Ireland end of year review: O’Neill and Keane need to step up or 2015 will be damp squib

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It always seems to be the way, but Irish football has more questions than answers as the year comes to an end

No, the ever dwindling number of Irish players at the game’s elite level is not main one –  that problem is present at the end of every calendar year.

As 2014 draws to a close, there are more immediate issues to address, and they centre on the stewardship of the national team.

Martin O’Neill, the decorated manager, and Roy Keane, the most high-profile assistant manager in the history of football, face a crucial year. If 2015 in any way mirrors this year, then the national team could be steering into the abyss.

The focus on numerous off-field events dwarfed the attention afforded to Ireland’s performances this year.

O’Neill and Keane were dubbed a ‘dream team’ when appointed in October 2013. In terms of profile and column inches, the two men have lived up to their billing. Yet has the Irish team really progressed from the final days of Giovanni Trapattoni? It’s still relatively early days but missing out on Euro 2016 is now a real possibility.

Keane is such a controversial and compelling figure there will be possibly never be a time when interest in his life wanes. It certainly hasn’t been boring, but so far there are few hard facts that suggest the assistant manager’s coaching input outweighs the attention his presence generates.

The players and O’Neill say Keane is a positive presence on the training ground and he very well may be.

Yet during his time as a television analyst, the Cork man rarely seemed concerned with the tactical aspects of the game and, when manager of Sunderland and Ipswich, he frequently delegated coaching duties to his staff.

Keane undoubtedly possesses vast football experience and knowledge, but it was never apparent that he was destined to be a coach. There has been talk amongst fans, and media outlets, that Keane is perhaps more suited to international management, citing his potential ability to inspire and extract performances due to his direct nature and charismatic presence.

However, even at the Irish team’s lowest point no one could ever validly claim they lacked motivation. The players need coaches to frame and harness their enthusiasm, to wed it with a cohesive tactical plan, designed to make the side greater than the sum of their parts. It remains to be seen if Keane can contribute to this. There was little sign of such during his time as assistant coach at Aston Villa.

Roy Keane is spoken to by an official 14/11/2014

What is in no doubt whatsoever though is Keane’s position as a lightning rod for attention. O’Neill, while at times appears tetchy at being constantly asked about his deputy, evidently feels it is worth the cost, possibly because it has distracted from some of the side’s failings.

The manager would no doubt immediately dispute this. Fans would have just cause to cite Ireland’s result against Germany – the most an Irish fan has had to celebrate in years – as evidence for O’Neill’s positive influence on the side.

However, Ireland’s performance in the Scotland loss points to a number of pressing concerns. The team is essentially in a mini-group with Poland and Scotland. Without being overly presumptuous, the mighty German machine will spark into life next year and bulldoze their way to Euro 2016.

Every team will defeat Gibraltar, and, barring an upset, Georgia. This leaves three teams fighting for two spots, one of which being a play-off place. Currently Ireland are trailing and appear the weakest.

Before October’s tie against Ireland, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan said he and his counterpart were ‘old-fashioned‘. Ireland’s tactics during the game seemed archaic. O’Neill opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters up front, dropping main goal threat Robbie Keane to the bench, and leaving Ireland’s midfield outnumbered.

Charlie Mulgrew was made to look like some highland Xavi as Ireland struggled to pick up the roaming Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney.

Granted the Irish team were weakened by the absence of their first-choice central midfield pairing, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, but all the more reason to start a third player in the position. It had seemed the only reason to play such a formation was to accommodate Robbie Keane, yet the game was the first time in 13 years he had failed to start a qualifier when he was available.

Ireland’s tactical frustrations were further compounded by the stunting of Seamus Coleman’s attacking outlet and, at the times, the team were reminiscent of the worst elements of the Trapattoni years.

Hitting long-balls, yet not backing them up with pressure from midfield, cautious and overworked, Ireland fatally switched off as Scotland scored a well-executed goal. There is an argument to be made such a moment is a reflection of the work carried out by the respective management teams. If so, Ireland’s came up short.

Anyone who has followed O’Neill’s career will be familiar with his exuberant touchline antics and ability to raise the performances of his sides.

He was touted as one the game’s brightest managers and had fantastic success with Celtic and Leicester City.

After returning to England his time with Aston Villa ended acrimoniously, before his career seemed to bottom out at Sunderland. The Germany result pointed to a potential managerial renaissance for O’Neill, but the Scotland game further emphasised the evidence present before he took the Ireland job. It seems as though the modern game has surpassed him.

Martin OÕNeill reacts in the closing stages 14/11/2014

A sea change occurred in football in 2008. Spain’s team of small, technically gifted players blazed a trail through the European Championship.

For years midfield had been deemed the land of the giants, physicality ruled as Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Roy Keane became the benchmark for the position.

Being a good footballer alone was not sufficient; players had to be lung-busting athletes. Spain broke the mould. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona swept all before them in 2009, winning a historic treble of titles, it was confirmed; a new phase in football had begun.

Managers and teams were forced to adapt or perish as the dominance of both sides continued over the next five years. The current world champions are a hybrid of the two styles, combining German physicality with Spanish technique.

From Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool, Southampton and Everton in the Premier League, to the national teams of Chile, Italy and Japan, the influence of Barcelona and Spain remains omnipresent throughout world football.

Teams can be viewed as either being influenced by this change, or a reaction against it and most managers operating at the elite level, including international football, have adapted. Even if it is at a most basic level of not allowing the team’s central midfield to be outnumbered in favour of a more physical presence up front.

However, judging by his final days with Sunderland, and Ireland’s display against Scotland, O’Neill seems rooted to the past. He still seemingly favours the traditional ‘British’ style of 4-4-2, laced with physicality and effort and designed to hit a big-man up top early. O’Neill was, after all, Emile Heskey’s manager for over six years of his career.

He approached the Scotland tie as though it was a traditional ‘British’ derby game and was tactically outwitted by Strachan. One could argue Ireland do not possess the players to play any other way. But they would probably say the same about Scotland. In a game of apparent equals, the Irish team were made to look distinctly the lesser of the two.

2015 will be the most pivotal year for the Irish national team in recent memory. There are crucial qualifiers against Poland and Scotland, as well as Germany and a high-profile friendly with England. The prize at stake is qualification for Euro 2016, which has been expanded to 24 teams, almost half of the teams in Europe.

If Ireland fail to qualify, it will surely be the lowest ebb of the Irish team. Even Keane’s presence will not be able to deflect from that.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

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THE FETISHIZATION OF ENGLISH FOOTBALL

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The problems facing English football have been well documented for almost two decades. But what about the fetishization of the national game and Premier League?

Originally published by These Football Times 17/07/2014.

There was one notable element absent from England’s exit from the World Cup: the tabloid scapegoat. Following exits from past tournaments, or failures to qualify, the popular press, either reflecting or attempting to dictate the popular consensus, have not been shy in anointing a fall-guy or focusing on a moment of misfortune.

David Beckham, in the most infamous case, was the ‘one silly boy’ among ‘ten brave lions’ in 1998. Phil Neville was pilloried for conceding a penalty-kick against Romania which led to England’s exit from Euro 2000. There was Steve McClaren, ‘the wally with the brolly’, and Fabio Capello, the dictatorial, overpaid foreigner. There was Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006, and even as far back as 1970, goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. However, following England’s exit at the World Cup group stage for first time since 1958, there is no serious outcry or, thankfully, digitised fusing of manager Roy Hodgson’s head with a root vegetable.

There are a number of reasons for this seemingly new measured departure. The notable decline of the popular press’s influence, eroded by social media, Luis Suárez hoarding the news cycle the day of England’s final game and the remainder of an engrossing tournament to digest. There has also been a general levelling of expectations to match with the perceived reality of the talent at England’s disposal.

However, in a slightly perverse manner, the lack of an obvious scapegoat is troubling for the Three Lion’s and their future fortunes. It means that there are possibly just too many shortcomings to shift focus on one singular moment, action or person.

English football is seemingly littered with contradictions. The World Cup campaign was deemed a failure, yet defeats to Italy and Uruguay is in line with England’s standard performance at international tournaments. When the Three Lions face a higher ranked team, it overwhelming ends in defeat. Players such as Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw were not first choice England players, but completed moves to Liverpool and Manchester United for £25 million and £34 million respectively upon returning home.

England was also widely considered to have a young squad and optimism remains for Hodgson’s team. However, the average age of the squad was 26, the ninth youngest in the tournament and older than quarter-finalists Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. The English Premier League is proclaimed by many to be the most exciting, and best, league in the world, yet just a third of the players are English.

Football is England’s national sport and crowd attendances at games are among the highest for professional sports leagues in the world. Meanwhile the numbers participating in sport continues to decline. With such polarising elements, it is no wonder that tabloids cannot find a scapegoat. As Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United and England midfielder recently said: “What’s the problem? Where do I start?”

The most immediate issues have been well documented upon England’s elimination from the World Cup. There has been focus on selection decisions, such as playing Wayne Rooney out of position, and the exclusion of Ashley Cole. The focus then extended to the talents of both Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suárez, England’s uncharacteristically porous defence compared to previous tournaments, and Roy Hodgson’s tactics.

Former England player Gary Lineker was among those critical of the England manager’s choices, stating: “The problem with this 4-2-3-1 is that it very quickly becomes a 4-4-2 or at least a 4-4-1-1 and we end up with flat lines and people getting between us.” There is undoubted merit in Lineker’s argument. The 2014 World Cup will be remembered for, among other things, the numerous tactical shifts by coaches, and the return to prominence of three central defenders.

England’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the default setting for the majority of teams at the 2010 World Cup, seems stale in comparison to the tactical tinkering of Netherland’s manager Louis van Gaal, the cohesive structure of Costa Rica or the exhilarating gumption of Chile’s 3-4-1-2.

Rio Ferdinand was also critical of Hodgson. The former England defender said the manager is: “…certainly no maverick, he doesn’t change matches with inspirational substitutions and I see little evidence of a collective buying into a master plan for England, if there even is one.” Whatever about the merits of the rest of Ferdinand’s view, the final five words of the excerpt are particularly telling.

Ferdinand’s admission further conveys that England’s woes do not begin and end with Hodgson. The manager may not have a master plan but apparently neither do the Football Association. Chairman Greg Dyke claimed the country can win the World Cup in 2022 and proposed forging a new league between the Conference and League Two. The proposed league, now seemingly unlikely to happen, was to consist of Premier League ‘B’ teams, acting as a gateway to the first team for young English players starved of action in the top flight.

The semi-final stage of the World Cup had twenty players who compete in the Premier League, just one less than the German Bundesliga. However, none of these players are English, while seventeen of those who ply their trade in the Bundesliga represent Germany. A picture begins to emerge when these factors are taken into account. It is surprising that those who seek scapegoats have not fixed their gaze on the Premier League.

That said, scapegoating or media witch-hunts are not to be welcomed as they are neither constructive nor attractive. Yet the lack of serious, sustained conjecture regarding the seemingly negative effect the league is having on the development of English players is perhaps evidence of which is of greater importance to many fans and elements of the media.

Paul Scholes does however pin a degree of blame for England’s failings on the Premier League, saying the division “is a cash cow and it’s hurting our national game”. Scholes also believes that it is the high number of foreign players within the league that is proving damaging to England’s international hopes. “We should limit the amount of foreign players allowed in each Premier League squad. Clubs will then only sign the best, and English talent gets priority for development.”

Scholes is not the first to propose a limit on foreign players and he won’t be the last. However, the English top flight would have been unquestionably weaker without the contributions of players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez. Is the problem that less distinguished foreign players hamper young English development? Or are there simply not enough good home-grown players?

This is seemingly something of a chicken and egg scenario, as there merit for both sides of the argument. However, it is an ultimately futile question, as a cap on foreign players will not happen and it is not in the league’s interests to introduce any measures to potentially alter their product. The Premier League may not be the cause of all the Three Lions’ problems, yet it is seemingly not the solution either.

The competition is undoubtedly exciting, full of compelling narratives featuring some of the world’s best players. However, it could be argued that the Premier League is not an English league, but rather a league based in England. It features elements synonymous with English football, such as open attacking games, packed stadiums and clubs steeped in tradition and history.

It is also a free market capitalist enterprise and, as a result, the Premier League operates primarily in pursuit of profit for its stakeholders. A competitive England team is simply not a concern for the league’s powerbrokers. That does not mean these same people do not wish the Three Lions to be successful, rather that they would not see it as their obligation. The league is broadcast worldwide and as such its participants reflect its audience and the freedom of labour and capital that is at the heart of free-market capitalism.

German philosopher Karl Marx’s theory of fetishism seems apt in relation to the Premier League and the national team. Marx wrote that objects or systems, such as commodities or money or the open market system, are created by people but eventually come to hold power over them. At this stage the needs of the fetishized system or object must be preserved over all concerns.

So if one was to argue that some of the billions sloshing around the coffers of the Premier League clubs could be used to more effectively foster young English players’ development, they would be missing the point. It is not about how much money these clubs have or how willing they are for English national team to be successful.

The more money that flows into Premier League clubs, the more it will be used to preserve the current system; a system where a squad player from a national team that crashes out of the World Cup in the first round is valued at £25 million. A system where domestic players represent 32% of top flight participants, where fans eagerly expect the next overseas star to drive their team to glory and agent fees total almost £100 million per year.

David Goldblatt, author and academic, recently noted: “Like the wider economy, English football will continue to excel at its peak as a globally orientated commercial venture, but for the world of the lower leagues and youth and grassroots football, out of which a successful national football culture is built, there is more penury to come.”

England was failing on the international stage long before the Premier League, billion pound broadcasting deals and the influx of foreign players. The league alone is not to blame for England’s early World Cup exit and will not be the sole cause of any future heartbreak. However, its needs now seemingly surpass all other concerns.

Scholes does not seem optimistic for the future of the English national team. Speaking about the FA Chairman’s claims that the Three Lions can win the World Cup in 2022, he said: “From what I’ve seen at this World Cup, we’ll be lucky to qualify. I fear England are going the way of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.”

Wales last qualified for an international tournament in 1958 and Northern Ireland the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Scotland, once regular participants on the international stage, last featured in 1998, while the Republic of Ireland, at Euro 2012, had a jilting experience. At the 2002 World Cup, Ireland recovered from the loss of their captain Roy Keane, outplayed Germany in a 1-1 group game before losing to Spain on penalties in the second round.

Ten years later, within the space of three months, Ireland lost 4-0 and 1-6 to Spain and Germany respectively. In the preceding decade the two European footballing superpowers had undoubtedly improved, yet Ireland had equally regressed. Irish football fans, the majority of whom support English teams, still enjoy the World Cup. The presence of so many recognisable Premier League players perhaps offers a degree of solace despite the national team’s absence from international tournaments. In ten years’ time will such a scenario appease English fans?

Roy’s reliance on Rooney could ruin England’s slim chances

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Originally published by Back Page Football 26/5/2014.

Wayne Rooney’s role, as in previous tournaments, could prove crucial to England’s chances at the World Cup in Brazil. England manager Roy Hodgson said last week that Rooney: ‘knows the eyes, certainly of England, if not the rest of the world, are going to be on him’.

However, this has been the case in previous World Cups and each time the Manchester United forward has failed to deliver. Would England be better served without their perceived talisman? And should Hodgson take heed the lessons from previous tournaments regarding Rooney’s likelihood to deliver on the game’s highest stage?

It could be argued that the different stages in Rooney’s career are linked to respective World Cups. In 2006 he was raw but immensely talented. ‘The White Pele’, despite carrying a metatarsal injury, was seen as the spark to ignite the so-called ‘Golden Generation’. Rooney featured in four games, failed to score and was sent off in England’s quarter final loss to Portugal.

However, the striker was largely given the benefit of the doubt. His dismissal was impetuous, and ultimately costly for his side, but he was young and not perceived to be at peak fitness during the tournament. While the memory of his performance at Euro 2004, where he scored four goals in four games, was still fresh in the public consciousness. His time to shine on the world football’s greatest stage would surely come.

Over the next four years, at club level, Rooney won three Premier Leagues, a Champion’s League title and, in the season leading up to the South Africa World Cup, had his most prolific season. Rooney, Scoring 34 goals in 44 games, became the focal point of United’s attack after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. No longer subjugating himself for the betterment of Ronaldo, Rooney was seemingly liberated to become the player many thought, or hoped, he would become. The spectre of injury again loomed prior to the World Cup, but Rooney was fit enough to start every game.

If the Rooney of the 2006 World Cup was talented and raw, but combustible and unrefined, 2010 Rooney represented the player at his peak. Or at least it should have. Rooney again failed to score, as England impotently exited in the second round to Germany. Isolated up front, physically, and, as it would later transpire, mentally out of sorts, the forward seemed unable to carry the burden of an expectant public and a jaded team.

Which leads to the current scenario facing Hodgson and England ahead of next month’s World Cup. Which Rooney will show up? How does England extract the maximum from Rooney? And is doing such automatically related to the fortunes of the side?

The United striker appears more focused and prepared than in previous tournaments, saying: ‘I feel good. I am settled at home with my family… I feel this is the really last big one that I feel will probably get the best out of me. I feel ready, fresh and as good as I can do to go into this tournament’. A sentiment that was echoed by Hodgson: ‘He knows what a good player he is… and he’ll do everything he can to make certain he brings out his best qualities’.

Rooney’s former United teammate, Paul Scholes said last week that: ‘to get the very best from Wayne in Rio, the manager needs to tell him: ‘Don’t bother running back. Stay centre-forward. That’s your job in my team’. However, that has not been Rooney’s role in the team. And when Rooney has played as the lone striker, particularly in 2010, he has cut a frustrated, forlorn figure, starved of service and lacking the tactical discipline to ‘stay centre-forward’.

The blistering form of Daniel Sturridge, for the majority of the Premier League season, means that Hodgson is likely to deploy Rooney in the No.10 role, behind the Liverpool striker and centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This is his position for United and the natural fit for his attacking skill set. When the team lose possession the player in Rooney’s position would be expected to put pressure on the opposition’s midfield schemer. However, Rooney has proven in the past to be unable to do this against top class opposition.

The basis of the breakdown in the relationship between Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson can be linked to the player’s inability to perform this tactically disciplined role. It has been well documented that the pair fell out after Rooney was dropped from the starting line-up of last season’s Champion’s League second-round exit to Real Madrid. While it was a shock at the time, Ferguson’s choice was justified when one considers the two games that perhaps most crucially shaped his decision; the tie’s first leg and the 2011 Champion’s League final against Barcelona.

In the 2011 final Rooney was set the task of pressing and tracking Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s deepest lying midfielder and initial instigator of their attacks. Rooney scored a wonderful goal to level the score, but never got close to the Busquets, who found his more offensively effective teammates time and time again.Barcelona won comfortably 3-1.

Ferguson, two years later, was therefore unwilling to deploy Rooney in the same role to subdue Madrid’s Xabi Alonso. With Robin Van Persie’s status as United’s lone striker firmly cemented, Rooney started the first leg, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, on the right side of midfield. His job, when Madrid had possession, was to provide cover for full-back Rafael. This proved unsuccessful as the Brazilian full-back had a night to forget. Madrid players targeted United’s right side, with their equalising goal coming from a cross Rooney failed to close down.

In the second-leg Rooney was replaced by Nani, who scored before being harshly sent off, while Danny Welbeck effectively stifled Alonso, Real Madrid’s dynamo. The entire tie turned when Welbeck was moved to the wing following Nani’s dismissal, Alonso now had the freedom to operate and Madrid quickly scored twice. In the game’s aftermath it emerged that Rooney was furious at being dropped, but Ferguson made a rational decision. He had a more prolific striker in Van Persie. And felt he could not rely on Rooney to perform a tactically disciplined role, in a game against high quality opposition, who are proficient in retaining the ball. What other choice, than dropping Rooney, had Ferguson got?

Hodgson faces a similar dilemma for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. England’s first game, against Italy in the jungle of Manaus, will prove decisive. Assuming Hodgson will play Sturridge in the central striker’s position, can Rooney be trusted to disrupt the majestic Andrea Pirlo? All evidence would suggest not.Rooney’s ability, when in possession of the ball, is not in question, despite not hitting the individual heights of his one-time rival Ronaldo. However, England will undoubtedly seed possession to Italy. The country’s chance of progression could be greater improved by dropping their talisman.

Paul Scholes suggested that the England management team lack the ‘balls’ to drop Rooney. While that may be the case, it is perhaps more likely that England, and many English fans, are still bound to the idea of the player they thought Wayne Rooney was going to become when he burst onto the international stage ten years ago. Yet it has become apparent that their idealised version of Rooney as a world-class, game changing, decisive operator, in the mould of Ronaldo or Messi, will not come to fruition. The England starting eleven would be collectively stronger for his absence.

However, this will not happen. Roy Hodgson is not Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney will once again carry the hopes of a nation into another campaign. Rationality would suggest this is adverse, but football fans tend not to deal in rationality. Rooney represents something more than just an elite footballer. He was, and for some still is, the embodiment of a nation’s hopes. ‘The White Pele’, the one to finally end the years of pain.

To fully concede defeat in him would be to admit the near misses, hard-luck stories and glorious failures were, in fact, due to a relative mediocrity at a game they invented. Rooney is still the great hope, but it’s the hope that kills you.