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Malachy Clerkin: The FAI are reaping what they’ve sown in their struggles to appoint a new manager

A middling team with limited prospects and a relatively low salary – it’s little wonder it has taken the association so long to appoint someone to take over from Stephen Kenny

We are, it seems, just a few days away from the announcement of a new manager for the Ireland men’s soccer team. The search has spanned two Taoisigh, two GAA presidents, two lost referenda even. We were on Storm Debi when Stephen Kenny was let go – by now, Storm Lilian is next on the block. Any longer and Tamiko and Walid will get the shout.

This has all taken a while, is the point. Twenty weeks, officially – or 143 days and counting if you want to be precise about it. But of course, it would feel reasonable to assume that the search has been going on in some shape or form for a bit longer than that.

It’s not like Kenny stunned the nation and left the FAI in the lurch in November. The defeat at home to Greece was on October 10th , the away loss in Athens was the previous June. The point is, for some or all of the past 10 months, the FAI has had a fair idea they would be filling the seat anew.

And yet here we are. At some stage next week, likely on Thursday, the association will announce their choice to guide the team for the next few years. It will be who it will be. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is seemingly in the mix now. The groundswell of apathy towards the idea of it ending up being John O’Shea tells you all you need to know about how tired everyone is of the whole thing now.

It barely needs pointing out that should not be the way of things. The Ireland men’s soccer team is one of the very few entities in Irish life that people from all counties, all classes, all backgrounds hold dear. Even if it’s only to bitch and moan about it, people everywhere in the country and beyond have a connection to it, one you need to be very careful about trifling with.

With the best will in the world, you can’t say that about the Ireland men’s rugby team or the representative women’s teams or any of the GAA teams. Their core constituencies are more niche and siloed. There’s very little you could do with any of them that would exercise more than a limited percentage of the sporting public. But the manager of the men’s soccer team is different. Or at least it ought to be.

Which is why this has all become such a trial for the FAI. The one iron truth in a world of spoof is that you can’t appoint an Ireland manager in secret. You can be secretive as you go about it, which is something else entirely. To their credit, Marc Canham and Jonathan Hill have let precious little leak out about the process. They pointedly haven’t dropped names in front of the FAI board to guard against little birdies going fluttering off in the wind.

But there comes a certain point when they have to pull back the curtain and go, “Ta-da!” That’s when everyone immediately works backwards and parses whatever you said throughout the process to try and match it up with what you’ve ultimately produced.

Hill said back at the start of December that the FAI had held preliminary talks with all the candidates. Since his name is only bubbling up for the first time now, it’s hard to imagine Solskjaer was one of those. By all accounts Roy Keane was. Throw in O’Shea and we’re nearly a third of the way to the whole Manchester United team circa 2003. Maybe Eric Djemba-Djemba got a DM somewhere along the way?

The point is, there’s no way the FAI are going to be able to spin this next week that will give anyone confidence that they’ve been in control of the process throughout. You’re not in control if the whole thing takes five months. You’re not in control if you end up with someone who was fourth/fifth/whatever choice.

You’re not in control if you talk about having to wait on contractual obligations to end before you can confirm or deny any candidate and then appoint either (a) O’Shea, who openly said a month ago that he’d love the job or (b) Solskjaer, who has been out of work since November 2021. This is not being in control of the situation. This is the situation being in control of you.

And, in some way, that’s understandable. Nobody should pretend the FAI had an easy task here. Managing the Ireland men’s football team is not an attractive job, at the back of it all. The salary is about mid-Championship level – what ambitious young buck wouldn’t prefer a job that is within touching distance of the Premier League over a nation that has missed two Euros in a row and hasn’t been to a World Cup since 2002?

On top of which, the playing staff is far from stellar. Our best goalkeeper is only keeping the seat warm until Liverpool’s Number One returns. Anything up to four of our first-choice defence will be relegated in the coming weeks.

If Josh Cullen goes down with Burnley, it is likely that the new manager won’t have a single Premier League midfielder to pick when the Nations League comes around in September. Evan Ferguson, the brightest spot on the horizon, hasn’t scored a goal for Brighton in five months.

Whatever way you look at it, the job hasn’t a lot to recommend it. Which is presumably why it has taken so long for them to fill it. Decades of mismanagement have led to a middling team with limited prospects and no way of generating the sort of salary that would attract a buzzy name.

It’s been a tough gig for the FAI. But in this, as in so much else, they are only reaping what they’ve sown.

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