Sport

Brendan Crossan: New Republic of Ireland manager has a mountain to climb - and then some

Lack of talent starting to reveal itself...

Lee Carsley hailed his side’s display (Joe Giddens/PA)
Lee Carsley hailed his side’s display (Joe Giddens/PA) Lee Carsley has been touted as Ireland's next manager

AFTER sifting through the candidates for the Republic of Ireland managerial vacancy, it looks increasingly likely that Lee Carsley will be in post for the March friendlies with Belgium and Switzerland.

In recent days, Roy Keane made some noises about the appeal the job would hold – but with each passing season and seemingly enjoying the punditry world, the further away football management becomes for him.

Given his coaching experiences and working in the pressure-cooker of Celtic Football Club a couple of times, Neil Lennon would be a fair shout too.

Having covered the Ireland senior team since 2001 and following the rise and fall of seven managerial teams in that time, it’s hard to get excited about the FAI’s next appointment because whoever takes over they have a mountain to climb to even get near qualifying for another major tournament again.

Over the last two decades or more we’ve witnessed the interminable decline of Irish football.

When I joined the Republic of Ireland press pack in 2001, Mick McCarthy was on the crest of a wave.

He was still learning on the job and had good quality in his squad to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.

Being quite new to the Ireland gig at the time, more seasoned reporters regularly regaled me on the halcyon days when they’d share a pint with big Jack, Ray Houghton and co, and how they enjoyed one-to-one access with the Irish players.

That meaningful access had sadly been replaced by top table press conferences, generally drab quotes and very little insight.

Nevertheless, little did we all know that we were still living in the halcyon days.

With the 2002 World Cup finals a wide open tournament, who knows how much further the Irish team would have got if Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy hadn’t fallen out.

A quarter-final? A semi-final maybe? A final?

That kind of lofty prospect is unthinkable nowadays as Irish fans are set to enjoy a third major tournament in a row this summer from the comfort of their armchairs and bar stools.

Even when Brian Kerr took over from McCarthy, the Irish still had more than a puncher’s chance of reaching another major finals.

Even though he didn’t play his best football under his former underage manager, Robbie Keane was still in his prime and still a major goal-scoring threat to any defence in Europe.

At one point, Kerr compared Damien Duff’s wing wizardry to the great George Best.

Ireland v Cameroon at the 2002 Fifa World Cup
Damien Duff was at his peak in the early to mid-Noughties (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA) (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Archive/PA Images)

It might sound a bit ridiculous now - but Duff was truly outstanding in the early ‘Noughties’ for Ireland and carried his great form in the Far East through to the ill-fated Euro 2004 qualification campaign.

But once that generation began to age and was ushered into retirement, the conveyor-belt of talent coming through Ireland’s youth structures was thinning.

And that was the problem with Irish football and which epitomised the John Delaney reign.

One major tournament appearance could always make up for a multitude of sins and paper over the cracks of a domestic and national underage scene that was rotting.

Still, the FAI hit the jackpot and qualified for two consecutive European Championships in a row - 2012 and 2016.

A couple of injuries to key personnel during Euro 2012 showed how brittle Ireland’s challenge actually was in the end, as they crashed and burned to Croatia, Spain and Italy - nations that were specks in the distance.

Martin O’Neill squeezed one last major tournament out of Ireland’s thinning resources and gave us a night-and-a-half in Lille and an awesome afternoon in Lyon.

For 23 years I’ve battered numerous lap-tops and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of all of Ireland’s managers.

What I’ve noticed over the years too is that managerial tenures are often treated more kindly and definitely with more balance through the passage of time.

Back in 2005, the self-appointed bluebloods of Irish football - usually ex-pros that looked down their noses at people like Brian Kerr - insisted Ireland could do much better than a blue-collared coach from Drimnagh.

Delaney, as it transpired, delivered Steve Staunton. A roll of the dice that failed miserably.

Ask most observers now and they’ll tell you that Kerr merited another crack at a major tournament.

With a glut of journeymen, O’Neill got to the 2018 World Cup play-offs before Christian Eriksen got him the sack.

When Mick McCarthy returned to the post for a second stint, he couldn’t believe the lack of playing resources - to the point where he recalled veteran Glenn Whelan to play midfield.

The point of this potted history is that at each juncture - or managerial change, for want of a better phrase - Ireland were increasingly looking like a busted flush on the international stage.

When Stephen Kenny came in, the Irish international team was at an all-time low. Throw in a global pandemic and the subsequent absenteeism and his job to win games became much tougher.

Towards the end of his tenure, the Dubliner was ravaged by so many. Each lofty pronouncement was thrown back in his face.

It didn’t really matter which formation he chose; the biggest problem was that he had to pick players, many of whom couldn’t get a game for their clubs.

A couple of injuries and the squad was threadbare. Kenny wanted to change the face of Irish football but he was also tasked with building a squad from scratch.

But you need tools for a successful revolution - and Kenny simply didn’t have them.

All he could really do was try and build a squad for the future.

Having notions on qualifying for major tournaments were never realistic - but, like the conviction of a bible-thumper - many ex-pros insisted that it should always be possible.

There was clearly a gap in understanding of where Irish football was.

Nevertheless, Kenny has left some decent foundations for Lee Carsley - should the 40-times capped former Ireland midfielder land the job.

He has built the best possible squad with a lot of current players now sitting between 15 and 25 international caps.

Whether the next manager can make this Irish squad greater than the sum of its parts is the six-million-dollar question.

What’s absolutely clear is that one senior managerial appointment can’t magic away the generational neglect of the domestic game and youth structures.

History will, however, be kind to Stephen Kenny and indeed the next couple of Ireland managers who are faced with trying to turn water into wine.

The FAI has confirmed that Stephen Kenny's contract with the Republic of Ireland will not be renewed. Picture by PA
The FAI has confirmed that Stephen Kenny's contract with the Republic of Ireland will not be renewed. Picture by PA Stephen Kenny faced an impossible task as Ireland manager