Hope For Irish Football – It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn

Hope For Irish Football – It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn

Irish Football faces an uncertain future after yet another failed qualifying campaign.

In fact, there has been little to celebrate for Irish football fans since Euro 2016, which is the best part of a decade behind us at this point.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the future of Irish football is all doom and gloom like the present moment. However, there may be better days ahead and a brighter future just around the corner thanks to the work of Stephen Kenny.

Irish Football At A Low Ebb

Irish Football on the surface is at a low place with the Republic of Ireland currently ranked 55th in the FIFA World Rankings. That is their lowest position since falling to 67th in October 2015 (and only three places above their lowest-ever position, 70th in June 2014).

Stephen Kenny’s tenure as the Republic of Ireland’s Senior International Manager is hanging by a thread. Despite demonstrating his best catlike nine-lives impression since taking the helm on the 4th of April 2020, it seems now that Kenny’s term is about to end following the conclusion of Ireland’s qualifying hopes via finishing top two in their qualifying group.

Kenny was done no favours when the team was handed a Euro 2024 qualifying group of France, The Netherlands, Greece and (respectfully to a much lesser extent) Gibraltar. 

It was always going to be a nigh-on impossible task to mount a genuine challenge for the top two places in the group when competing against two of the top ten-ranked nations in world football.

Following two abject performances against Greece, losing 2-1 back in June and more recently losing 0-2 at home, it seems like Kenny’s post is now untenable in the eyes of many Irish fans and more importantly in the eyes of the FAI’s decision makers.

The Stephen Kenny Era

Let’s not be revisionist about the original appointment of Stephen Kenny though. I’ve seen plenty of people describe the appointment as “tokenism”. That is certainly not the case, not even close.

Kenny received the role on merit for his work with Dundalk. He took a club from the brinks of financial ruin to one which trailblazed in Europe, broke glass ceilings and dominated the League of Ireland with four league titles in six seasons. That success landed him the role of Republic of Ireland U21 Manager.

During his short 17-month tenure with the Irish underage squad, Kenny blooded young talents like Dara O’Shea, Liam Scales, Jayson Molumby, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly. Those players have since become senior internationals among a plethora of others.

This work began in the U21 setup and continued into the senior squads where we now have one of the youngest International Squads in Europe. In my opinion, we have by extension one of the most promising squads in Europe. Stephen Kenny deserves plaudits for the role he has played in that.

A 29% will ultimately be the death of his job. However, the former Dundalk boss deserves credit for what he has brought to the national team. He has transitioned Ireland from a dreary, dull style of play (which I’ve seen for the entirety of my journey as an Irish supporter) to a more progressive positive outlook.

It should be noted that given the point we came from it was always going to be a long-term project and whoever replaces Kenny will be the beneficiary of his work. The narrative that he’s “destroying Irish Football” is so wide of the mark.

Lee Carsley The Favourite to Replace Kenny

Lee Carsley has appeared to be the “obvious” replacement for Kenny by the majority of Irish fans for some time. That tag is due to not only his status as a former senior Republic of Ireland international but also to his exploits as the England U21 Head Coach who won the UEFA Euro U21 this July.

Recent reports from John Fallon in the Irish Examiner suggest that Carsley is the favourite among the FAI to become the next Irish manager. Former Republic of Ireland internationals Mark Kennedy of Lincoln City and Damien Duff are liked within the FAI also.

Stephen Kenny’s departure looks set to be formalised after an FAI board meeting on November 28th following the next window of international fixtures.

Carsley’s Credentials For Ireland Job

Lee Carsley is a former Republic of Ireland senior international who represented the country 40 times across 11 years from 1997-2008.

Carsley commenced his coaching career with two stints as caretaker boss of Coventry City in 2012 and 2013 before being brought in by Brentford in 2014. During his time at Brentford, he worked with their Development Squad as well as taking over as interim boss at the club.

Carsley, who was highly thought of as a coach at Brentford, then moved to Man City where he spent a period working with their U18 Squad. Later he returned to his former club Birmingham where he worked with the U23s and again took charge for a brief period as caretaker manager.

Carsley then had a period outside immediate management before taking the England U20 job in 2020 and later progressing to the U21 job in 2021.

The former Republic of Ireland midfielder has gathered great acclaim for how he’s coached the England U21 side to play progressive attacking football (not dissimilar to what Stephen Kenny did with the Ireland U21s).

As mentioned earlier, the highlight of his managerial career came this July when he guided England to a tournament victory.

Carsley Appointment A Leap of Faith For The FAI?

Part of me wonders whether he is just a less qualified Kenny, working exclusively as a Youth Coach since retiring from playing in 2011. This is aside from a total of 24 senior games across Coventry, Brentford and most recently as caretaker manager of Birmingham City back in October 2017.

It makes me question whether Carsley is the right man for the job. Although from the names touted for the role, Steve Bruce, Neil Lennon, Sam Allardyce and Roy Keane, Carsley is by far and away the outstanding candidate. That is even if I still dream of an Ole Gunnar Solskjær appointment.

Defining Success For An Irish Manager

How successful should an Irish Manager even be? Success could be bluntly described as trophies won and if that’s the case then no manager in our history can be considered “successful” and few managers in history.

Mind you, I know that is a far too arbitrary way of viewing things. Kenny’s term with Ireland is about to end but that is the nature of competitive football. Some coaches are gone after 17 games (Steve Staunton), and other coaches are gone after 93 games (Jack Charlton), but all managerial roles are destined to end at some point.

Our association needs to make moves now one way or another (and I hope it’s already happening). Draw up a budget and a potential candidate last and act accordingly.

It should be noted that while Kenny is paid a substantial salary, €205,000 in 2019, €300,000 in 2020 and €540,000 in 2021, that salary pales in comparison with previous managers. Given that the FAI is running a substantially tighter ship now than ever before, that has to be considered when selecting Kenny’s replacement.

During my 25-year lifetime, Ireland has only qualified for three international tournaments: the 2002 World Cup (which I don’t remember), Euro 2012 under Trapattoni (which was a mitigated disaster), and a Euro 2016 Round of 16 finish under Martin O’Neill (which went relatively well despite how the term ended).

Richard Dunne with Republic of Ireland Manager Giovanni Trappatoni at training in 2012 BSI

The idea that we have a God-given right to consistently qualify for major international tournaments despite years of underinvestment in football and decades of financial mismanagement is laughable.

Euro 2028 ‘Co-Hosts’

Ireland and the UK were announced as co-hosts for Euro 2028 this October. It is estimated that the tournament will benefit our economy to the tune of €240 million, with Irish Football receiving €25 million of that total.

This level of investment into football in Ireland is paltry, especially when considering the FAI requested earlier this year that the government ringfence €1 billion in state aid paid as €100 million yearly over a decade to improve the sport’s infrastructure. Despite this request, in Budget 2024 no funding was raised for Arts, Culture, Media, Sport & an Gaeltacht.

Compare that with Kosovo, which is set to host the Mediterranean Games in 2030 (a country with a much smaller economy and population). Their government has committed €250 million across 24 projects for 2030.

Since the announcement, there have been politicians boasting about “world-class” facilities, but that certainly isn’t the case. Maybe if we decided to selectively cherry-pick stadia across “rival” associations and ignore different regulatory requirements, but I don’t think that is fair.

I think that our country’s relationship across national sporting associations, namely the FAI, the GAA and the IRFU, leaves a lot to be desired, although that’s an issue for another day.

Aside from the Aviva Stadium, Ireland’s football facilities are best represented by our League of Ireland stadia, which certainly aren’t “world-class”.

League of Ireland Woes

The League of Ireland is a league which I’ve started to follow obsessively in recent seasons following years of caring more about Manchester United and the Premier League (that love remains).

That has brought me to this realisation, if Irish Football and our national team are to grow and improve in the coming seasons, we Irish fans need to take more of a proactive role. That starts with the League of Ireland.

The “European Club Talent and Competition Landscape report” for 2022/23 was released recently. It showed that there are positive signs for the League of Ireland albeit nuanced with some negatives.

Attendances have risen 27% in the league, so much so that sellouts are common. However, the absence of proper facilities means we can’t even profit from that demand.

The league is getting younger with our league second for U23 minutes played. Younger players mean we’re developing players at a younger level (where they can be contracted cheaper) with assets rising in price.

Unfortunately, due to the financial system in our leagues, even if said assets are developing and rising in value, clubs in this country can’t greatly profit from this work.

Per Paul O’Hehir in the Irish Mirror in January, our three main professional/semi-pro leagues, the Premier Division, First Division and LOI Women’s Premier Division, are funded to the tune of roughly €700,000. For perspective, Bohemians and St Kevin’s Boys are both reportedly set to pocket millions if/when Evan Ferguson is sold by Brighton.

There is a clear lack of funding in our domestic game. Evidence of that can be seen in the 2023/24 UEFA Club Competitions Revenue Distribution System where the Republic of Ireland ranks 45th out of 54 nations.

Irish Football’s Entitlement Issue

From my obsessive following of Irish football, I have noticed that there is a success entitlement embedded in our Irish footballing culture.

The belief is that Ireland should hockey these so-called “lesser nations”. The likes of Latvia, Luxembourg and Kosovo. However, when you look at what these “minnows” invest in football compared to us then you begin to understand why it doesn’t play out that way.

The belief that we should be qualifying for every international tournament is certainly wide of the mark. We’ve only qualified for international tournaments on three occasions in the last quarter of a century.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore our little nation and have been a passionate Irish supporter glued to every game no matter how much heartbreak they have given me since childhood. I would defend our nation with every last breath.

In our darkest hours, a 5-2 beating by Cyprus, a 2-1-win vs San Marino or a Thierry Henry handball and more recently a disastrous showing against the Greeks, I have always believed our national side is capable of great things. That has to be the mentality.

Richard Dunne and Thierry Henry after Handball in 2010 World Cup Play-Off BSI

Dare To Dream – When An Effective Strategy Is In Place

Look at what Denmark achieved in Euro 1992, what Greece achieved in winning Euro 2004 and what Wales and Iceland did at Euro 2016. So why not Ireland? But that requires investment and a proper footballing plan. Otherwise, we are destined to fail again and again.

I believe that there are two ways for a country to succeed and develop players in any given sport.

1. You have a sporting culture so strong that it precedes everything about a country. With that, you can potentially bypass an absence of facilities like with football in Brazil and to a lesser extent, Rugby Union in New Zealand (in terms of culture not facilities).

2. Or, like in the UK (along with population effects of course) where you have such consistent coaching and academy structures present in a country that you’re bound to develop world-class footballers. For example, people condemn Ireland’s use of the “Granny Rule”.

The reality is that someone born on the island of Ireland is not inherently worse at football than someone born in the UK. The only difference is the education and facilities present across the two jurisdictions.

Better Days Ahead?

For all the negatives, there are things to be positive about in Irish Football. The growth of the League of Ireland, the performances and growth of our Senior National Women’s Team, reducing the debt along with others.

Our national team has started their journey as a young, vibrant attacking side under Stephen Kenny. And for all Kenny’s faults, failings and missed opportunities, Irish Football will be all the better in the long term for having had him involved. That I am certain of.

If you look at the best-run footballing institutions today, the likes of Brighton and Brentford, what’s key to success is not just having a plan, but also consolidating the plan. That’s why we must continue the vision of Stephen Kenny with an appointment like Lee Carsley rather than opting for one of the other big names being mentioned.

There are egos at the top level across all major sporting institutions in this country. I’d love some cross-association partnership between the codes, where we can have our facilities used to their maximum benefit for progress in all sports. Begrudge the GAA all you like but they run an excellent ship most of the time.

We can malign the “underperformance” of the Irish Rugby Team after another Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final elimination, but they are still one of the top teams in the sport.

The government has a role to play in this. They are responsible for funding said associations. I feel that if they threatened to pull funding to associations if they didn’t cooperate then they’d learn to work together fast.

For those who have read the story Of Mice and Men, the story concludes with George saving his best friend Lenny from a painful death from a mob by killing him first after reciting their shared dream of owning a farm one final time.

I believe Stephen Kenny will receive said proverbial mercy killing come next month when he will likely be put out of his misery to end his tenure as Irish manager.

He deserves tremendous credit for when the work he commenced comes good. Maybe it will be under Carsley, but it will come, I’m certain of that.

Here come the good times…

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