictured, the Irish contingent at the Gunners in the 80s – O’Leary, Stapleton, Jennings, Nelson, Devine, Rice, Brady) of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. In 2014, the largest Irish Premier League contingent is at strugglers Hull City.

In the 2007/08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013/14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, however when you consider this development alongside other aspects, it becomes apparent that Irish football is in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain’s big leagues, is ever dwindling and the career progression paths stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, while the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull’s Shane Long.

The paths of these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent, who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means for finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as England and Scotland’s own playing pools continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long’s careers are another case of accident rather than design. Both come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary respectively. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams until moving to England as adults. Long was eighteen when Reading signed him for a nominal fee, Coleman aged twenty when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic to secure such moves, the transfers, from the English club’s perspective, would have been considered low-risk transactions.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These previously considered, more talented players, would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea. Moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak scenario for young Irish footballers, but also an unavoidable reality. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new teammates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make a top flight first team, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The export market is one of the key tenants of the Irish economy, in both boom and bust years. However the market for exporting football talent has significantly diminished. Therefore the current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home.

Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5 million – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done such in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over two hundred clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However it is strikingly obvious that, like England, there are not enough of these coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 UEFA Pro licences, 183 holders of the ‘A’ licence and 488 with the ‘B’ licence. A factor may be that these qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than Germany or Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who admirably dedicate their time and effort.

That said, there are also too many who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a team in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant and country of two hundred million people, without a creative, dynamic presence in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

It could be argued that these players would materialise through self-sufficiency involving a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight, and of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the Chief Executive, has a yearly salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing the association’s significant level of debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those atop the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings which allowed ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.