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

Standard

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)

Advertisements

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

Standard

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

1

The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

Standard

What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

https://vine.co/v/MTeaHj123up/embed/postcard

9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

https://vine.co/v/MwgYQuh7nIZ/embed/postcard

6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League

A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

https://vine.co/v/MBpqrlKUWnz/embed/postcard

5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

https://vine.co/v/MtghFjrFzlI/embed/postcard

4. Steven Gerrard slips

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

https://vine.co/v/M6MtJ3gTePl/embed/postcard

3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

https://vine.co/v/Oqiadqj1hH6/embed/postcard

What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

https://vine.co/v/MFT6LgeP3ie/embed/postcard

The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.

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

Standard

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.

THE FALL OF IRELAND’S ELITE FOOTBALLERS

Standard

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’.

THE FETISHIZATION OF ENGLISH FOOTBALL

Standard

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?