2018 can be described as nothing short of a disastrous year for Irish football. Irish supporters were subjected to twelve months of torture, as the Martin O’Neill era plummeted from one new low to another. First, there was the catastrophic, somewhat cringe-worthy public fallout between then assistant manager, Roy Keane, and two of our most seasoned players, Jonathan Walters and Harry Arter. The manner in which speculation about the rift circulated was truly mortifying, with a leaked Stephen Ward ‘WhatsApp’ message describing the incident, shedding both players and management in a very negative light. Next, the team turned in several woeful performances in the inaugural ‘UEFA Nations League’, earning just one point from four matches against opposition that were supposed to be of similar standing to Ireland. The bleakest aspect of our ‘Nations League’ campaign was not the results themselves, but the nature of the performances which accompanied them. The Irish team lacked cohesion, shape and structure, as the thoughtless and totally inadequate match preparation by the management team was laid bare for all to see. Most dispiritingly, the famed Irish supporters had become almost apathetic, with dire attendance rates and general public disinterest indelibly connected with the national side. Truth be told, the only source of comfort for Irish fans in 2018 was that it ended in O’Neill’s sacking.
As ever, the end of an old era is followed by the promise of a new one. For Irish football, this new dawn will be spearheaded by one of its previous managers, Mick McCarthy. McCarthy, himself capped 57 times as a player by Ireland, enjoyed a very successful stint as our national coach, leading the county to the 2002 World Cup as well as to the playoffs of the preceding two major tournaments. The 60-year-old Barnsley native has already injected some much-needed enthusiasm and vibrancy into Irish footballing circles. His upbeat decorum and positive outlook contrast sharply with the gloomy pessimism of his predecessor. From his initial interviews, it is evident that McCarthy believes in the qualities and capabilities of the Irish players and will empower them to perform to their potential. Where previously O’Neill publicly bemoaned his side’s lack of quality, McCarthy chooses to talk-up his players and makes them feel appreciated and valued.
Further, as exemplified in his previous managerial stints at Millwall, Ipswich, Wolves and, most significantly, Ireland, McCarthy deploys a far more progressive playing style to that of O’Neill. Whilst falling short of the tiki-taka Guardiola approach, McCarthy demands that his players make constructive use of the football. The agricultural, long-ball hoofing tactics deployed by Trapatonni and O’Neill will not be tolerated, and Irish fans can look forward to their side playing an efficient passing game akin to that seen in McCarthy’s previous reign. Undoubtedly, such an approach is the best way forward for Ireland. Mimicking the all-encompassing, intricate style of sides like Belgium or Spain is not realistic given the profile of player that we have. However, the likes of Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady demonstrate every week at club level that they are capable of implementing a high-tempo, forward-looking passing game. Where previous Irish managers have neglected such abilities and adopted a pessimistic, primitive approach, McCarthy will authorise his players to demonstrate and showcase the broader footballing skills which they possess in abundance. Fundamentally, McCarthy’s philosophy is based upon reconciling the traditional Irish strengths of fierce competitiveness, gallant spirit and a ‘never-say-die’ mentality, with that of nurturing a more nuanced, balanced passing game. What Irish supporters can expect is to see all the aforementioned positive features of the Charlton, Trapatonni and O’Neill eras, whilst also witnessing their side engaging in far more constructive and progressive build-up play. McCarthy knows how to achieve this coveted blend between playing attractive football, but within a framework which recognises the reality of the Irish players’ abilities and of the need to win football matches. Irish fans can look forward to the return of a winning combination of style and substance not seen since the end of McCarthy’s first reign 15 years ago.
Where McCarthy’s appointment ensures a positive short-term future for Irish soccer, its long-term health appears to be similarly encouraging. The FAI’s succession plan, in which former Dundalk FC manager Stephen Kenny will take over from McCarthy in 2020, is a masterstroke in the making. This appointment affords Kenny the time he needs to acquaint himself with international football and familiarise himself with the national team’s set-up. Kenny’s initial two-year apprenticeship encompasses several reconnaissance visits around Europe, where the highly-talented young coach will gain valuable insights and learnings into the most modern approaches pursued at the elite footballing level. Further, in his work with the Irish youth teams, Kenny will ensure all our underage sides adopt the same passing, technical style so central to the Tallaght native’s philosophy. Then, all going well, Kenny will take over from the experienced McCarthy, and continue Ireland’s progression from the archaic tactics of the Trapatonni/ O’Neill eras towards the nuanced, efficient passing game pivotal to success in the modern footballing world.
With late bloomers like Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens frequently turning in high-quality performances, coupled with the optimism and excitement engendered by rising stars like Conor Masterson and Adam Idah, Irish soccer has plenty to be positive about. Whilst the gloom and negativity of an abysmal 2018 still linger, the FAI’s intelligent and visionary appointment of McCarthy and Kenny offers a clear pathway to the restoration of the Irish team. 2019 is the first step in what Irish supporters hope will be a brighter, more enjoyable decade or so following the national side. True Irish soccer people, inspired by the likes of John Giles and Liam Brady, are eager to once more witness performances that they can relate to and take pride in watching. There is real hope that McCarthy and Kenny will restore a much purer, more stylistic approach in keeping with the footballing values of legends like Giles and Brady, and a favourable qualifying draw for Euro 2020 has heightened the belief that we will be successful in doing this. Gibraltar, Georgia, Denmark, Switzerland: Watch. This. Space.
By Jack Stokes – Sports CoEditor