What threw a spanner in the works was the Roy Keane row with manager Mick McCarthy and Ireland in the 2002 World Cup. While Keane has not been forgiven for his actions by many Irish fans, that unfortunate affair may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Irish soccer. The FAI got the wake-up call it needed.
Ultimately, it was a great embarrassment for the soccer authorities and it’s about time new proposals are in the works. FAI president Milo Corcoran chaired a committee called the implementation steering group after the FAI Genesis report. It didn’t take much gray matter to realize that something had to be done about soccer in Ireland after reviewing the World Cup episode. We are talking about things like the poor standard of the training ground for World Cup preparation in the summer of 2002.
So the FAI had no choice but to make changes and begin to get it right once and for all. Corcoran believes the association’s promise to the general public for change is being honored. “FAI is not standing still,” he said. Being regarded as public enemy No. 1 is something the FAI can certainly do without.
The association’s CEO Fran Rooney wants to “compete across every aspect of the football experience with the best on offer anywhere in the world.” For Rooney it’s all about maximizing the potential of the nation’s people, resources and brand values. That clearly spells the euro sign. Indeed a nice few euros was made due to the World Cup appearance and advancement into the second round. At the same time it’s logical that Rooney and FAI delegates should aim to be a world-class organization given Ireland’s arrival on the world stage.
The FAI is also coming across with its commitments to developing not only the international level and the Eircom league but also the women and youth levels. There is also increased expenditure for the teaching of coaches and indeed programs for all age groups throughout the country. The technical department is expected to become more professional as are the executive chiefs and volunteers.
In the meantime the FAI will be disappointed with the exit of Shamrock Rovers from the Intertoto Cup, beaten 4-0 by Slovan Liberec. The Czechs eventually settled down at Richmond Road to score two late goals bringing Rovers and the FAI down to earth. While the FAI are reaching for the stars making statements that they want to be a world-class outfit perhaps they should have waited to see how Eircom teams do in Europe.
Right now people are making lofty claims but Eircom teams still struggle on the continent. FAI need to set a date as to when their plan would like their plan to become a reality. For now the Intertoto Cup is history and hopes now rest in the UEFA Cup with Shelbourne vs. Olimpija and Derry vs. APOEL on Aug. 14 and 28. No Irish team has reached the second round of the UEFA Cup. But, today, all eyes will be on Bohemians vs. FC BATE Borisov, from the Belarus league, today in the UEFA Champions League.
If the FAI/Eircom league want to set a target date to begin their long road to becoming world class on and off the field there is no time like the present. But that’s a tall order as has been already proved in the Intertoto.
Of course, there’s always next year. And in next year’s UEFA Cup any team that makes it to the second round will be guaranteed four games against top opposition. The cup format is expected to have eight groups of five teams for second-phase games. And if you think the Champions League is a marathon, the top three sides in each group of the cup competition are joined by eight of the best losers from the CL. By then it’s the last 32 and that’s another six fixtures to win it outright. It really could be a while before we see an Irish side reach that level. However, should a team make it into the group phase such experience would only benefit Irish football ambitions.
Manager of league leaders Shelbourne Pat Fenlon said: “It’s good for clubs both financially and from a football point of view. Financially, it means you’re guaranteed two home gates if you get that far. And on the pitch, it gives the players and the managers a chance to test themselves against some of the best in Europe. It will be a great bonus for whoever finishes second in the league to be going into a competition with the same sort of format as Champions League.”
Meanwhile, Bohemians enter today’s CL game with much confidence after trouncing Waterford United 5-1 in the league. That means Waterford will have to make amends in their next game, which is against second-place Cork City. The southern fixture looks like the pick of the week but City must win to stop Shels extending a 7-point lead. For Shels it seems this week’s fixtures have fallen their way, as they are at home to UCD, a side that has only won one game in 13. The hype that the league is doing really well in its first year of summer football may have to be reviewed as Shels inch away from the pack. However, the Reds face a few Dublin derbies on the trot and the next few weeks could determine whether the league lives up to the competitive hype or becomes a two-horse race — Shels versus the rest of the league. The supporters and the FAI’s bosses will hope it’s not the latter.