The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) has been no stranger to farce and ridicule throughout the 21st century, but even by their standards, March 2019 represented something of an off-field nadir. The organisation drew scorn over its annual awards on St Patrick’s Day, with the Young Player of the Year being awarded to Declan Rice, who had recently chosen to represent England rather than Republic of Ireland, despite earning three caps for the latter in 2018. On the night of the awards ceremony, details emerged of a €100,000 bridging loan that was paid to the FAI by its much-maligned chief executive John Delaney, the latest episode in a chequered administrative career for the Waterford native.
It was against this tragi-comic backdrop that Mick McCarthy prepared for the first game of his second coming as Ireland manager, having been appointed as Martin O’Neill’s successor last November. The ex-Ipswich boss would have the good fortune of beginning his national team stint with a game against Gibraltar, one of the lowest-ranked teams in the world, not just in Europe. Even the added dimensions of playing on an artificial pitch amid a howling gale weren’t likely to trouble Ireland unduly against a team of part-time players.
Ireland, though, were a team that had forgotten how to win. Nine matches in 2018 yielded a single victory, 2-1 in a friendly against USA, and even that required a stoppage-time winning goal from then-Shamrock Rovers striker Graham Burke. Half of their entire goals tally for the year came on that night in June; one of the other two was scored at the tail end of a sobering 4-1 defeat to Wales in the UEFA Nations League. Against any other opposition, you’d have legitimately feared for what lay in store, but surely the Boys in Green would do enough to comfortably swat aside Gibraltar, just as they did 7-0 and 4-0 in qualification for Euro 2016.
Instead, the evening by the Rock bore all the hallmarks of the dreary dying embers of the O’Neill era. The most exciting moment of a downright putrid first half was the sight of an EasyJet plane landing on the runway behind the Victoria Stadium three minutes after kick-off. Ireland were creating chances but, in David McGoldrick and Sean Maguire, they had Championship strikers who couldn’t translate their club form onto the international scene. The aimless passing which was rife during 2018 had not deserted the team with O’Neill’s departure.
Only for Darren Randolph, it would have been a whole lot worse just after half-time. The Middlesbrough goalkeeper’s stunning point-blank save from a rare Gibraltar corner prevented the minnows from taking a shock lead. Just a couple of minutes later, Jeff Hendrick finally nudged Ireland in front. On many previous occasions, the Irish would go into retreat upon gaining the upper hand, but surely this time the paucity of the opposition would allow for the handbrake to remain off.
Further chances came but the cold-blooded instinct was lacking. Ireland almost seemed content just to be in the lead, their back four remaining firmly entrenched in their own half rather than advancing to near halfway against such limited opposition. In the end, they got the job done and came away with the minimum requirement of three points, but it was not a performance to fill the Irish fans with confidence ahead of the far greater challenges that lay in store.
There was a mood of trepidation ahead of Georgia’s visit to the Aviva Stadium three days later. When the teams last met 18 months previously in Tbilisi, Ireland took a very early lead but then lost their way completely and were played off the park by the home side, who drew 1-1 but let slip a great opportunity to land a famous win. The inclusion of Glenn Whelan in the starting line-up was met with derision by many Irish fans, especially in a match where three points were imperative.
To their credit, though, Ireland gave their most assured display since the 1-0 win in Wales in October 2017 which secured a World Cup play-off. Their passing was crisp and chances were being created. Conor Hourihane, who was among the more impressive performers in Gibraltar, curled a delightful free-kick into the Georgian net on 34 minutes, a set piece that was preceded by the bizarre sight of dozens of tennis balls being flung onto the pitch in protest at the FAI and Delaney, who had recently been moved from CEO to an executive position. Not so much a sacking as a handsomely-reimbursed reassignment.
The positive attitude and high tempo continued into the second half. For the first time in a long time, Ireland were hungry for more goals when leading 1-0. Whelan was putting in arguably his best international performance in an 11-year career in green. McGoldrick, whose work rate was tremendous all night, fluffed a glorious chance to put the game to bed. It was a miss that nearly proved crucial, as Georgia captain Jakub Kankava rifled a shot off the woodwork late on. Had it gone in, it would have been an undeserved equaliser, although it served warning that Ireland still had work to do.
It was mission accomplished again and, with Denmark claiming a sensational late draw in Switzerland, it means that Ireland go into the June qualifiers in a real position of strength. They lie top of Group D, two points ahead of the Swiss and five clear of Denmark, whom they visit in their next game. They’ve been to the Scandinavian country twice in the last 16 months and drawn on both occasions, so it is not a fixture that will faze McCarthy’s men. A result there, followed by an almost inevitable win at home to Gibraltar the following Monday, will give Ireland a very nice buffer when the harder games roll around in the autumn.
There is still quite a road to travel, but the Georgia performance instilled a sense of satisfaction in supporting this Irish team that had been sadly marked absent for so long. Ireland now seem to have a Plan A and B, and although there is a dearth of real quality in the squad, the team has a solid balance. What could prove their downfall further down the line is the lack of a reliable goalscorer, something they have not had since Robbie Keane retired. If McCarthy can unearth someone to fill that void, 2019 could be the perfect antidote to what had been a miserable 2018 for Ireland.
On the field, Irish football is rediscovering its mojo. In the boardroom, the circus continues. There have been tongue-in-cheek suggestions that the FAI’s penchant for calamity is so marked that, when the Irish players line up for the national anthem before kick-off, the opening lines should be “It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights”, which you may recognise as the beginning of the theme tune for The Muppet Show.
The tennis ball protest over Delaney’s tenure as chief executive was the culmination of many years of dissatisfaction with his reign. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was earning more from his role in charge of the FAI than Barack Obama was receiving as President of the United States. His uncertain, vague nature in media briefings did not endear Delaney to the Irish public, nor did his reckless description of the League of Ireland as “a problem child” for the FAI.
However, having met Delaney on a couple of occasions, I can tell you that he is a genuinely well-intentioned man who puts in the mileage for the benefit of schoolboy and schoolgirl clubs throughout Ireland. When I encountered him at a charity event in Limerick in 2014, my doorstop request for a brief interview was happily granted and he was generous with his time and amicable in his nature.
Delaney’s extensive lobbying enabled the Aviva Stadium to be named as host venue for the 2011 Europa League final, while he was instrumental in securing Ireland the hosting rights for this year’s UEFA Under-17 Championship in May, as well as Dublin’s inclusion as one of the 12 host cities for Euro 2020. He had the bottle to secure Giovanni Trapattoni and O’Neill as Ireland managers when many others would have considered such illustrious names too big for the gig.
Sadly, he has erred on many occasions during his tenure as chief executive and news of the six-figure bridging loan to his employers was the straw that broke the camel’s back where many Irish football fans were concerned. If McCarthy can so quickly shift the mood of a disillusioned populace after just two wins, the FAI need to buck up their administrative game so that the team’s on-field endeavours aren’t asterisked by further off-field shenanigans.
There are green shoots of recovery for the rest of 2019. Hopefully, Irish football, both on and off the field, can continue making forward strides without alternating those with the backward steps that have characterised recent years.