Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Everyone to Blame for Cyprus Debacle

As the horror of Cyprus’s deserved 5-2 drubbing of the Republic of Ireland National team sinks in, the blame game has begun in earnest, with fans up and down the country demanding heads on plates for the debacle.

To be fair, it is difficult to think of a more disappointing result in our recent soccer history. The 4-1 home defeat to Denmark in 1985 that marked the end of Eoin Hand’s tenure as manager served as a marker as to how far behind the European powers we were at the time, but it was generally acknowledged that the Danes were a bloody good side.

The draw with Egypt in Italia 90 was used by Eamonn Dunphy to beat Jack Charlton with, but most fans simply accepted the result as a combination of bad luck and our opponents’ total defensive-mindedness. The Liechtenstein game, set against a beautiful Alpine backdrop, still has grown supporters waking up in a sweat, but again, has been simply ascribed as “one of those things.”

Mick McCarthy’s “I had a Macedonia” has now been irreversibly replaced with “I had a Cyprus,” but it is difficult to come up with mitigating circumstances for this most recent rout. This was not an odd-goal defeat, a sneaked goal, combined with frantic defending. The Cypriots thoroughly deserved the victory and all credit must go to them for hauling themselves up by their bootlaces after their own hammering by Slovakia.

But, with due respect to Cyprus, even in the farcical seventies, we would not have succumbed so easily against a team perpetually on the bottom rung of football’s hierarchy. So how did we get in this situation?

Not unexpectedly, the primary target of the fan’s ire has been the manager. After two competitive games, it has been decided that he is not up to the job and should go. This is the Premier League equivalent of hiring a manger at the beginning of July and sacking him in the second week of August, but the general feeling is that a mistake was made in his appointment.

Certainly, Stan’s communication skills have not helped his cause, where his too-often glib pronouncements have garnered the suspicion that he is a man of soundbites but little substance. His lack of managerial experience has now become the rod to beat him with, and certainly he bears little resemblance to the “world-class manager” that John Delaney promised us after dismissing Brian Kerr.

There have also been calls for the aforementioned Mr. Delaney to join Stan in the sacrificial pot. Staunton was very much Delaney’s man in the interview stage, and there has been a certain amount of sympathy for Stan after Saturday night. He was assistant manager at Walsall, the club with the worst defensive record in the English league, so how could he expect to make the transition to international manager? Surely, the comments seem to indicate, the man who appointed him was guilty of a serious error of judgement.

The players, too, have been pilloried in bars up and down the country for their abject performance. Some of them, it has been suggested, “should never play for Ireland again,” though it is hard to see where their replacements are to be found. It is facile to say that such a player would have done better on the night. No-one can ever know, and when top-class players play as though they’ve never been introduced to each other, it is difficult to see how a newcomer could fare better.

So, there we have it. Everybody is to blame for the Saturday evening horror show. Except of course the fans and the media. But even they can’t quite escape some soupcon of responsibility for the debacle.

The seeds of this nightmarish vista were sown four years ago in a tiny island in the North Pacific Ocean. Saipan did much more than divide a nation and thrust two men into the glare of the international spotlight. It signified the first real media campaign in this country to have an international manager dismissed.

We had always risen above that. We watched as successive English managers were lampooned and pilloried in the national media, and sat smugly back, as we thought it could never happen here. True Con Houlihan had persistently dogged John Giles toward the end of his managerial stint, and Eamonn Dunphy had led the calls for Eoin Hand’s removal, but the general concensus in the country was that these managers had been given a fair crack at the whip and it was time to go.

Eamonn had again been a thorn in Jack Charlton’s side for the final six years of his reign, but reaching three final tournaments dented his ability to convince the footballing public that the Geordie was in fact holding back our country’s aspirations. But when the Saipan earthquake rent Ireland in two, he found plenty of backing for his campaign to oust McCarthy.

In Dunphy’s eyes, Roy Keane was all saint and no sinner in the affair, and McCarthy was “a clown,” despite the fact that standard procedure for both club and country instances of a player criticising the manager in public is suspension / fining / sending home. Though there was almost overwhelming support for McCarthy’s stance in the footballing world, in Ireland, the horror of going into a World Cup Finals without our best player pushed both media and fans into the Keane camp. One radio station even admitted that it had made an editorial decision to back Keane and ridicule McCarthy.

So we limped home from Korea, having reached the knockout stages of the World Cup with what was arguably a worse back four than that which faced the Cypriots on Saturday. In reality, only winning the World Cup could have saved McCarthy. His first two games in the subsequent European Championships, away to Russia and home to Switzerland, ended in defeat and he was gone, as both fans and media used the poor results as an excuse for bloodletting over Saipan. We had emulated our near neighbours in a media-led campaign to whip up support for sacking the international manager.

Of course, the problem was that the role of international manager is a very specific one. Top class club managers don’t often translate into good international managers and the problem is you never know what you are going to get when you appoint. We had been supremely fortunate in having two very good and successful international managers in succession. The odds on getting three in a row were small indeed.

Brian Kerr was, and is, a good manager, but the vagaries of international management conspired to thwart him in his quest for qualification. He was nearly there but not quite. With Steve Staunton, it appears we almost got him by default, when a host of other, probably more deserving, candidates were overlooked. Certainly, a Mick McCarthy-inspired side would never have capitulated so readily to the likes of Cyprus.

Those who clamoured for McCarthy’s resignation were more interested in avenging the perceived hurt of Roy Maurice Keane than in the future of the Republic of Ireland football team. They too, both media and fans, should look to themselves when lashing out in fury after the Cyprus game, and see whether or not, they too bear some culpability for Ireland having hit rock bottom.

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