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no joys in green State of the game: No sign of choppy waters abating on Irish football’s grey horizon


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Ireland Manager Stephen Kenny will hope for improved performances after failing to qualify for the Euros last year. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland Manager Stephen Kenny will hope for improved performances after failing to qualify for the Euros last year. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland Manager Stephen Kenny will hope for improved performances after failing to qualify for the Euros last year. Photo: Sportsfile

WHO NEEDS A BIG SEASON?

With no wins in eight games and just one goal scored in 2020, Irish football could not wait for the year to end, the senior team's woes compounded by the inability of the under-21 side and the senior women's team to make the most of their once-promising qualifying campaigns.

Worryingly for Stephen Kenny when he compiles updates on how his players are faring and who is listed under 'Must Do Better', this is an extensive list.

The New Year has had little worth celebrating for his charges in the Premier League, just nine eligible players starting in the nine games so far this month in England's top flight, one of those (Aaron Connolly) picking up an injury and another (Matt Doherty) earning a red card.

James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long and Conor Hourihane remain on the bench at their clubs, Shane Duffy is utterly out of sorts at a struggling Celtic side, and the Sheffield United duo of John Egan and Enda Stevens appear to be bound for relegation.

From his more senior players, the only pluses of late have been the reappearance of Darren Randolph in the West Ham side, Séamus Coleman's return to the starting XI with Everton, and something of a revival for Ciaran Clark at Newcastle United. But Kenny has a batch of players who are struggling at club level and he can only hope that the time between now and the qualifiers in March is kind to the likes of Hendrick and Duffy, while he also rues how that early promise shown by Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Connolly 12 months ago has been halted: mainly by injury but still halted.

Domestically, Dundalk are at a real crossroads, with the departures of medal-laden heroes like Gary Rogers and Seán Gannon and just two new signings to date.

Jim Magilton's arrival will steady a very unsettled ship but 2021 will be a very stern test on the field while the way contract negotiations were handled, and a lack of any progress on stadium development, are worries.

Dundalk stumbled through 2020 to progress to the Europa League group stages and also win the FAI Cup, but they can't afford any more of the turmoil (much of it self-inflicted) which they endured in 2020.

Cork City also face a difficult rebuilding process, on and off the field of play.

WHICH STARS ARE RISING?

Heavy defeats (0-3, 0-5, 0-4) in December/January were a test of the mettle of West Brom defender Dara O'Shea but in the middle of that run of losses, O'Shea made a big impression in the Baggies defence in their 1-1 draw with Liverpool. Another gem from the mine of talent that is St Kevin's Boys, O'Shea deserves to stay in the Premier League, via a move to a bigger club, if WBA are indeed relegated.

Also worthy of a place in the top flight is Jason Knight, who has played more games for Derby County than any other player this season, immediately catching the eye of Wayne Rooney when he took over from Phillip Cocu.

Jack Byrne (Cyprus), Josh Cullen (Belgium) and Connor Ronan (Switzerland) have spread their wings with moves outside the UK, and should that trio of attacking midfield talent grasp the opportunity, Irish football will be in a better place.

BEYOND COVID-19, WHAT'S IRISH SOCCER'S LOOMING CRISIS?

Money. Last month's FAI AGM outlined just how grim things were in Abbotstown, liabilities of €76m. New CEO Jonathan Hill has been impressing the long-suffering staff of the FAI with his manner, and a lack of baggage to any previous regime, but his in-tray is stacked to a staggering height. His commercial team are busy trying to win over an Irish business community which wants to keep a toxic FAI at a distance, and trying to prise money from Covid-impacted sponsorship budgets is a very big ask.

It was only the injection of cash from UEFA and the Government which kept the FAI in business in 2019 and 2020, and there is a hope that the association can regain some form of financial independence by 2023. But with no main sponsor in place, no sponsor for the League of Ireland (men's and women's) and no TV deal for the league, the FAI will be feeding off scraps.

A revived version of the popular WatchLOI streaming service would give visual access to fans denied permission to attend games, but the loss of broadcast matches, on what would be considered 'the telly' in old money, would have an impact as RTÉ's interest in donating time on the schedules to LOI games is, based on their viewing figures, cool.

Euro 2020 is also a worry for those in positions of power here, as should UEFA decide to drop the plan to host the tournament in 12 cities across the continent and play the finals in just one country or a centralised hub, Dublin could lose out.

Brexit's impact on football, and the movement of players to the UK, poses an opportunity but also a huge challenge to the underage game here and the notion that our best 16-year-olds will simply stay on in Ireland, and can get the same level of coaching, financial backing and logistical/medical support that they'd get at a Premier League club in England is unrealistic.

DON'T BE SURPRISED IF ...

Irish football has to get used to empty stands and no fans, across all levels for some time. The Government will decide if and when fans can be allowed back in but it's hard to imagine when Tallaght Stadium will have a crowd of 9,000 again, or when the Aviva will be packed out.

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