Perhaps the Jack Charlton era, during which Ireland reached the last eight of the World Cup, and defeated the might of both Italy and England in major tournaments, was a dream, and now we’ve woken up to the reality. Instead of reaching for the heights inhabited by Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany and France, we should now cut our cloth and be satisfied to rub shoulders with the likes of Scotland, Slovakia and Greece.
Except that Greece just happen to be the reigning European champions.
All this talk of a cycle of young players coming into the international squad, and of the manager needing more time to build a new team doesn’t really wash. By a mixture of cunning, good organisation, and competitive fire, Greece won the European title three years ago. They proved what is possible even with relatively limited resources.
Most of the current Ireland team perform in England’s Premier League which, for all its faults, is still one of the most prestigious leagues in world soccer. Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Steve Finnan, John O’Shea, Kevin Kilbane, Lee Carsley, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ireland, Stephen Hunt, and Damien Duff when he’s fit, are high achievers in England.
Keane, Duff, Given and Finnan have earned their reputations as leading professionals who would be candidates for places in many of the world’s top international teams, while Ireland and Doyle are emerging players who could well go on to have highly successful careers. The Irish should be better than Greece.
And even though Germany and the Czech Republic are in the same qualifying group for next year’s European Championship finals, the Irish should not be in the depressing position they find themselves today. With no hope of reaching those finals, last week’s game against Cyprus at Croke Park was played for pride, and pride alone. But as we’ve become to recognise, Ireland under manager Steve Staunton, are no longer a proud team.
Instead of making a statement of defiance, the Irish departed Croke Park to a chorus of boos. Saved by a late equaliser from Finnan, a 1-1 draw against the moderate Cypriots was almost certainly the last straw for Staunton. Betrayed by his under-motivated and over-paid players, and betrayed by his own chronic lack of coaching experience, Staunton was a dead man walking in the days after the game.
Typically, the captain Robbie Keane claimed that much of the negativity surrounding the manager and the team was the fault of the media. Whatever about the relevance of his comments, there was some speculation that some members of the press would have performed better against Cyprus than a few of Keane’s teammates.
Anyway, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), John Delaney, refused to back the manager, and then there were mutterings from a few players who admitted that things were looking bad for Staunton. The verdict in the corridors of power, and in the court of public opinion was that the coach and his team had been punching below their weight.
However, if the truth be told, no one knew if Staunton, fine player that he was, could punch at all as a coach. Delaney and the FAI took a massive gamble by giving their man a four-year contract, and they might as well have added the rider “No experience required” to the job description.
So, even if Staunton’s stewardship was baffling, and at times comical, this was an eminently decent soccer man made an offer he couldn’t refuse by the FAI. Yes, he was out of his depth, and by the time you read this, he will probably have been sacked with two years of his contract to run, but while he has been the butt of some sharp criticism, the FAI who hired him appears to be unaccountable for the decision.
How is that a bunch of businessmen, whose knowledge of what it takes to coach at international level is no greater than that of any 10-year-old kid, sits in judgement on who will cut it as the Ireland manager? Delaney said two years ago that the FAI would come up with a “world class” manager, and within weeks, Staunton, who had never even coached a pub team, was appointed to fill boots that had been previously occupied by the likes of Johnny Giles and Charlton.
While he has undoubtedly failed, think of the 5-2 defeat in Cyprus, the embarrassing 2-1 win over San Marino who are a pub team, and last week’s humiliation at Croke Park, Staunton will feel let down by his employers who repeatedly said he would keep the job until the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign in 2009.
If the FAI announces a trawl for a replacement, the administrators should now take a back seat and give someone of the stature of Liam Brady, a great international player and currently head of youth development at Arsenal, a free hand to make recommendations as to who should be approached.
The fear is that, as Staunton packs his bags, the FAI will make another solo run in its search for a successor. Delaney might be astute when it comes to improving the association’s balance sheet, but when it comes to the game at the elite level, he should call in the experts.
With one irrelevant match in the qualifying group against Wales remaining, Packie Bonner might now step in as caretaker manager. Meanwhile, the FAI has to attract an experienced candidate to the post. The supporters deserve at least that, and some of the players deserve at least that.
And no more talk of how we should lower our expectations. Greece dared to be ambitious, and so should Ireland.