Ireland Manager: Mark ’02

mick mccarthy 2002 edit

With the news that the FAI plan to bide their time with the appointment of a new manager, we’re likely to see some new names enter the race. The last Irish squad to qualify for a World Cup could yet prove a breeding ground for future coaches of the national team. With many of the class of ’02 dipping their toes in the management waters, and the two main protagonists Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane among the contenders to succeed Giovanni Trapattoni,  Diarmuid o hAinle looks at alternatives to the seemingly manager-elect Martin O’Neill.

Earlier this month, Ireland faced the challenge of a World Cup qualifying double-header.  The debates surrounded whether the team could come out with a win and a draw and still remain in contention for a play-off place, behind Germany, or if two wins were required. The coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, aimed for four points, the Irish football Twitterati demanded six.

Two losses was unthinkable.  Ireland had drawn with Sweden away, and looked worth the result.  They had very nearly managed four points from their last encounter with their main rivals for second spot, slipping up late on against Austria to only manage a draw in the Aviva.  Four points could surely be got, six was the aim.

trap close up faceTwo defeats was the outcome. And, inevitably, Teflon Trap departed.  A few days which had started so positively with a goal from the ever-reliable and, as history will demonstrate, criminally under-appreciated Robbie Keane (more on him later), ended with Ireland no longer in contention for Brazil 2014 – albeit not mathematically so – and recruiting for a new manager.  The official line was that Trapattoni left by mutual consent; many media outlets breathed easily in their use of the word “sacked”.

And so, to Martin O’Neill.  At the risk of looking very silly if it doesn’t come to pass, O’Neill with his Celtic credentials and all-Ireland eligibility (for those averse to another foreign manager), not to mention his availability, is the frontrunner – 1/14 with some bookmakers.  He looks an obvious choice.  His CV – miracles at Wycombe, silverware at Leicester and leading Celtic to punch above their modern weight before experiencing ups, downs and mediocrity at Aston Villa and Sunderland – is impressive, even if his achievements are meagre when compared with Trapattoni’s.  O’Neill won’t be unanimously proclaimed as a saviour but he will be welcomed by most, even if his football, whilst more attacking than his Italian predecessor, is unlikely to be the easiest on the eye.

There are, however, other options.  The most recent period of true Irish success is surely the run up to, and performances at, the 2002 World Cup and, handily, this is also the era which I feel most comfortable talking about.  Trapattoni’s exit has come at a time when much of the squad from that mundial is now retired or thinking about retiring, and embarking on their next journeys in or out of football, perhaps in management.  The FAI could look to dip into the class of ’02.

irish team 2002Steve Staunton, World Cup squad and team captain in the, ahem, absence of Roy Keane, had his shot.  He sowed the seeds of the future Irish dynamic by giving his erstwhile teammate Robbie Keane the captain’s armband and masterminded a convincing victory over Sweden, no less, in his first game.  How Ireland could have done with him in charge this month.

Like a hole in the head. Staunton came to the job with limited experience, to say the least, and some of his results, with the benefit of hindsight, are spectacularly impressive, but are equally misleading. The confidence with which Ireland went into the last qualifiers would never have been present under the seemingly hapless Staunton, even if his victory over Sweden and a home draw with Germany would have been priceless in the current campaign. Staunton was a great servant for Ireland as a player, but as manager he didn’t work out.

So who else? The aforementioned Robbie Keane has been touted as a future Ireland manager but, unless he has an announcement of his own to give us in the coming weeks, he remains an Ireland forward and the country’s captain.  International player-managers are as rare as Ireland victories over higher ranked nations and, whilst fatuous rumour has it the FA toyed with the idea of beckoning Glenn Hoddle out of international retirement to take the England reins from the middle of the park in the early 1990s, this vacancy has come too early, and the FAI will want to avoid making the Staunton mistakes again.

Mark Kinsella supports fellow Irishman Joe Dunne at Colchester – the latter being a better, though still futile, bet for the job – Lee Carsley performs the same role for David Weir at Sheffield United, Gary Kelly’s apparently on his way to getting his badges, Gary Breen and Dean Kiely have dipped their toes into coaching and even Jason McAteer has tried his hand, under John Barnes in his brief spell in charge at Tranmere.  McAteer’s worth a €1 punt just for the retweets on the twitpic of the slip.  Like McAteer, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane and Niall Quinn have either focused on business interests or media work, or both, with little outward ambitions of management, despite Quinn’s caretaker experience.

David Connolly, Clinton Morrison – under Dunne and Kinsella at Colchester – Andy O’Brien, Steven Reid, Ian Harte, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff play on, though several of them, like Robbie Keane, may be throwing their hats in the ring the next time the job comes up. For now, some eyes may be on making a return to the playing fold should the new manager make an inquiry.

Alan Kelly followed in the footsteps of Packie Bonner and became Ireland’s goalkeeping coach, so he’s been around the setup.  As has Mick McCarthy.

Yes, this meandering – and discovery that several of the 2002 squad may harbour ambitions the FAI could one day consider – was, of course, leading up to McCarthy and Keane.

roy keane martin o'neillMartin O’Neill will surely get the job, and surely he will deserve it, but Mick McCarthy would struggle to stay loyal to Ipswich if talks with O’Neill broke down.  He is touching up his barely tarnished reputation at Portman Road and post-Saipan, post-Genesis, post-Brian Kerr, Staunton and Trapattoni, so much dust has settled that his achievements in his previous stint grow more impressive every Ireland match that passes.  It would perhaps not be a popular appointment in Cork, but the FAI have no plans for a roadshow. McCarthy is generally held in high esteem, and the second coming would get people dreaming.

With more debatable career highlights, Roy Keane is an outside bet.  McCarthy’s Saipan adversary is respected for his punditry, entertainingly contrary even when his opinion puts him in a minority of one, and this avenue was preceded by a disappointing time at, naturally, Ipswich Town and, before that, a transformation of Sunderland’s fortunes.  Many suggest Keane overspent at the Stadium of Light, many are overly-fixated on his dismissal of Jordan Rhodes’ talents at Ipswich, but Keane’s impact with the Black Cats was so immediate and so remarkable – from relegation contenders in September to Championship title winners just months later and in his first season – that he could be a shot in the arm for the national side.

Players would fear Keane, but have enough time away from him between matches that any festering resentment of his methods and disciplinarian manner would not necessarily lead to insubordination and his rejection.  Roy Keane even made professional peace with Niall Quinn to take the Sunderland job, so could do the same with John Delaney for Ireland’s sake.

But, anyway, it seems the job is Martin O’Neill’s.  Even if Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy competing for the same job – one far more important to both than those they’ve previously been simultaneously linked with – would be gripping from start to finish, with either result sure to get imaginations for the future running wild.

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