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Comment & Analysis | Sport

The character assassination of Ireland’s managers

Steve-Staunton-N
Steve Staunton: played 102 times for Ireland and went to three World Cups, now a figure of fun.

ONE EVENING just over 10 years ago I was having a drink in a pub across the road from where I worked.

This was a quiet enough local pub in suburban Cork so when a bunch of football coaches wearing FAI tracksuits bowled in, laughing and wisecracking, people looked their way.

The alpha male of their group made his way to the bar and got the order in, all the while keeping the banter going with his colleagues and the barstaff.

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That man was Brian Kerr. I can remember imagining what it would be like to be so self-confident.

At the time, Kerr was the main man. He was about to be swept to the office of first-team manager on a wave of media and public acclaim due to his fantastic record with St Pats and Ireland’s underage teams.

The next time I saw Kerr in person was in the press area of Craven Cottage before Ireland’s friendly against Columbia in 2008. To say that he cut a diminished figure would understate the transformation. Gone was the brilliant aura of success, in its place a subdued, contemplative figure.

Of course, if you see anybody on their way to have a drink with their mates after work and compare it to a quiet moment five years later, you will note a difference. This, however, seemed more pronounced than simply the march of time allied to altered circumstances.

Kerr himself would likely disagree, but to me he appeared like the man who had borne the weight of intense scrutiny and, often, scorn and was the worse for it.

The same press that feted him all the way to the top job turned on him and by the time he was let go in 2005 it is fair to say his stock was low.

We Irish people often like to point at the tabloid culture of Britain and sneer … We are not so merciless, so callous, so kneejerk … Really? I wonder whether we’re any better.

Every Ireland manager since Jack Charlton has effectively been hounded out of the job. Steve Staunton, a man who played 102 times for Ireland and went to three World Cups, is now a figure of fun.

Giovanni Trapattoni would pitch up somewhere between Satan and Jimmy Savile on the popularity ladder.

I’m not a fan of Trap. I think he is overpaid and underperforming. I don’t like his brand of football, and wrote so much in this paper back when he was first appointed.

Still, the character assassination being carried out in public is such an unedifying process that I actually find myself warming to the Italian now. I want him to do well. And not just because like any fan I want the team to get good results regardless of what I think of the manager — more because I think the flack he is getting is so far out of proportion to his failings.

Proportion, perspective, objectivity — whatever you want to call it, we lack it.

Declan Kidney is the latest victim of the mob. I’m not arguing he should have been given a new contract. But you would think he would have at least been allowed to see his current one out instead of being told to clear his desk and leave the building.

Hopefully he can look forward to a brighter future than that of his predecessor Eddie O’Sullivan, who was good enough to lead Ireland to three Triple Crowns but not up to scratch to be interviewed for the Connacht job.

When you’re cold you’re cold, eh.

The cold truth though is that all these managers we spend time analysing, occasionally praising and more usually castigating are not nearly as important as we think.

In the great Soccernomics, Stephan Szymanski and Simon Kuper show how the wage bill at a club is far more pivotal to league position than whoever the manager happens to be. So, if you pay the third-highest wages, you will finish third. This proved to be true of 90 per cent of clubs surveyed over 15 years.

Generally, the best players will go to where they will be paid the most. In other words, it’s the quality of your players that largely dictate whether you win or lose more games.

International teams can’t buy in talent so they have to make lemonade with what they have. The reason Ireland won three Triple Crowns under Eddie O’Sullivan is because he had better players available to him than we usually do. Those sides were led by Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, all in their prime.

The main reason Declan Kidney won a Grand Slam in 2009 is that he caught the tail of that generation and gave it a twist. The main reason he has had declining success since is because the key players have been in decline.

The main reason Ireland qualified for two World Cups under Jack Charlton is because he took charge of the best group of players we’ve had. The main reason we are comparatively poor now is because the players are comparatively poor.

The future success of Ireland’s soccer and rugby teams depends less on who will be taking over from Kidney and Trap but on who will be coaching kids’ teams all over the country and in other lands where children of Irish people are brought up.

Just don’t tell the mob. They’ll track all these people down and through the medium of newsprint, television, radio, their blogs and their 48,000 tweets, tell ’em where they’re going wrong and why they should be sacked.

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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