Ireland: Oh My God, They’ve Appointed Kenny

by | Dec 5, 2018

I was drunk when I thought I must have misheard the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) plans to replace the Martin O’Neill/Roy Keane dream/nightmare national management team.

I was midway through my Irish cousin’s wedding weekend and would have been dad-dancing to a ludicrous AC/DC techno mix but for some timely, if severe, tendonitis. Yet when I sobered up, days later, it transpired that, yes, the FAI really had done… that.

The (London) Times (Irish edition) happily paraphrased the London bus joke (“after waiting for a new manager to arrive, two came at once”) to describe the FAI’s appointment of former boss Mick McCarthy for the duration of Ireland’s Euro 2020 interest, at which point Stephen Kenny, current boss of perennial League of Ireland (LoI) champions Dundalk, will take over.

The decision was approximately one Uefa Nations League campaign late. And unusual. But welcome, as much for the fact of it as the substance of it. O’Neill had long since run out of ideas. This ultimately amounted to ditto marks under predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni’s turgid reign plus one comically fortunate win over Germany and a late win over Italy reserves, which helped Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals and their knock-out stages respectively. While Roy Keane… Well, three dots over-states his visible contribution.

There were calls for Kenny to take over immediately, after leading Dundalk to four league titles in five years and making far louder noises in Europe than LoI sides should. A number of Irish clubs have been helped to eye-catching results by the LoI’s transfer to summer football in 2003, which brought them to mid-season peak fitness when facing teams still in their pre-seasons. But that only part-accounts for Kenny’s record against better-known, better-resourced sides (Zenit St. Petersburg were 145 times better-resourced when only beating Dundalk 4-2 on aggregate in 2016’s Europa League).

The Lilywhites’ run to the 2016/17 Champions League play-offs included a 3-0 home thumping of group stage regulars and perennial Belarusian champions BATE Borisov, before requiring Poland’s Legia Warsaw to score late to avoid home defeat and clinch a 3-1 aggregate victory. Yet appointing the architect of these performances immediately was apparently too much for the FAI to contemplate. Ergo McCarthy for a bit, while Kenny becomes Ireland under-21 boss.

This move seems almost innovative. Kenny would get to know the Irish players coming through the ranks and make informed judgments on their suitability for senior selection. But it says something that some consider it muddled thinking, especially given the perceived contrast in ‘style’ between McCarthy and Kenny. And that ‘something’ is being said particularly about the FAI’s long-serving Chief Executive John Delaney, whose Wikipedia page declares him “known for” being “Dictator” of the FAI, an amendment for whom the list of suspects is electoral-roll length.

Delaney first came to fame in 2002, when Roy Keane was belly-aching about Ireland’s (McCarthy’s) World Cup finals’ shoddy preparation, during a post-season, pre-tournament rehabilitation (ho-ho) training camp on the pacific island of Saipan. Delaney was then merely FAI treasurer. But Keane, having decided that McCarthy was, inter alia, a “f***ing w****r” who could “stick the World Cup up your arse” and stick an undefined “it” up “your b****ks,” lambasted Delaney for not having “the decency to phone me” after the combative Corkman was sent home.

And his popularity has been in inverse proportion to his length of tenure and height of salary as CEO. Even when appearing to do the ‘right thing,’ the truth was more nuanced. Of course, alongside disgraced gnomic Swiss former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, even Delaney could comfortably be the ‘voice of reason.’ And he seemed just that in refusing Fifa’s/Blatter’s offer to bestow a ‘fair play’ award on Ireland after Thierry Henry’s infamous handball denied them a penalty shoot-out in the 2010 World Cup qualification play-off in Paris in November 2009.

Delaney echoed the thoughts of a planet in calling Blatter’s behaviour “an embarrassment to himself and an embarrassment to Fifa” when Blatter publicly mocked their suggestion that Ireland be a “33rd team” at the 2010 finals in South Africa (he was reportedly more linguistically Keane-esque to Blatter privately). Admittedly, it was a mockable suggestion. Ireland were only denied a play-off penalty shoot-out by Henry’s cheating, not qualification itself. But that didn’t excuse Blatter’s behaviour. And the FAI threatened legal action over the whole affair.

In January 2010, the FAI were persuaded to un-pursue such remedies by a €5m ‘loan’ from Fifa, repayable out of FAI proceeds from 2014 World Cup qualification. The loan was written off, despite . Ireland comfortably failing to qualify. However, news of ALL this only emerged in June 2015, at the height of Fifa’s infamous governance crises, after Delaney revealed all in an interview with Ireland’s national RTE Radio station. That led to calls for investigations into how the ‘loan’ was authorised (by Blatter especially) without general knowledge or consent…and where it went.

Delaney said it helped fund turning South Dublin’s Lansdowne Road ground into the Aviva Stadium. But the FAI suggestion that it was “fully reflected in our financial statements” seemed at odds with Delaney’s RTE interview being so revelatory. In retrospect, Delaney’s portrayal of it as a “good deal” stands up to scrutiny. But it added to the perception of him as the ‘dictator’ of Wiki infamy.

That perception persists. Irish fan ire at last month’s Nations League tie in Denmark was aimed more at Delaney than O’Neill. And when those fans (and only the most committed made THAT trip) say that, people should listen. Instead, anti-Delaney banners were reportedly confiscated before the match. “I would say that the FAI didn’t have a role,” Delaney said. But, as he admitted, he WOULD say that. And fans more readily believe that the FAI didn’t have a “role” because only Delaney himself did.

It is, therefore, arguable that assessment of the McCarthy/Kenny appointments is coloured by a more general antipathy towards Delaney and the FAI. As Garry Doyle wrote in the (London) Times (Irish edition) on 25th November: “In one sense, it is a clever arrangement, this idea of giving the apprentice manager a couple of years to be blooded in by the more experienced veteran. Yet because it was the FAI that came up with the plan, your default setting is to be sceptical.”

McCarthy, it should be remembered, remains one of only two managers to have taken Ireland to the World Cup finals. Nonetheless, it is a surprise that my Ireland World Cup 2002 replica jersey has stayed in one piece (albeit only just) to see his return to the role, 14 years after an exit which dictionary-defined ‘ignominious,’ embarrassing defeats in Russia and at home to Switzerland (the latter with cries of “Keano” renting the Dublin night air.

Although their ‘history’ has publicly been consigned to history, I would not criticise McCarthy if he took private delight at replacing an Ireland management team containing one Roy Maurice Keane (I also wouldn’t mind a sense of mischief behind McCarthy’s inclusion of ROBBIE Keane in Roy Maurice’s old role). And although, as the London Times Irish Edition’s John Fallon noted: “This arrangement has rendered (McCarthy) a sitting duck. A couple of iffy results…and the natives will be restless,” McCarthy is arguably in a no-lose situation.

He has probably made enough out of five decades in football, and football punditry, to consider further high-profile, lucrative work a bonus. And it will be lucrative. Given the FAI’s history of salary negotiation, the quoted €1.2mpa figure sounds about right. Also, McCarthy’s people will surely have recognised the considerable favour their man is doing the FAI by accepting such a potentially authority-undermining situation with as much good grace as the almost stereotypically ‘plain-speaking’ Yorkshireman can offer.

The association’s original plan was for Kenny to replace O’Neill eventually. But the godawful goalless, guileless Dublin draw with a shamingly superior Northern Ireland on 15th November convinced enough relevant people that O’Neill needed to go now (although ‘now’ was delayed to allow O’Neill one last goalless, guileless draw, in Denmark. Thanks).

However, Kenny is ambitious, talented and almost Brian Clough-esque in terms of self-confidence and garnering public clamour for his national team appointment, though without the attendant nonsense which denied Clough the England job. And although, unlike Clough, he chose to curtail his playing career to enter management, Kenny has replicated Clough’s achievement of league championships with two clubs,

He led Dublin’s Bohemians to the 2003 title. He had well-regarded, if title-less, spells at Longford Town and Derry City. He took cash-strapped Dunfermline Athletic to 2007’s Scottish Cup final. Dundalk were similarly skint when he arrived in 2012. Yet after only avoiding relegation because Monaghan United went bust, they finished second and first in his first two seasons, albeit backed by a strong financial regime. As BBC Sport’s Frank Keogh eulogised, Kenny “transformed a club playing in front of 226 spectators into contenders for a Champions League place.”

And he recently declared himself, to the (actual) Irish Times’ Emmet Malone, “absolutely qualified” for the Ireland job and capable of turning Ireland’s “next generation…into a really cohesive team” combining “honesty, work-rate and passion” with “a more (European) fluid and expansive way.”

But Kenny would only leave Dundalk if written-guaranteed the senior job, rather than the unwritten understanding that he would replace O’Neill eventually. The 47-year-old Dubliner has also successfully demanded over-arching responsibility for the Ireland set-up from the under-15s upwards, something in which O’Neill and Trapattoni were not remotely interested. And he has effusive public support from arguably Ireland’s best current player, Everton right-back Seamus Coleman, who told Irish sport website OffTheBall.com this week: “He’s worked extremely hard in the League of Ireland and I like to see people who work hard get what they deserve. He’s a great man.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy procured the fabled luck of the Irish with the Euro 2020 draw. Because Dublin is one of about 94 host cities and host nations cannot play in the same group, Ireland were shunted from encounters with the Netherlands and Germany to recreations of classic recent meetings with Georgia and Denmark, while re-acquaintance with Switzerland affords McCarthy a shot at quick redemption.

There remains a paucity of quality Ireland-available players. On RTE TV recently, ex-Ireland winger Damien Duff angrily attributed this to a “dinosaur mentality” which “slaughtered” him “for training (Shamrock Rovers under-15s) five times a week” when most LoI clubs train twice or three times. Yet McCarthy has tempted West Ham’s Declan Rice to reconsider playing for Ireland instead of England. And Kenny, who brought Stephen Ward and James McClean into senior football, has two unpressured years with Ireland’s underage set-up.

Indeed, while typing this, I’ve warmed to the McCarthy/Kenny appointments, despite their FAI/John Delaney origins. After all, Ireland couldn’t get any more unwatchable than Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane eventually made them.