A decade on from taking charge and the chief executive is still playing clever politics while Irish soccer continues to rot, writes Ewan MacKenna
It’s easy to criticise. It’s easier still when there’s so much to criticise.
In December, it’ll be 10 years since John Delaney took over at the FAI. Today, his elite side head into another qualifying meander, starting out with possibly less interest than any campaign since he grabbed the reins and probably less talent than any campaign since the early ’70s. And it’s worth noting that what talent we do have is chance rather than a system that works. Seamus Coleman progressed outside it while James McCarthy, James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Darron Gibson progressed outside our jurisdiction. Take those away and you see the quality we’re belching out.
Yet today’s also the day a documentary comes out about the chief executive’s time in office and from the quotes, you’d be forgiven for thinking all is well. Denis O’Brien says, “John Delaney could run Uefa easily; he could run Fifa as far as I’m concerned”. But best wash the dishes in the sink before heading out to conquer the world. Worse still, it’s called ‘John the Baptist’. Jesus wept etc. All in all it seems critical judgement is traded for access and that’s a great pity because as writer Declan Lynch put it, this is the “the dysfunctional football association that other dysfunctional football associations regard as the galacticos”.
In 2010, shortly after being appointed International Performance Director – a role Delaney described as amongst the most significant moves in the history of Irish soccer – Wim Koevermans went to a meeting of the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland to discuss the recommendations from an underage review. Yet when one person noted, “They’re the kind of the things the Spanish and Germans have been doing for years,” a senior SFAI figure retorted, “What the f**k would they know about Irish football?” Koevermans quit soon after and headed for India.
This is what we’re dealing with and to an extent what Delaney is dealing with. Indeed, two years earlier when the chief executive gave a clear mandate to introduce a pyramid structure within Irish soccer, the first comment at the in-camera meeting was, “Why bother? It’s a political nightmare.” It’s so bad that the FAI doesn’t even have full control over improving the grassroots of the game given the presence of the SFAI. But Delaney is there to lead, not play so much politics, and while he’ll tell you change has to be slow, as of now too much is stagnant.
There’s no better person to rap off figures about the quantity of players since he took charge, but part of the remit is quality and there’s never a mention of these figures. Across the five under-17 and five under-20 World Cups under his watch, we’ve never been near qualifying. In the 10 European Under-17 Championships we’ve made the finals once, just like Iceland and Georgia. In the 10 European Under-19 Championships, there was a solo exception, just like Armenia and Georgia. In the six European Under-21 qualifying campaigns we’ve won 10 of 43 games and exited early each time.
You’d think someone in the FAI would see the neon signs flashing. Liam Brady fresh from Arsenal’s youth development programme called it as did Brendan Rodgers fresh from last year’s near miss with Liverpool. Those within the game will tell you it’s in trouble as some English scouts don’t even come this way anymore. But it’s ignored, as at last year’s AGM we got Delaney appearing 58 times in a promotional video while player development was barely mentioned.
We’ve a relatively new stadium, but that’s like putting down new carpets while there’s a hole in the roof. Youth structures had to come first as build it and they won’t necessarily come to watch dross. On Delaney’s money (he’s taken a pay cut since but after appearing worse for wear and shoeless after Euro 2012 and with the sports editor of The Guardian describing him a clown, he was on €400,000 a year – more than his Italian and Spanish counterparts combined), the buck stops with him.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but we’ve just excuses. We even blame the Premier League being overrun with other nationalities when you should put your best system in place to maximise your advantages before you worry about hurdles. Scientifically yet simply, it’s what Belgium did in 2000 yet when this was mentioned at an FAI meeting, the response was, “Ah, that’s immigration”. Uruguay started their revolution later still, cash-strapped and our size, but it’s now so successful Scotland sent a delegation. All the while we plod on with the tried but failed as one university study indicated that, between the crucial formative ages of six and 16, central European players get an average of 14 times more touches a game than those from Ireland.
It’s why our underage performances are so bad. It’s why we’ll have just a single player in this season’s Champions League. It’s why in Delaney’s time as boss, in 55 competitive games, we’ve won just 22 against the Faroes, Cyprus, San Marino, Wales, Slovakia, Georgia, Armenia, Andorra, Macedonia, Estonia and Kazakhstan. It’s why we sank to an all-time low of 70 in the world rankings last month and, in Oman, played a team just one place behind us in front of 14,376. It’s why the average ranking of teams we’ve beaten in last two years is 109. It’s why Shay Given is back. It’s why we’re asking worse and worse English players to join and more and more are told no thanks.
Back at the tail end of the World Cup, while visiting the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, Martin O’Neill got a cable car over one such favela and admitted to a fear of heights. Bur he’s in the right job because working for this association it’s never a long way down when you’re close to rock bottom.
7 September, 2014
Sunday Business Post