A Year in Review: Euro 2020 qualification still possible but off-field problems dominate FAI
THE year began with a stream of FAI denials and legal threats and ended with an FAI apology to everyone associated with Irish football after it was revealed the governing body had debts of €55m and were up the creek without paddle.
Minister of Sport Shane Ross, who didn’t cover himself in glory with his tasteless ‘Christmas Goose’ tweet, described the FAI as a “basket case”.
April doesn’t seem that long ago when the now-deposed chief executive John Delaney took the ‘5th’ and refused to answer questions posed by the Oireachtas sports committee about the state of the association’s financial affairs.
Meanwhile, Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae thought Delaney was a great fella altogether and lauded the Waterford man’s contribution to football in Ireland.
It was laughable stuff then and even more laughable now given that the FAI’s auditors Deloitte cited a lack of “audit evidence” and cast serious doubt over the association’s ability to function as a going concern.
In a series of investigations, The Sunday Times did Irish football a massive service by exposing the financial abuse and extravagance of Delaney that led to chief executive’s spectacular downfall after 14 years at the helm.
But nobody realised just how much financial trouble the FAI was in until the extent of its debts were revealed in December.
The FAI, rather belatedly, issued an apology last Sunday evening to the “hundreds of thousands involved with Irish football at all levels of the game, to the Irish public and to FAI staff”.
The Irish government, Uefa and what’s left of a ramshackle FAI are still grappling with what to do to save Irish football’s bacon and how to alleviate the crippling debt of the FAI’s share in the Aviva Stadium.
In the past, nations have been banned from competition for fielding overage players, but everything appears dwarfed by how the FAI’s top brass went about its business.
The Irish government, the FAI and Uefa would need to come up with some kind of credible financial package in order to allow the Republic of Ireland senior team to proceed to the Euro 2020 play-offs in March.
Without one, it would be unrealistic for the Republic to be able to compete at any level.
Indeed, the most worrying aspect of this sorry mess is that it only came to light in recent months after years and years of mismanagement.
And yet when you sift through the countless FAI emails sent out to media outlets, some in the association believed back in March that they could still wriggle their way out of this mess and still retain Delaney in some capacity.
Even though the net was closing in, President Donal Conway heaped praise on the Delaney for “everything he has done for the FAI and for Irish football. He has transformed how we operate as an Association.”
Even as far back as November 2018, when Martin O’Neill was sacked, Mick McCarthy’s re-appointment to the Republic of Ireland senior manager’s post while simultaneously announcing Stephen Kenny as his successor after Euro 2020 smacked of self-preservation on Delaney’s behalf in a desperately transparent attempt to appease the many League of Ireland dissenters.
McCarthy is a wily enough media operator and always managed to side-step questions thrown at him at press conferences over the past year about Delaney, the FAI and fan protests without saying much about anything.
He also needed all his years of managerial savvy to get his second spell in charge of the Republic off to a winning start on a wind-swept plastic pitch in Gibraltar back in March, courtesy of a Jeff Hendrick goal.
McCarthy had no warm-up games to get a handle on the Irish squad, while he was also absorbing the international retirements of Daryl Murphy, Jonathan Walters and David Meyler.
But, notably, he did recall Glenn Whelan to the fold despite the 35-year-old being surplus to requirements in the latter stages of Martin O’Neill’s reign – and it turned out to be an excellent decision by the new manager.
At the outset, McCarthy’s objective was simple: qualify for Euro 2020.
And, as we enter a new year, McCarthy is still in with a shout of achieving this lofty goal as the Republic size up Slovakia in March in what is effectively a semi-final play-off with the winners advancing to face either Northern Ireland or Bosnia-Herzegovina in the final.
After eight rounds of qualification games, Group D went to form, with fancied sides Switzerland and Denmark finishing ahead of the Irish to claim the two automatic qualification slots.
The Republic probably needed to beat either Switzerland or Denmark to upset the odds, but they never quite pulled it off.
The football played under McCarthy was better than the latter stages of O’Neill’s time in charge, but not by much it has to be said.
The high points in a difficult Euro 2020 qualification campaign was the 1-0 home win over Georgia and their 1-1 draws with Denmark home and away.
The low points came at the business end of the group in Tbilisi and Geneva when Mick’s men disappointingly could only bank one point out of a possible six as they lost their grip on the top spots.
Playing in his preferred attacking midfield role, Jeff Hendrick threatened to rediscover his Euro 2016 form before his displays began to fluctuate again.
Captain Seamus Coleman had difficult moments too and is under pressure to win back the right back position for the Slovakia tie from Matt Doherty who played ever so well in the 1-1 draw with Denmark in Dublin.
A lack of game-time at club level hindered James McClean’s effectiveness, while Richard Keogh’s career-threatening knee injury, sustained in a car accident, allowed John Egan to show just how much better a central defender he is, slotting in seamlessly alongside Shane Duffy for the last three qualifiers.
With Whelan anchoring midfield, Conor Hourihane came to the fore, bringing a nice passing range to the side as well as grabbing the winner at home to Georgia with a fantastic free-kick.
David McGoldrick proved the talisman as he provided much needed guile in the final third, while U21 starlets Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott proved in their limited game-time that they can be key players under Stephen Kenny going forward.
After a ropey Nations League campaign, Darren Randolph redeemed himself in goal and proved Ireland’s most important player in 2019.
And there were plenty of positives as the off-colour Danes grabbed a point in Dublin last month which meant the Republic would definitely be relying on the play-offs come March.
Slovakia are no world beaters – finishing behind Croatia and Wales in Group E – but the Republic could only muster seven goals in eight qualifiers and are away from home in the one-legged play-off on Thursday March 26.
But, regardless of how qualification ends for the Republic, 2019 will be remembered as one of the darkest in living memory for the FAI.
A Year in Quotes…
“Isn’t it ironic…my Achilles heel has literally been my Achilles heel and finished me off! I am now retired from playing football It’s been epic Veni vidi vici.” – Jonathan Walters, one of the most popular Irish players, calls time on his career on the eve of the team’s Euro 2020 qualification campaign back March
“I don’t regret what I said. The only thing I might regret is the timing of it. It was a bit soon.
“I’ve gone onto that radio station before but I had cancelled on them a few weeks before, so when they asked this time around I thought: ‘I don’t want to cancel on them again’, so I went on it. The timing was probably not the best, that’s the one thing I regret, the timing.” – Republic defender Matt Doherty reflects on that radio interview which took apart former boss Martin O’Neill’s regime
“I hated it. It was blowing a gale, it was bouncing all over the place, it was tough.” – Mick McCarthy didn’t enjoy any aspect of his first match back in the Republic dug-out after watching his side chisel out a scruffy 1-0 win in Gibraltar to get their Euro 2020 qualification off to a winning start
“I have only just turned 27, so I still have plenty of years to go. I am still improving and hopefully I will play better for my country.” – Jeff Hendrick is forced to answer another question about his fluctuating form for his country
“I’d like to thank John [Delaney] for everything he has done for the FAI and for Irish football. He has transformed how we operate as an Association. This new role will allow John to utilise his vast experience and connections in the world of football and will best serve the FAI. John will continue to represent us at UEFA level as we look ahead to next year when the Aviva Stadium will host four games at the EURO 2020 finals thanks to his influence at European level.” – FAI President Donal Conway pays, erm, homage to John Delaney back in March with the intention of the disgraced chief executive moving to a newly created post within the association, which never materialised
“A lot of young lads don’t realise that. They’re in this bubble of training until 12 o’clock, coming off the training pitch and doing no extras, playing pool, training in this luxury training ground, heading home and playing on their FIFA. And two years later when their apprenticeship is finished they’re going: ‘What am I going to do now?’
“They’re having free food, nice breakfast, nice lunch, playing table tennis, playing pool. They don’t put in the hard work…
“They’re working harder on the table tennis table than they do in training, and that’s the honest truth.” – Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane doesn’t hold back at the relaxed attitude of the younger generation
“He talks a good game. Imagine if he’d won a trophy. He goes on the TV about how he was harshly treated by me. He’s crying on the TV about his family situation.”
“Maybe he should lie low for a while. Have a look at his medals? That wouldn’t take long. We got beaten by Wales. Jon played. Jon didn’t have a good game. Wardy played, he didn’t have a good game. They need to go back see how bad they were.
“Brian Clough. You’re on about motivation. He punched me one time. He was upset. It was heated. He punched me. I remember thinking ‘You’re still a brilliant manager’. I came in the next day and trained. I didn’t text somebody in the media. Or go on Ratsapp.” – Roy Keane hammers Jonathan Walters and Stephen Ward as a guest on Off The Ball’s roadshow
“I’ll tell you one thing about the man – he doesn’t get to me one bit. I’m possibly the only one that stood up to him, more than once. I think that’s what bothers him most maybe.”- Jonathan Walters rises above Roy Keane’s base comments
“James Collins had a right old scrap there and he was defending the six-yard box. I just thought in the time we might nick it with him [Aaron Connolly], he’s done really well and he’s put himself in a place to play against Switzerland. [But] I make substitutions as I see fit, I don’t look back and regret that I should have done them sooner.” – Mick McCarthy defends his decision to hold Aaron Connolly in reserve in Tbilisi until the 78th minute when the game was crying out for the teenager’s pace
“I’ve said at the very start, with us being third seed, I would have taken this. Everybody would have taken it. If you could have forgotten about all the other games and we’ll have a one-off game against Denmark on November 18, it would be brilliant.” – Mick McCarthy’s glass is half full despite losing to Switzerland in Geneva back in October
“I think we’re at the end of a disgraceful era as far as I’m concerned. I think there was massive reputational damage to football in Ireland, to the Association, and even ordinary people who were involved in the game had to take a lot of stick. It appears (Delaney) and the rest of them involved in the board have left behind a complete financial shambles. We don’t know the extent of those shambles yet until we hear some of the reports.
“They’ve left behind a staff whose morale is at a very low ebb because of the way they have been treated.
Some brilliant people were discarded over that time, some great people were moved on. They have found out their pensions weren’t even being paid properly. There appears to have been a big settlement so that John’s pension has been paid up properly.” – Brian Kerr probably articulates the feelings of all grassroots members as it becomes clear just how bad a financial state the FAI is in under the leadership of deposed John Delaney
“There were two times where we clashed, really clashed, but off the pitch he’s the manager and he wins. We shook hands and got on with it but at the end of it, I think he appreciated it more me having a go than holding it in and speaking behind his back or to other lads.”
“It happens all the time, more than you guys realise. Decisions, tactics, where he wants you in a wall, stuff like that. We’re not children.” – Glenn Whelan reflects on his frank exchanges with former boss Martin O’Neill
“You’re all talking about them coming through into the first team. When he gets the job – and it won’t be that long now – he’ll be perfectly placed.
“In the meantime, it’s me that’s come in and [I] could have taken the backlash had we drawn in Gibraltar or lost in Gibraltar, and that’s protected him from that.
“Hopefully we qualify, get to the Euros and it will be seen as a really good decision to have done what we did.” – Not for the last time, Mick McCarthy becomes a bit agitated about the constant chatter over his successor and U21 boss Stephen Kenny
“You f***ing weasel.” – James McClean lets fly at one journalist before a press conference over some of the things he tweeted and reported about the Derryman’s performances
“The Board of the Football Association of Ireland has tonight (December 29) issued an apology to the hundreds of thousands involved with Irish football at all levels of the game, to the Irish public and to FAI staff.
“The apology was made following the reconvened AGM of the FAI at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin where delegates were presented with the financial statements for 2018.
President Donal Conway said: “The clear message from our delegates today is that Irish football wants to move forward and we apologise to all our stakeholders for the mistakes of the past.” – The FAI, what’s left of it, issues an apology about slapping €55m debt on Irish football
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Gibraltar 0-1 Republic of Ireland
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 1-0 Georgia
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Denmark 1-1 Republic of Ireland
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 2-0 Gibraltar
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 1-1 Switzerland
International friendly: Republic of Ireland 3-1 Bulgaria
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Georgia 0-0 Republic of Ireland
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Switzerland 2-0 Republic of Ireland
International friendly: Republic of Ireland 3-1 New Zealand
Euro 2020 Qualifier: Republic of Ireland 1-1 Denmark
Euro 2020 fixtures:
March 26: Euro play-off semi-final: Slovakia v Republic of Ireland