- Lifestyle & Sports
- 25 Nov 18
The moves had been well choreographed, and so the shape of the new Ireland management set-up came as no surprise when it was announced at a press conference in the Aviva Stadium today. And tomorrow, Stephen Kenny's role as manager of the Ireland Under-21 side will also be confirmed…
Mick McCarthy is the new manager of Ireland. It could be described as a fairytale return to a job that he did in the past and loved. Except that they probably don’t do fairytales in Barnsley, where Mick was born 59 years ago.
The announcement today came as no surprise. When the resign of Martin O’Neill and his assistant, Roy Keane, thankfully came to an abrupt end last week, McCarthy’s name was the first on everyone’s lips. He had done the job once before, and enjoyed considerable success too, taking Ireland to the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea in 2002 – and subsequently getting to the knock-out stages there. Indeed, as anyone who lived through that spell-binding moment will confirm, Ireland performed superbly against Spain in the round of 16, securing a 1-1 draw, before being beaten 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out.
But, of course, that remarkable performance had been preceded by the Saipan disaster, which saw Roy Keane leave the Irish camp, in a fit of self-righteousness that many afterwards found it hard to forgive. That it cast a shadow over Mick McCarthy’s tenure is certain – and after a slow start to the Euro 2004 campaign he was ousted.
Since then, Mick has had stints as manager of Sunderland (2003-2006), Wolverhampton Wanderers (2006-2012) and Ipswich Town (2012-2018). During that time, he achieved promotion with Sunderland and Wolves, and twice successfully avoided relegation with the latter, despite the total absence of the kind of finances required to secure a Premiership place for the longer term. In general, McCarthy's managerial excursions in the English game have been hampered by a lack of investment, so that he was forced in effect to work hand to mouth. His stint at Ipswich Town ended earlier this year when the team were mid-table; they are now mired at the bottom of the Championship, with his replacement Paul Hurst having been sacked.
Mick McCarthy's long-time second in command, Terry Connor, will take up the same role with Ireland. However, Ireland’s all-time top scorer, Robbie Keane, adds a bit of glamour to the ticket, also taking on the role of Assistant Manager in the new set-up.
Of equal intrigue is the fact that Mick McCarthy’s contract lasts less than two years, with Stephen Kenny being named as the heir apparent to the Irish managerial throne. Kenny, who has had an unprecedented level of success with Dundalk, in both the domestic game and in European football, had been the preferred choice of many who follow the League of Ireland, to take up the managerial role. However, he has now agreed to become manager of the Under-21 side – and has been anointed as Mick McCarthy’s successor-in-waiting.
That move has predictably been attacked by people who like to wear their support for local soccer as prominently as possible on their sleeves. However, if it works, it may well be seen in the long-term as a turning point for Irish football.
I am not surprised that there were calls for Stephen Kenny to be appointed, Hot Press editor Niall Stokes writes. He has done a fantastic job with Dundalk and it would surely be intriguing to see how he would cope if he were thrust straight into the top job.
I have a huge amount of faith in his intelligence and his ability. And he gets his teams playing good possession-based, passing football, in effect confirming that the familiar shibboleth touted by both Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill, about Irish footballers not being good enough – or not being technical enough – is a load of malarkey.
Stephen's standing in the domestic game is hard-earned and totally deserved. I know how attractive the thought is too, of an Irish footballing Messiah, arriving straight out of the League of Ireland. In many ways, you can argue that Kenny has proven himself at least the equal of, and probably as more qualified than, Michael O’Neill – and the former Shamrock Rovers manager has made a success of the job of managing Northern Ireland.
But there are imponderables. And they are significant enough for anyone who is trying to chart a better way forward to consider carefully. The first, and most selfish concern is: if it didn’t work out, where would that leave Irish football? But there is a related question: where, also, would it leave Stephen Kenny? Which begs an additional question: would it be the right thing for him right now to have the chalice handed to him when things are at such a low ebb?
We will never know now what the answer to that question might have been. But it is a question that had to be asked, and it would be foolish to think otherwise.
In the context, no matter what people think of the FAI, and the way that CEO John Delaney runs it, the plan that has been hatched does offer the possibility of getting the best of both worlds. Mick McCarthy has done the job of managing Ireland before, and knows what is required. He is really up for it. He will desperately want to succeed, and will work extremely hard to do so. He has also seen a lot of the better players available to Ireland in close-up in the Championship in recent years. He knows exactly what he is getting into, and how those players might be shaped into a viable unit that will go out and die for Ireland if necessary. Well, metaphorically speaking...
There is a longer-term, and more important, battle to be fought, in terms of shaping the future of the game in Ireland. But there is no point in denying the imperative to do everything in our power to reach the Euro '20 finals. Which is why looking to Mick McCarthy may make as lot of sense.
And making Stephen Kenny manager of the Under-21s does too.
There, he will have the opportunity to work with a new batch of talented young players, who will be crucial to the future of the Irish team. He will also be in a position to work with and to observe Mick McCarthy, and to get to know the players who are currently part of the senior international set-up.
Sure, there is potential for complications if Mick McCarthy has an outstandingly successful Euro campaign. But, if that does turn out to be the case, the appointment will have worked. And if it doesn’t, well, the future development of Irish football may have been stalled by 18 months. But – unless something goes horribly awry in his handling of the Under-21s – Stephen Kenny will undoubtedly be even better placed than he is now to take up the mantle.
I know that a cynical response is inevitable. That this is an ass-covering exercise. That if John Delaney had any courage, he’d have made Stephen Kenny manager. That there is a touch of the cute hoor involved. That instead of putting his faith in Stephen Kenny, he has tried to buy off the predictable criticism, holding out the prospect of a dappled future to people without having to screw his courage to the sticking post. That it is typical of the lack of respect shown by the FAI to the League of Ireland. And so on.
Maybe. Then again, it is a plan that just might work. Mick McCarthy is an experienced campaigner. He is good at the job. He knows how to get the best out of squads lacking anyone of Messi-like brilliance. Unlike the impression given by the management team he is replacing, he will use every once of energy to ensure that we always have the best possible squad available to us. He will work his ass off to bring young players on board. He will avoid unnecessary bust-ups of the kind that have riven the Irish camp in recent times. And he will, I think, have the respect and the admiration of most, if not all, of the Irish players. And those, he can win around...
I think he will do a good job. I also suspect that, if everything does go according to plan, Stephen Kenny will take over as manager of the Irish team in 2020 from a position of real strength.
Vitriol is cheap. And no one who is currently in the business of pouring scorn on what has been decided is ever going to have to stand over the consequences that might flow from their views being put into effect.
So let us suspend judgement. The preparation for Euro 2020 begins in earnest now. I have always believed that international football is first and foremost about organisation. About attention to detail. About good player-management. About building team morale. About everyone knowing what they are supposed to do. About getting the best of the players at your disposal.
Rather than carping stupidly, let us wish Mick McCarthy well in that endeavour. And let us even more fervently wish Stephen Kenny well in his role as manager of the Ireland Under 21s. Everyone who loves Irish football will be rooting for him. He is at the beginning of what may prove to be the footballing adventure of his life.
I believe he can achieve great things. And in the meantime, let's hope that Mick McCarthy can too. Here’s to it...
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