Forget Martin O’Neill, the problems with Irish football run much, much deeper

Four years ago, former Cork City right-back Neal Horgan began his autobiography with a nod to philosopher George Santayana.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Horgan wrote as he recounted the fall and rise of his former employers, a harrowing tale of a club tumbling from national titles to a High Court battle to stay alive.

Not that Cork were alone. Sporting Fingal, cup winners in 2009, were dissolved two years after that triumph due to a lack of investment. Monaghan United were also forced to withdraw from the League of Ireland in 2012 because of similar issues.

One could argue that these clubs were merely feeling the effects of the global financial crisis, but when it comes to football in the Republic of Ireland, nothing is ever as it seems.

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During Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Denmark in the UEFA Nations League on Monday, the travelling fans could be heard chanting for the removal of John Delaney, CEO of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).

Action was swift but it wasn’t Delaney who found himself out of a job – at least not yet. Within 48 hours of the scoreless stalemate, the FAI had announced the sackings of manager Martin O’Neil and his assistant, Roy Keane. The news wasn’t a surprise; after all, Ireland have only won one game in 2018, collected two points from 12 in the Nations League, and scored just four goals in their last 810 minutes of action. The only nations who ended the campaign with a lower average possession figure than their 37.2% were San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra.

A winter of uncertainty awaits and a foggy future beckons. The country’s prospects don’t look bright, with few talented youngsters emerging and Declan Rice, a rare positive in recent times, currently considering switching his allegiance to England.

For many years Ireland have relied upon the so-called ‘Granny rule’ – recruiting players from English academies with Irish heritage. But this approach can be volatile, as evidenced by the cases of Rice and Jack Grealish, who was at the centre of a similar saga in 2015.

The domestic league has had to fill the void. At Euro 2016, eight members of O’Neill’s 23-man squad had come through Irish academies, while the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup saw 66% of the Boys in Green’s goals scored by League of Ireland youth products.

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Those are certainly promising statistics, but the League of Ireland is only ever one step away from crisis. Established 97 years ago, only two of the league’s founding members remain, with 39 clubs having withdrawn or gone bust in that period. Just last season Limerick and Bray Wanderers (the latter for the second consecutive campaign) threatened to withdraw due to a lack of funding. Ireland is the biggest country in Europe without a professional league, and this is undoubtedly holding the national team back.

League of Ireland outfits exist on an unbreakable cycle of boom and bust. On the face of it, external investment would appear to be the answer, but this has often proved controversial. The Conroy Report in 2016, undertaken to look at ways to improve the domestic game, led to each club being offered a €5,000 grant over three years. It didn’t go down well: St Patrick’s Athletic labelled it “disgraceful and disrespectful”, with Derry City quickly following suit.

Club versus country arguments persist. A domestic-based player has never been included in an Ireland squad for a major tournament. When Dundalk reached the play-off round of the 2016/17 Champions League, there were calls for international recognition for some of their stars, most notably striker Patrick Hoban, who scored 29 goals as the Lilywhites went on to win the league and cup double in 2018.

The national team may not include any players who currently ply their trade back home, but Seamus Coleman (Sligo Rovers), James McClean (Derry City), Kevin Long, David Meyler, Alan Browne, Shane Long (all Cork City) and Sean Maguire (Waterford, Sligo and Dundalk) have experienced life at League of Ireland clubs.

Economic reality means it is inevitable that such players will move on, usually to England, at a young age. Yet if Irish football is to make progress, the chaos permanently engulfing its domestic league must be addressed. O’Neill’s sacking was welcomed by a majority of fans, but Ireland’s issues run much deeper than one man. As Horgan and Santayana proclaimed, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Forget Martin O’Neill, the problems with Irish football run much, much deeper
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