Niall Quinn is an Irish legend, a one-time top goalscorer, and a man who understands football both on and off the pitch having stepped from the changing room to the board room. So when he speaks about the development of Irish players, it’s worth paying attention. Except, we’ve heard it from Quinn before. Maybe for a man of his resources, it’s time to see action, especially if no one running Irish football is bothered to listen.
Quinn made headlines in recent days with his calls for changes for progressing Irish football. The former international expressed a desire to put his vast knowledge to use but unfortunately for those hoping for a shift in our footballing philosophy, Quinn was short on specifics and even shorter on commitment. Even if he wanted to, would the powers that be put aside politics to allow him? All the evidence to date says no.
“Could I put something together? It might be at college level. I don’t know. That would interest me,” Quinn said last week. Now living back in Dublin, Ireland’s former record goalscorer has hinted at getting involved in the development of future players. “If somebody gave me the ability to go off and do that, I’d put a team around me.”
Quinn has the experience of playing at the top level in the Premier League, and at World Cups. As chairman of Sunderland he oversaw their promotion back to England’s top flight and the transformation of the club’s structures. His heart is in the right place. No one can question his sincerity but sadly, we’ve been here before. And as ever within Irish football, action speaks louder than well-intentioned words.
Quinn had a previous role with the FAI believed to involve consultancy with League of Ireland clubs ahead of the association’s takeover of the league. He was tasked with improving the lot of the domestic game in assessing what clubs would be admitted to the new set-up. It’s ironic that Quinn left that position to spear-head a consortium of Irish businessmen’s takeover of Sunderland. So instead of advising Irish clubs how to improve how they were run, Quinn was the focal point for Irish men pumping millions into what was then a Championship outfit cross-channel. The appointment of Roy Keane saw an explosion of Irish interest in the Black Cats. Ryanair even laid on extra flights to England’s north-east to cater for Sunderland’s new found Irish fan-base, one that has all but disappeared since Drumaville, Quinn, and Keane went their separate ways.
Quinn became increasingly vocal in his criticism of Giovanni Trapattoni towards the end of the Italian’s reign. He called on the FAI to implement a national academy. “There needs to be a six-year programme put in place to get Ireland back up to the levels of 20 years ago, to when we could and did compete.”
That would be the academy that has already had the first sod turned at the FAI’s headquarters in Abbotstown. The six-year plan? That would be the various technical development plans drafted by Brian Kerr, and his successor, and one-time Quinn team-mate Packie Bonner.
Irish fans are tired of hearing what should and could be done. Our national team is at its lowest-ever ranking and the public mood has scarcely lifted since the poisonous last days of Trapattoni, a point illustrated by Martin O’Neill’s recent testy interview with RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue.
Quinn’s argument that we should be sending our young talent to the continent is one that has oft-been discussed by Irish supporters. Quinn’s reasoning is sound but ignores one fundamental point. European clubs are not looking for our players. There are no Belgian scouts in the Phoenix Park on Sundays.
And Belgium is a worthwhile example. One player who did go beyond British shores was former international Dominic Foley who spent time at Ghent and Brugge. He previously told the YBIG Football Show of his own experiences of why continental clubs were not lining up to sign Irish youngsters.
“I brought this up with both clubs I played with in Belgium. I said if you came and took a look at the League of Ireland, you’d see players who’d do well for you. Their thoughts were that Irish players always go to England and England has too much money. They have this perception that everyone goes there and makes a fortune. The funny thing is I earned more in Belgium than I ever did in England.”
Some naively thought Quinn’s previous comments meant he was positioning himself to become involved with the FAI. He was even touted as a replacement for John Delaney. Except the current Chief Executive seems something of an untouchable in Abbotstown. Much has been made of the obscene salary earned by Delaney, a development over many years that seems to have gone unchallenged by his colleagues on the FAI board. Football journalists who’ve attended the association’s AGMs in recent years have reported no questions from the floor from any representative of Ireland’s football family despite the accelerated decline of the national team, the nepotistic neglect that seems to have affected the Emerging Talent Programme, and the squabbling within schoolboys football that means a coherent national strategy seems impossible to implement.
So what has this to do with Quinn? Idealists look at other associations and see ex-players and managers in positions of influence. Franz Beckenbauer, Trevor Brooking, even Michel Platini. Irish football is different. The FAI has historically been dominated by faceless suits, who as a quick glance of the association’s past testifies, became a by-word for amateurism if not down-right buffoonery.
In the last decade the FAI staff has been stripped of the services of Brian Kerr, our most successful under-age manager ever, and Packie Bonner, his replacement as technical director, while Trapattoni’s assistant Liam Brady, who spent years as the head of Arsenal’s youth academy, has seemingly never been courted to remain on the books.
Despite Quinn’s obvious credentials as someone who could make something happen within the FAI, just how is he going to get in? Does it necessitate the removal of Delaney to get someone who has been involved at all levels of the game and clearly has something to offer involved? It seems unlikely that’s going to happen any time soon.
In the dying days of the Trapattoni era, the argument that wouldn’t go away was ‘Do we have the players?’ Martin O’Neill’s reign has failed to ignite a revival of optimism and Ireland’s lack-lustre win in Georgia has many repeating the question. Now Niall Quinn is asking the same about our future footballers. The ex-international may be part of the answer but right now it seems either no one is listening or they are just more empty words.