Argentina 1-0 Iran

This originally appeared in the Independent

Miguel Delaney

After such a defining statement from Leo Messi, and so much discussion about what was said between him and his manager this week, Alex Sabella put it best. “Having Messi means anything is possible,” the Argentina coach gushed.

One of the most remarkable elements of the playmaker’s brilliant winning strike against Iran, beyond its outstanding quality, was that a goal was beginning to actually look impossible.

Messi had in truth endured a poor game. Far from symbolising Argentina’s rise, he summed up their frustration. Iran’s blockade was brilliant. The goal – or even a fluent attack – never looked like coming.

It indicated much that, just before the decisive moment, Diego Maradona walked out of his seat to leave the stadium. So, as one legend exited stage left, another truly entered. Messi also looks set to dominate this stage. He will rightfully dominate all reaction. How could someone not after such a sensational stoppage-time winner?

This was the type of moment that adds to legacies, that typifies what he is there for and what he is as a player. If one definition of genius is conjuring something from nothing, this was the perfect display.

That is all the deeper because this was far from a perfect performance, with a whole lot of nothing in it.

In some ways, it reflected what Messi has become over the past two seasons. One of the enduring images of the game – before the glory of his late goal and celebration – was the playmaker strolling about, not all that energised.

It is also a sight increasingly common in the 26-year-old’s club career. He is no longer the sonic blur of energy he used to be when Barcelona were at their peak between 2009 and 2011. There is a much greater languidness to his game. Some would call it laziness. At the end of Barca’s disappointing 2013-14 season, Messi’s low mileage stats became an increasing topic of debate.

It was argued around Camp No that this is all a further consequence of the overbearing influence and ego Messi is developing. It was something that came under further scrutiny with Argentina in the last week, as discussion has grown about exactly whose decision it was to change formation back to 4-3-3.

The difference is that Messi still tends to show why he may have developed that ego on the occasions when he decides to do something.

He can go from a heavy afternoon to a lightning storm in an instant. The burst of acceleration remains devastating. The touch is still immaculate. The finish… well, it was a work of art.

It also came after very little work from Messi, but few were going to pick up on that afterwards. Javier Mascherano was only going to praise him.

“That is what Messi has,” the midfielder said. “On the day he is not so involved in the play, he appears and does that.”

“That” was a glorious curling strike into the far corner of Alizera Haghighi’s previously unimpeachable net, and all as 11 Iraniandefenders amassed in the box, and the clock ticked well into stoppage time, with his team badly needing it.

“As soon as I got the ball at the end, we were all in attack,” Messi said of the goal. “Obviously, I was very happy with the strike. Then I heard people screaming and smiling, and it was wonderful of course.”

It was not just of the great goals of this World Cup. It was a great World Cup moment, of the type the history of the tournament is all about.

This may well become Messi’s tournament. His performance could set the path for Argentina’s campaign: underwhelming start, patchy displays, before growing and finally coming to glory at the end.

It is certainly possible, especially with Messi there.

Death in the Maracana: Spain and the end of an era

Miguel Delaney
For the Spanish squad walking mournfully out of the Maracana, there was no denial or anger. There was only acceptance.
Xabi Alonso was one of the few who felt capable of speaking after the 2-0 defeat to Chile, and he said what the world was thinking.
“Eras end with defeat,” the midfielder quietly admitted, “and this was a painful defeat.”
It led to some bruising realities. Spain are out of a tournament for the first time in eight years, having endured the worst ever performance from a defending champion at a World Cup. That is a stark drop from the perfection they came close to.
In winning three consecutive major trophies, they defied football history, and set new standards and records.
They could not set new parameters for how teams are built. They couldn’t defy the passage of time, or the inevitable and almost intangible erosion of any great side’s intensity.
That, more than any other issue, is what this is all about. This Spanish team as the world knew them are now gone, never to return.
They were already a rather different incarnation. That could be seen in their inability to recover from going behind against both the Netherlands and Mexico.
Although Spain genuinely had so many chances to pull both games back – and even settle them before going behind – there was no real regret at the opportunities missed. It was not quite that David Silva or Sergio Busquets came so agonisingly close to scoring in either game. It was that they didn’t come close enough; as if they had lost that edge to go the crucial extra inches. That is almost a consequence of something subconscious, but Alonso acknowledged its effect.
“We’ve not been able to keep the same levels of ambition and hunger, perhaps the real conviction to go for the championship.”
The way in which they ran out of energy was reminiscent of France’s impotent toil in the 2002 World Cup or Brazil in 2006. Both of those teams had won multiple trophies, but that only led a widespread loss of truly exacting will.
It cuts to the core of the issue. Although many individual Spanish players are still in their prime, and still world-class, the chemistry of a collective is something different. Alex Ferguson arguably knows more about quickly ripping up and rebuilding winning teams than any other manager in the history of the game, and he once revealed his philosophy on it.
“I always believe a four-year cycle is probably the most you can achieve,” the former Manchester United boss said in 2010. “There are very, very few teams who can create more than a four-year cycle.”
Spain were possibly one of them. They went further than any other international side in history by winning that third trophy, and adding Euro 2012 to the silverware 2010 and 2008. Similarly, there was the effect of their deep-rooted coaching revolution two decades ago. As one of the few countries in the world to undertake such a significant step, it gave their international team the cohesion of a club side, beyond anyone else. All of that was only deepened by an actual club side in Barcelona, and the amount of players they provided. It isn’t too long ago that debate raged over whether anyone could do anything against Spainexcept defend very deeply. A fair argument before this World Cup was that, if they simply kept applying their same possession game, they would stay on top.
That was the problem. As Barca began to wane, so did the Spanish team. It is here that Ferguson’s philosophy becomes so telling. Retaining a hard edge requires making hard decisions.
Initially, some of the them may seem ludicrous. Take the decision that first made this Spanish team. Back before Euro 2008, Luis Aragones felt he had to drop Raul. It earned all manner of criticism, and was similar to Ferguson’s sales of Paul Ince and Roy Keane. They all ended up paying off.
Del Bosque was unwilling to be so bold, not least with the declining Iker Casillas. Although he did drop Xavi, it was too late. The damage had been done in the first game against the Dutch. The side’s most symbolic player was simply unable to set the same tone or pace. It meant the Netherlands were able to tear at them like never before, and saw some holes in the side properly ripped open. From there, everything fell through.
That tends to be other trend with such great sides. Their falls are rarely gradual. They are sudden and searing. Although an inherent nous tends to stave off decline for some time, as happened with Spain in Euro 2012 and throughout the 2014 qualifiers, the first proper blow can have a disproportionately profound effect. Once one thing goes wrong, everything unravels.
That was precisely the case in the Dutch game. That 5-1 defeat marked the first time since 6 September 2006 that Spain lost a competitive game after first going ahead. It was as if everything they knew had suddenly evaporated. From there, it all fell apart. The centre didn’t hold. They didn’t know what to do any more.
A suspect defence sank. An unbalanced midfield could no longer play the passes to keep them out of trouble. The strikers couldn’t finish, and that finished them off.
There was just a general discontentment. “The happiness of before is gone,” Alonso said. The fact he was one of the few to front up is even seen as significant. Alonso is known to be deeply unpopular within the team for the sides he took under Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, but that only adds to the feeling general rifts have grown. Some around the camp have contrasted the current situation with Euro 2008. Then, the squad would gather in Joan Capdevila’s room, just having a good time together.
That happiness is gone. That team is gone.

Spain 0-2 Chile, 2014 World Cup

This report originally appeared in the Independent

Spain 0-2 Chile
Miguel Delaney, Maracana
Too tired, too slow and too few points. Spain’s World Cup is over, and an era ends. Vicente Del Bosque’s team have become only the fifth defending champions in history to go out in the group stage, but the first the lose their opening two games and thereby the quickest to ever go home. They are also the first team eliminated from 2014. That sums up the scale of the fall almost as much as the poverty of their play. Chile, as they promised before the game, have made history.
The South Americans also consigned Spanish dominance to the past with a display that brilliantly outpaced their famous philosophy and made it look brutally outdated.
The contrasts seem to be confirmed within minutes. Spain embarked on a relatively sedate spell of passing, only for Chile to snap at the ball and tear at their defence. It caused instant panic, not too dissimilar from the chaos the Dutch created any time they got near the Spanish box last Friday. Arturo Vidal nutmegged Javi Martinez in the box and, just as Eduardo Vargas seemed set to finish, Xabi Alonso took it off his toe… but almost put it into his own net.
Again, chaos. It was a warning, but also a sign.
The fact Martinez was involved indicated that Spain’s problems were perhaps more profound than the choice of personnel. Del Bosque’s side did temporarily recover some of their old confidence, thanks to some composed passing. That at last illustrated that the decision to drop a declined Xavi was not mistaken. For a time, it was Chile forced into errors.
One dreadful pass from Marcelo Diaz needlessly gifted David Silva and Diego Costa the ball and so much space, only for the forward to take it too far then hit a wayward shot. Andres Iniesta collected and the ball came back to Alonso, but goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was equal to it.
Soon, Chile recovered their balance, and upended Spain’s. They certainly left a line of Spanish defenders on the ground as, within four minutes, the South American side surged into the lead.
It was a goal at once glorious and awful. Every Chilean touch was brilliant, every Spanish attempt at a tackle hapless. Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez sleekly worked the ball through to Charles Aranguiz, who cut back for Vargas to cleverly finish.
The raucous Chile fans erupted again, Spain were quietened by what was by now their horror situation: they had to chase the game, under severe pressure from the stakes, but also leaving themselves susceptible to the pace of Sanchez.
One wild Alonso shot revealed their anxiety; a poor Costa finished underlined their lack of edge. By then, there was an impotent toil to their play so reminiscent of France in 2002.
Chile displayed more life and vigour in everything they did. While Spain struggled to generate momentum, the South Americans were winning flying challenges and effortlessly pulling off nutmegs.
The second goal summed it all up, right down to an Iker Casillas error. While Spanish displayed panicked hesitation, Chile emphatically seized the initiative. The goalkeeper punched a free-kick anywhere he could, Aranguiz powered it precisely into the corner.
Costa could not replicate such accuracy at the other end. The Chelsea striker has provoked much debate, from his eligibility to his suitability, but the bottom line here is that he was not fully fit. That was emphasised straight away in the second half, as he squandered the kind of chance he scored all too easily at Atletico Madrid.
Costa did display some of his supreme bustle moments later on, with an impressively improvised bicycle kick to set up Sergio Busquets just yards from the goal.
It was the wrong player, however, and this was the wrong finish. Somehow, Busquets missed.
It was another sign.
The oddity was that Spain had at that point more than enough chances to win the game well. The reality was that they still didn’t deserve to.
Costa eventually went off for Fernando Torres to a chorus of boos, which seemed to sum it all up. Del Bosque had so much talent on the bench and so much depth… but selected a faded star as a saviour.
Salvation didn’t seem set to arrive. Instead, Chile kept delivering dangerous balls in the Spanish half, with Sanchez powering through them in the stark manner of Arjen Robben. It brought even more chaos.
Spain could do nothing like that to Chile. More passes were moved around the box, more shots were sent just wide, but there was never an actual sense it was close.
There was only more laboriousness. Substitute Santi Cazorla attempted to control the ball in a dangerous position but only succeeded in falling over it.
Spain have fallen from their perch. One of the greatest sides of all time have suffered one of the most dismal endings.

Spain: Casillas; Azpilicueta, Martinez, Ramos, Alba; Busquets, Alonso (Koke 45); Silva, Iniesta, Pedro; Costa (Torres 63)
Chile: Bravo; Medel, Silva, Jara; Isla, Aranguiz (Guitierez 63), Diaz, Mena, Vidal (Carmona 85); Vargas (Valdivia 84), Sanchez

‘What a waste’ – Keane/Ferguson and Clough/Taylor

This article originally appeared on ESPN
The scene was as sad as it was subtle.
Towards the end of Brian Clough’s final season as Nottingham Forest manager in 1992-93, he was rewarded with the freedom of the city. Duncan Hamilton gives an account of the day in his exceptional book ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me’, which covers his years reporting on Clough at Forest, and there is a poignant pay-off. After hours touring the city and talking about his career, Clough turned his attention to someone he hadn’t actually talked to in 10 years.
“There’s just one regret today,” he said to Hamilton, out of nowhere. “I wish me mate had been here with me.”
The journalist didn’t need to ask who. Clough was referring to his former assistant – some might fairly say co-manager – Peter Taylor. They had won the European Cup together in 1979 and 1980, but couldn’t have ended up further apart. The last time they spoke was 1983, after a series of disputes. The saddest part of all was that, in the years before Taylor’s 1990 death, “mate” was the last thing Clough would have called him.
“We used to be friends once,” he had told Hamilton before. “We never will be again. And that’s final.”
At this juncture, it’s far easier to imagine Roy Keane or Alex Ferguson saying something like that about their own failed relationship, rather than lament it in the way Clough ultimately did his.
You only have to look at the words of the last week or last year, as the former Manchester United men offered corrosive public criticisms of each other to go with their autobiographies.
This is not to say Keane or Ferguson were friends, or that their partnership was the same as that of Clough-Taylor, but there are common strands. Those strands also point to something deeper as regards the game, and the nature of successfully leadership. It does not seem a coincidence that two of the most profitable partnerships in English football history dissolved into such ugly rancour. It’s also not like they are completely isolated cases, the mere consequence of cast-iron personalities.
Look at one of the league’s other great dynasties. In the mid-70s, Liverpool had to tell Bill Shankly to stay away from the team, so his own former assistant Bob Paisley could do the job his way. It resulted in the tragic situation of Shankly feeling like a stranger at the club he built.
The Scot once described football’s team ethic as “a form of socialism”, but all of this also sums up the game’s great contradiction. It is based on collectives coming together for a common good, yet the best in history have all been shaped by single dictators – the managers.
Keane pointedly painted Ferguson as something of a tyrant this week, saying he was “all about power and control”. The Irishman has challenged that like no-one else. He has also tackled the elephant – or perhaps the horse – in the room like no-one else, too. Keane utterly nailed the issue of his former manager’s notorious legal dispute over the Rock of Gibraltar racehorse with businessmen JP McManus and John Magnier.
“He was just a mascot for them,” Keane cuttingly states. His book is typically full of such searing comments. That bluntness is often mistaken for bitterness, but no-one who is actually bitter would go to such pains to explain their motivation behind every key moment. The issue instead seems to be Keane is simply incapable of offering his view on anything unless it is exactly what he thinks. That makes ‘The Second Half’ Keane’s honest account. One person’s honesty, however, does not necessarily add up to the whole truth.
Take Keane’s description of the fateful day when Ferguson decided to get rid of him, in November 2005. It is the first time that morning has been outlined in such detail. Keane had notoriously criticised many of his teammates for the 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough, having been asked to offer punditry on the club’s TV station. It never went on air. Keane claims he initially managed to clear the air with the squad, before Ferguson then angrily decided they should all watch the tape.
The more Keane explains, the more that two things seem to become clear. The first is that, as honest as the Irishman is, there’s something he isn’t confronting.
Keane admits “the timing was right” as regards his exit, but leaves a question: “I still don’t know exactly why it happened.” He wonders whether it was the dispute in pre-season, or any issue with assistant manager Carlos Quieroz.
“Was I missing something?” Keane asks.
He may have missed the biggest thing of all, and the second thing that becomes apparent from his account.
This does not read like a pure personality clash. It reads like Ferguson doing something Keane had seen so often: taking the opportunity to get rid of someone whose negatives now outweighed the positives.
The manager was asserting his dictatorial control. The suspicion is Ferguson knew Keane was no longer the same player, and that no longer justified his attitude. Simple as that.
There was no residual warmth or personal regard. There was cold and professional business.
It was precisely that decisiveness Keane used to lionise, especially in his first autobiography. Throughout that, he talks about Ferguson with something like a sense of an awe; like as if he’s a father-figure. Ferguson’s own first book from 1999 talked of Keane as the closest person to him in terms of mentality, the incarnation of his attitude on a pitch – like a son. It was special. It is therefore incredible it has come to this, even if always felt someway inevitable.
Clough and Taylor were also said to have something like a familial relationship, but one that was fraternal or akin to a marriage.
Their fall-out similarly involved a corrosive public dispute over an autobiography. Taylor brought one out shortly after the 1980 European Cup, but it wasn’t really about himself. It was about his partner, and actually called ‘With Clough by Taylor’.
Although it formed a brilliant account of how they worked together, Clough was deeply wounded by what Hamilton calls “Taylor’s demeaning psychoanalysis”. Even the root of that was something universal to all this. Taylor and Clough may have been a partnership, but they were not treated equally. Taylor was not paid anything close to Clough’s salary, and did the book to earn more.
It was part of a growing resentment over how much who got rewarded for what, and who was responsible for what. It was about credit and control.
Over the last year, Keane has repeatedly referenced Ferguson criticising players who gave him so much success, as if he feels their role is being downplayed. One comment this week touched on it all.
“A manager who has made millions out of us… and he thinks he can criticise us without anybody saying anything to him because he thinks he’s got all this power.”
There is also a powerful human element to all this. Beyond everything, these men together enjoyed special moments that should only be looked on with happiness. Instead, there’s always that edge, that associated resentment.
Clough finally reflected on that to Hamilton shortly after Taylor died.
“All those years when we could have been sitting together, when he could have come, as an honoured guest… but all we did at the end was slag one another off. Oh, fuck.”
“What a waste.”

Not a thug, far from an oracle, but always enthralling

This originally appeared in 8by8 in December 2013

At first, at least, Roy Keane plays up to so many perceptions.
As he strides into the function room of the Grand Hotel in Malahide for a first press conference in his new role, the just-appointed Irish assistant manager rolls his eyes at all the cameras flashing.
“I wouldn’t be a big lover of the circus,” Keane later says. Over the next 45 minutes, he certainly illustrates that, castigating one journalist for a “stupid question” and initially wearing what can only be described as a severe scowl.
Many other opening enquiries are met with furrowed brow and a look from almost out the side of his eyes. Keane undeniably retains that capacity to reduce the most assertive people to stutters and stumbles over words. That, of course, is down to his own furnace-hot assurance. He isn’t actually the tallest, but has that unmistakeable presence associated with so many such personalities, and is as lean and fit-looking as in his peak playing days. The grey beard which seemed to reflect some of his grizzlier comments as a TV pundit was gone.
By the end in Malahide, too, Keane is laughing loudly and has even referenced his reputation as a “trouble-maker” and “monster” as he sits back in his chair. The mood has changed. He’s also rather frankly fronting up about some of his flaws as a manager. The conversation, which is what his press call evolves into as it comes to the Sunday journalists, is genuinely engaging and interesting – and not because of the typical expectation that Keane will excoriate anyone or anything he doesn’t agree with.
If the former Manchester United midfielder undeniably remains intense, this is very far from the caricature that is so often portrayed.
That is the thing with Keane. For all the perceptions, his personality is far too layered to fit any stereotype. He isn’t a thug, he isn’t an oracle, but he is enthralling. Just when you think you know him, he will surprise you.
The latest swerve is the very decision to accept the job as assistant manager to Martin O’Neill, not least because it meant working for a federation he has deeply criticised in the past, let alone the fact that such a force of personality will be someone’s number two.
Of course, part of the reason he’s here, and part of the reason it looks set to be one of the more intriguing international football storylines over the next two years, is because it recently seemed that Keane didn’t quite know where he was in his career himself.
Most pointedly, it had been almost three years since he was employed as a manager, having been sacked by Ipswich Town in January 2011.
With the only job offers apparently coming from far afield, the famously devoted family man filled his time while working as a pundit and going to Wigan Athletic near his home. He also attracted much attention in Ireland and the UK for bringing ITV presenter Adrian Chiles to watch a Dublin match in the Irish national sport of hurling during the summer. It had been thought the broadcaster would always be much too jokey for a man as supposedly severe as Keane, but all who know the Irishman remark on his sense of humour. As one journalist who got on well with him chatted idly while waiting for an elevator after an interview, Keanewent to press the button. A smile spread across his face. “Straight to hell, is it?”
It did feel as if Keane himself had been in some kind of purgatory over the past two years. Hurling is not the only other sport he follows, and he has repeatedly spoken of his fascination with what makes other professionals tick, particularly those from rugby and boxing. Keane is also a voracious reader.
The difference, however, is that it used to be Keane providing the copy. It all seemed so unclear what he was going to do next.
Two things were always certain. Keane is one of Ireland’s greatest ever players, and the country’s most-discussed and fascinating sporting figure, with the reasons for both overlapping.
If the Corkman was not born with anything like the natural ability of Liam Brady or John Giles, his sheer mentality absolutely maximised the qualities he had to forge a career superior to any of them.
No other Irish sportsman has won so many trophies, and been so central to all of them. That influence is the key.
Beyond the truly transcendent talents fully applying their ability on the highest stages, such as Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup or Leo Messi in the last few seasons of the Champions, it’s genuinely difficult to think of many other players who have so completely imposed their will on individual games in the manner that Keane frequently did. He has a catalogue of such performances.
While the 3-2 win over Juventus in the 1998-99 Champions League semi-final remains the most famous, it is likely trumped by his displays against the Netherlands and Portugal in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, not least because it involved lifting a mid-tier country to a much higher level.
Although Ireland were placed in a group featuring two teams that had just reached the last four of a widely celebrated Euro 2000,Keane drove his side into the top two.
He explained the attitude that drove him at the time, and what he would now demand of the new Irish squad.
“On our day, I’d like to think we would be able to compete with all these countries, absolutely,” Keane said in that recent press conference in Dublin. “The teams when I played with Ireland, I never, ever remember once being in a dressing room with an Irish team and going out thinking we were going to lose.
“We played some big teams. Italy, Germany, the Dutch, the Portuguese. I don’t ever remember looking at players and having any sort of fear and going ‘I’d take a 2-0 defeat here today’. No, no. Let’s go for it.”
He did that. The 1-1 home draw with the Portugal in June 2001 summed up so much of his playing career at that point. With a star-studded attacking pulling the Irish defence all over the pitch, and the reigning world player of the year Luis Figo eventually piercing them with a goal, Keane illustrated he truly belonged in such company by consistently covering errors and then scoring Ireland’s only goal by essentially forcing the ball into the net. At the end of the year, undeniably influenced by Keane’s efforts in the 1-0 victory over the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal gave the Irish midfielder his only vote in that year’s Fifa award.
While club teammate David Beckham earned so much recognition at the time, it was often as if Keane was overlooked precisely because he eschewed the glamour and the “circus”.
The 2002 World Cup was supposed to be his statement tournament, when a 30-year-old in his absolute prime was set to properly announce it. It did end up defining him, but in a very different manner than anticipated.
On the eve of the tournament, Keane’s simmering acrimony with manager Mick McCarthy boiled over into a bitter dispute about what he perceived as Ireland’s poor preparations. The exact mentality that had driven the side to the World Cup in the first place now drove him home.
It remains one of the stand-out moments in Irish sporting history, and brought the country to a stand-still at the time, with the different positions even pointed as reflections of a change in Irish society. It was also to be echoed throughout his career, particularly when he eventually fell out with former mentor Alex Ferguson too.
‘Saipan’ – as the incident has been named after the Pacific island on which it took place – was inevitably mentioned in all the circus surrounding Keane’s appointment, with the coach even joking how O’Neill had questioned his conduct at the time in discussions about the role.
“Martin is entitled to be wrong,” he smiled.
Keane certainly insisted he was in the right in his autobiography, which was published just a few months after the incident. Given the amount of expectation and standards set out in the book, it was often seen as an ‘Art of War’ for managing.
One view put forward in the media at the time was that, while Keane had to make himself a great player, he was born a great manager. That initially seemed the case. His first job at Sunderland even reflected many of his most admirable traits: resilience, defiance and simply refusing to accept failure. The team became renowned for late goals, and it’s easy to forget now that his first two years represented unchecked progress, with Sunderland romping to promotion and then achieving survival in the Premier League.
It wasn’t long, however, until the other side of that will again had an effect. The all-consuming intensity became too much, exhausting both the team and his own powers of securing results. The subsequent 21 months at Ipswich Town were characterised by an apparent inability to deal with players and many of them bristling at some of his man-management.
Ferguson notoriously questioned his former captain’s managerial capabilities in his own recent autobiography.
“As his career in coaching developed, it became apparent that he needed to spend money to achieve results. He was always looking to buy players. I didn’t feel Roy had the patience to build a team.”
Keane refused to discuss Ferguson in Dublin – other than to briefly reference eventually tackling “lies” – but did acknowledge his shortcomings as a manager.
“Where do you want to start?” he said of lessons he’d learnt. “We could be here all day. Mistakes?
“What I would say with anybody is I have made mistakes and I would doubt my recruitment.”
He also admits that lack of patience.
“There are areas I need to look at, particularly now I’m the assistant, when to step back and hopefully I’ll get that right as well.
“There’s a way of getting that message across, how you put the demands on them, you have to treat people with respect and, as I said, hopefully the players from the last days will appreciate, as I said, knowing I need to step back and let Martin run the show. I’m just here to help.
“Hopefully, the players are in for a pleasant surprise, particularly the lads who’ve not worked with me.”
Again, the very fact Keane is so open about this comes as a surprise. It is also for that reason, that willingness to evolve, that the eyebrow-raising partnership with a man as intense as O’Neill could actually work – and allow him to rebuild his coaching career.
There were encouraging signs from the admittedly brief first few days surrounding the friendlies with Latvia and Poland. Keanewas very hands-on on the training ground and all action beside O’Neill on the bench. Their exact characters may mean the manner they complement each other isn’t obvious, but that is not to say it is not possible. At the minute, it looks probable.
For all the reported previous problems with some of the players, too, it is clear many of them are as in awe of him as much of Ireland. After the 3-0 victory over Latvia, Shane Long talked about how Keane had brought them to the cinema – one of his favoured group-bonding activities – to see Gravity in 3D. The image was portrayed of him sitting there with those glasses on.
An admittedly normal act, but by a hugely fascinating figure.
It doesn’t fit the perception.

The real problem with Irish football, part two: why arguments about populations don’t add up

As if the difference in quality wasn’t daunting enough, the dilemma was that something so simple made it all much more complicated.

The signs were there early on. In the opening minutes of Germany’s trip to Lansdowne Road in October 2012, Thomas Muller made a quick run inside from the right wing. It was just one movement, but the dart immediately took four Irish players out of position – the left-back, the left-winger, the left centre-half and the left central midfielder. None of them could work out what to do, but Muller instinctively knew to keep doing it.

Gradually, the space got wider. Eventually, Germany’s lead became vaster. The ultimate 6-1 defeat remains the worst result Ireland have ever suffered at home, even if embarrassment was tempered by the fact the opposition were one of the best teams in the world.

Yet, to portray that thrashing as merely the consequence of a top team on top form would be to lamentably miss both the point and the potential for a more profound lesson to be learned. This was not just a mid-tier country coming against one of the absolute elite. It was a group of players that have arrived together at the end of a haphazard youth structure facing off against a squad that had been purposefully shaped by one of the finest underage systems in the world.

While one team’s talent had been broadly moulded, the other’s had been maximised. On the night itself, that contrast served to amplify the existing gaps between the teams. That should be eye-opening.

The root of such a repeatedly devastating move was not the kind of innate magnificence that someone like Mesut Ozil is born with. It was the kind of instructed run that can be learnt over time.

Muller’s movement created the space for virtually everything else that Germany did in that match, but was something that had been completely fashioned on the training ground. It seemed almost automated. It very likely was.

Muller had essentially been made to understand how to make that run, why to make it, why it didn’t matter if he never got the ball and how it would consistently help his team.

“The only way you can actually learn that is by having it explained to you,” one Uefa analyst says. “And the only way that can happen is if somebody explains it to them. That’s where Ireland is falling down at the moment.”

It is a viewpoint that should really realign how we think about Irish football, not to mention our aspirations. Fundamentally, there is no valid reason a German player should better know something as rudimentary as a run. Fundamentally, there is no valid reason the average Spanish player should have superior technique. All of these aspects can be coached, right up to a highly competitive point.

Of course, some individuals will always have the innate ability to far surpass such a point. Barcelona will not always nurture a Leo Messi. On the whole, however, it is not like nations are genetically predisposed to produce a certain type of talent. Twenty years ago, Spain were most famous for bottling it in tournaments. Twenty years ago, Spain were not fielding players like Andres Iniesta.

The far-reaching changes both the Spanish and the Germans made to their infrastructures have by now been pointed to many times, as have the much higher populations of both countries. Arguments about greater numbers, however, don’t really cut it. Everything can be done to scale.

Most importantly, when you scale it all right down, every country starts from the same point: a child learning the game. It is a view encouragingly put forward by the FAI’s new High Performance Director, Ruud Dokter.

“Children of eight are all the same,” he says. “The culture might be different, but you are the same. Your psychological development, your physical development, it’s all the same.”

Most pointedly, as Dokter puts it, “the principles of development” are the same.

Regardless of whatever future tactical revolutions the game goes through, comfort on the ball is the single transcendent quality. That obviously involves a quantity of connected aspects: the understanding of how to receive the ball correctly, the ability to control with both feet, the mentality to pass rather than punt, the bravery to try and keep it. They are vital elements to develop, and there is only one way to start.

“Young players, they need to discover the game, and they need to have the freedom to play the game,” Dokter enthuses. “Let them play. They will make mistakes, you will concede goals and you will lose, but a good coach will help his players. Freedom of play is essential up to the age of 14.

Naturally, that involves freedom from the pressure to just win. Greater contact time on the ball is crucial. Consider Arsene Wenger’s first question to academy players at Arsenal after a game. It is not whether they won. It is how many times they touched the ball. Then, it’s how they used it.

Alan Kinsella, whose work at Templeogue United has received such praise and seen him move to Everton, echoes Dokter’s philosophy.

“The most important ages are between six and 12 so the coaches of those age groups are the most important coaches.

“When I got involved, I wanted to try and develop players to take chances, to play it out. We wanted to try and play through midfield, play it forward.

“You see, the kids don’t know any different. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the way you play, don’t kick the ball away. Like, you hear at a game of seven-a-side, where a player kicks the ball out to touch and a manager applauds him, whereas I’d be thinking, can he turn and play it back to the keeper? That’s just a small difference and a defender could get caught trying it, but if he doesn’t try, he’s not going to develop.

“I think that’s what we should be promoting, that the FAI should be heavily involved in, an idea of taking chances, getting on the ball. If you mistakes, so what?”

It would also be a mistake to say such principles are not evident in Irish coaching. The vaunted Emerging Talent Programme is built on such an approach, and underage international coach Niall Harrison is known to be a huge advocate of the way the Spanish and Belgians play. His sessions promote those principles, as does the FAI’s coaching education programme. A significant number of elite schoolboy clubs practice them, particularly in the DDSL.
The problem is how deep all that can go. Liam McGroarty has been a member of Uefa’s Grassroots Panel since 2010, and previously worked for the FAI, but retains concerns about the consistency of it all.

“If you’re going to watch what Ajax are doing, or a session that Sparta Prague put on, it’s the exact same stuff a coach would do in Cork,” McGroarty says. “It’s not rocket science, but what they do is consistent and across the board. That’s the big difference.

“The FAI has a responsibility there – we have educated tens of thousands of coaches since the early 2000s. This has been a great feat, but continuous monitoring and support is an issue.

“A difficulty is the amount of clubs we have. If a young coach is not monitored, he or she reverts back to what they know. They forget about proper technique, building possession.”

One coach in the Emerging Talent Programme tells the story of when a club near him put on a workshop for children and managers based on the Coerver approach.

“One of the kids I coach, he had a great day. So I asked him on the Tuesday, did he use any of the Coerver stuff at his next training. He says ‘we didn’t use any of it’. So what chances does that have?

“A player could be with us on a Monday, go back to his club and be told to boot it or, even worse, have no game for three weeks.

“We need to completely change how we see football being played at a young age. Winning should go out the window until you’re 13, 14.”

It is a problem exacerbated by the current structures. While manpower and funding are obviously broader issues, volunteers would be unable to revert if all the young kids were playing mostly small-sided, non-competitive matches. As it stands, too many are playing 11-a-side in full-size goals, with full pressure on them.

It boils down to this: children under the age of 12 will not get as many touches as required if volunteer managers just want to win as many matches as possible.

“What will happen,” Dokter says, “is you will put physical strong players on the back four, you would not substitute anybody.”

That is why structural reform is essential; that is why it is so important the kind of guidelines suggested in the 2009 underage review finally start to go through.

“In order for a player development philosophy to take root,” McGroarty says, “this education needs to be supported by the right competitive structures.”

Kinsella concurs: “Every year, there’s a good batch, but how good could they be if there was specialised coaching?”

Spain may not always produce an Iniesta, Germany may not always produce an Ozil and Belgium may not always produce an Eden Hazard but that is not really the point.

“If a player has all the right attributes but doesn’t get the practice or opportunity to use the ball, he will never become as good as his physical attributes would allow,” the Uefa analyst explains.

“If you have the blocks in place, you’re in the best position to take advantage of any crops that do come through. Even if Belgium didn’t have such a good group, they would still have had something good.”

As it stands, most of what is good in Ireland tends to be fairly “ad hoc”. Scout Dave Henderson believes it is not a coincidence most of the best talent come from an existing football environment.

“There are only a few quality ones. Most of them evolved through their parents, because they’ve played League of Ireland… it often goes back to the father is a coach.”

That is the case with Kinsella, who attempted something so distinctive with Templeogue. While his former club were still fortunate enough to come through one of the most progressive leagues, the DDSL still has elements that are counter-productive in a wider context.

Even beyond the “business” of selling young players to England, clubs pride themselves on schoolboy trophies won, and many kids are poached in this pursuit too. Except, despite Templeogue’s relatively small size, Kinsella’s team didn’t quite suffer that. It is telling.

“It didn’t happen with the group I have, which is this year’s under-16s, and the reason I think it didn’t happen was because I’ve been with this group since under-four and worked on technical ability a lot: both sides, left and right foot, beating players, losing players, trying to work on basic co-ordination, skill levels. So, by the time we got to play at under-7s, we were better than everybody else.

“You might concede goals by beating the player in the wrong area or trying to pass the ball across the back, but you’ll get the benefit later on – if you’re prepared to stick with it.

“It can be difficult even at seven-a-side because it’s very competitive, a lot of shouting and screaming, but the parents bought into what we’re trying to do.”

Kinsella and colleague Eric Stokes took the time to initially bring all of the parents in and explain their plans, and it created the platform for everything that followed: a series of National Cups, a number of underage caps, and a lot of interest from English clubs. The key was that Templeogue did not specifically target such achievements.

Because Kinsella and Stokes didn’t concentrate on just winning, they didn’t lose players. The children were enjoying themselves, and then began to enjoy victories as a by-product. It is an approach Dokter would approve of.

“Coaches are also facilitators,” Dokter stats. “You bring [children] to the club and they play, they enjoy the game, and you help them to become a better player. By doing that, you facilitate winning the game, instead of only addressing winning the game.”

“Football isn’t a short-term thing,” Kinsella adds. “It’s a long-term thing. The players are going to be competitive anyway.

“We won a few trophies but forget about all that. Work on development. We’re seeing it in some of our guys now, where they’re stepping on and showing what they can do.”

That step is key, and reflects the importance of implementing a pyramid structure. Once players have perfected the basics, they can then be coached the more complicated aspects of the game; team collaboration; tactical shape; the type of runs that Muller makes.

“Everybody should have enough playing time at underage football,” Dokter surmises. “Once you go up, at 17, 18, 19, the team is more important than the individual. All underage football is for me development, but the result becomes more and more important at the age of 19 because that’s the last step to go to the seniors.”

Streamlining the structure would make it easier to then produce a higher standard of player.

“We don’t produce enough players who can do that something different, go past a player, produce something out of nothing,” Kinsella states. “Those players are there but we don’t help them enough, we don’t have many game-changers at international level or just below, League of Ireland level.

“I think working on the technical level of the younger players will help bring them out.”

It may make the difference in the long run.

The real problem with Irish football, part one: politics of failure

It was the moment when Wim Koevermans, the man that John Delaney had in 2009 described as the most important appointment in Irish football history, first wondered whether the job was worth the trouble.

In February 2010, the recently-installed FAI High Performance Director was at a meeting with the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland to discuss the implementation of 51 recommendations from the 2009 underage review. Most of the items were “common-sense stuff” like small-sided and non-competitive games for children under 11. As one figure at the meeting explained about the benefit of such changes, “they’re the kind of the things the Spanish and Germans have been doing for years”.

The response to that from a senior SFAI official was alarming: “What the fuck would they know about Irish football?”
It could be argued that very quote reveals enough about Irish football, except for the merciful fact it is a single administrator. That obstinate resistance did ensure the guidelines were shelved, however, and that in itself points to a crux that has conditioned our game.

What we definitely do know about Irish football are a number of broad truths. If Germany have put in place the perfect football structure, Spain the finest coaching, and Belgium and Holland have found a way to apply both for smaller countries, Ireland still remain some way off such ideals.

One widely respected European official said in 2011 he’d “never seen a football structure as crazy” as in this country. That framework ensures we are still ultimately producing a competitive international team by accident rather than design, despite some admirable changes to coaching across the spectrum.

Quite simply, the current structure is not making efficient use of the talent that is there. Irish football remains hugely dependent on English clubs to finish the coaching of players older than 16, yet the statistics indicate fewer are going across than 15 years ago, and even fewer still to the top teams. That may well be down to fact so many of those top teams are now global super-clubs recruiting talent from all over the world, but that then raises the question of whether the mean standard of Irish player has risen at the same rate.

One university study indicated that, between the crucial formative ages of six and 16, central European players get an average of 14 times more touches than those from Ireland. Needless to say, that has a multiplying effect on fundamental technique, with the difference arguably seen at Euro 2012 and a number of recent squad call-ups. Research also indicates that a lack of playing time has led to a huge drop-off by the age of 11. These young players similarly suffer from a paucity of coaches consistently laying down modern training, given that there are estimated to be 10 times more coaches per player in the elite countries.

A current Premier League manager confided that most Irish underage players “struggle to adapt”. The worry, as a Uefa analyst put it when asked to survey Ireland in the context of continental football, is that the country is “not keeping up”.

“What matters at the moment is that there are better players coming from so many more countries than Ireland,” he said. “That must be tackled.”

Alan Kinsella, who is seen as one of the most progressive underage coaches in the country and has recently moved from Templeogue United to Everton, echoes that concern.

“I have a fear we’re going to be left behind… the bottom line is our kids don’t get enough contact time with the ball.”
In theory, there should be no reason Irish football cannot do what Spain, Germany and so many other countries have done on our own scale. In theory, there is no reason Ireland cannot make the changes that see other countries talk about our technical ability in 10 years’ time the way they do about Belgium now. The question is whether that is actually possible in reality.

Many within Irish football insist that finally sorting out the sport’s infrastructure and youth production is now the single most important issue the FAI face.

At the least, it seems to be a view finally shared at the top of the association. The subject was the main item at a late 2013 board meeting, which was not the case at the previous eight. There is said to be a new will about the issue, and that many of the problems raised here are starting to be addressed.

That’s what the FAI maintain.

Almost four years on from that meeting that saw Koevermans get so frustrated, his replacement is sitting in a Dublin hotel lobby. Ruud Dokter is, by contrast, very optimistic.

The new High Performance Director isn’t in the job long but recognises an atmosphere for change.
“It’s a good time,” the 57-year-old Dutch official says. “We have a new management team, with Roy [Keane] and Martin [O’Neill].

“There’s a huge desire to take it to the next level, that’s what I have found speaking to people, to leagues, observing games.

“I’m here because I’ve come from a country with a big history in youth development. I’m not here to copy that system but I’m here to instil some principles of development, which are all over the world the same… you need to have a pyramid structure, one way or another.

“You can do it.”

The caveat to such a positive sense of purpose is we have heard such plans before, we have heard what must be done for so long, but we have so far seen no real effects.

The wonder, and hope, is whether that is finally changing…

At the very least, Dokter’s focus is clear, even if Irish football is not.

“It’s about putting a point on the horizon and saying this is where we’re going to go and this is how we’re going to play it.”

That end point is currently an ideal, but one Dokter has a fully rounded image of: it is the “uniform pyramid structure” that has been talked about since the Genesis Report.

“That’s something very important,” Dokter says. “If you want to develop, we need to have certain principles, and a pathway from six to 21. You need a common philosophy.

“How we play at the age of eight, 10, 12 should be in any league the same; same size of the field, same size of the goal, same size of the ball.

“For me, it’s an important part of the puzzle, the pyramid structure. There should be national leagues for under-19s, 17s, 15s; at every level there must be a competition structure that allows, if you’re good enough, to go [to the next step].”

Fundamentally, that means a local club playing in Bushy Park should be a certain number of promotions away from the League of Ireland. Similarly, a young player starting out in Bushy Park should – if good enough – have a clear pathway through schoolboy football to either a foreign club or League of Ireland academy.

As it stands, and as elementary as that sounds, none of that is the case. Kinsella says there is still “no real alternative to England” for elite 16-year-olds. The feeling persists that positive initiatives like the Emerging Talent Programme still run alongside the structure rather than through it, that they are not a true tier.

If the ideal is a pyramid, it is actually very difficult to describe what the current shape of Irish football is. It doesn’t even have fully joined-up lines.

Broadly speaking, there are three main pillars: schoolboy (the SFAI), junior (the provincial FAs) and senior (the League of Ireland). Between those pillars, the links are unclear. Within them, there are even more disparate blocks and often multiple different leagues in the same county, some of them with no defined place in the structure.

A kind view would call it an Escher painting. A harsh one would call it a mess.

Rather than clear steps, there have traditionally been gaps and ceilings everywhere, with the situation historically complicated by endless political issues.

It is for that reason that, while Dokter’s end point may be clear, the path there is not.

One FAI employee tells the story of a meeting he was at in 2008, when a pyramid structure was being discussed. “Why bother,” came one response. “It’s a political nightmare.”

That description would appear to be backed by the fact that, of 31 people approached to speak for this article, 11 would only do so off the record. As that same employee says, “anyone speaking publicly nearly has to have every phrase siphoned through a lawyer – one word could cause a political bomb.”

Officials from the SFAI did not return calls, those from the Dublin District Schoolboys League did not want to talk because of the dispute with the SFAI over the contentious radius rule – whereby players are only allowed join a club within a certain distance of their registered school.

That row actually reflects the entire problem. It would just never have existed if the structures were correct.
Eight different figures, some of them currently working for the FAI, boiled the issue down to this: the FAI traditionally have not governed football in the way the German or Dutch federations do.

All of them pointed to the crucial first step in the structure as one of the most important examples. The absolute key ages of development are between six and 12, yet the affiliation immediately in charge of those players have not always proven the most progressive. The SFAI rejected 44 of the 51 guidelines in that 2009 underage review, which remains untouched. Despite how important and obvious it seems, a significant number of leagues around the country for players under the age of 12 still involve 11-a-side matches as well full-size pitches and goals.

Speaking in general, Kinsella says “it’s a crazy situation the SFAI have one rule and the governing body another.”
When one FAI employee was asked why that was, he responded “you’d have to ask the schoolboy bodies”.

“Power? Some within the SFAI seem fearful of the FAI having any proper control of underage football. If John Delaney tried to railroad those changes through, they could just say no, and then turn around to thousands of volunteer administrators and say ‘we’re against this’.

“The Mé Féinism at local level goes right up, where you then have people at council not concerned about their county or affiliate, just their own club, and that’s of no value to a strategic approach to development.”

One notorious story has rippled around coaching circles, and was repeated verbatim by four different sources. In January 2013, the coaches of the under-15 Irish team staged seminars in Dublin and Limerick to inform Kennedy Cup managers what they were looking for, since that squad is the first international age group. It was a logical and encouraging move, and should have precipitated wider integration.

The SFAI, however, were not initially consulted about this. So, shortly afterwards, the affiliation sent a memo to their 32 leagues to disregard the seminars.

The sessions went ahead, with 76 coaches attending in Dublin and 35 Limerick, but a number explained they wouldn’t be going because the SFAI had instructed them not to.

As recent as that story is, the FAI insist things are changing. Senior figures stridently deny the association is as “political” as historically outlined. “The FAI run football in this country,” one official asserted when some of the above stories were put to him.

For the FAI’s part, there is evidence supporting their stance. Early in Delaney’s tenure as chief executive, the voting power at council was changed. The SFAI lost out and the League of Ireland gained, but this always had to be a first step in re-aligning the power balance along European lines so the senior game becomes more influential than the amateur.

One FAI figure also cited how the progressive DDSL wanted to leave the SFAI, but the governing body blocked that. Only a few years ago, too, the FAI would not have been able to put an exact number on the amount of clubs under their jurisdiction. It was much easier for a club to be formed out of nowhere to sidestep a political dispute or increase the voting power of a league. That has been tightened.

On a player level, the FAI has remarkably never had a full central registration system for the amateur and underage game – preventing statistical analysis – although a deal was signed in mid-November 2013 for the implementation of necessary software.

Leading FAI officials also believe criticism of the SFAI is “hugely unfair”, that there are a number of progressive people in the affiliation, and that the schoolboy body has “historically been very good for Irish football”.

That history is relevant, and there is no escaping how much a complicated political past has conditioned the current situation. When the major sports were first codified over a century ago, football was unfortunate the GAA and rugby had more fixed foundations, particularly in schools. From that, their structures were more smoothly built. As the League of Ireland clubs have repeatedly found, the GAA almost completely appropriated local representation.
Football had to find a different way to grow around such monoliths, which explains the formation of so many disparate affiliations, from the FAI Schools to the WFAI. While such a structure makes no sense compared to the modern fluency of the Dutch and German federations, it was an inevitable consequence of how football first laid roots in Ireland.

One of many catch-22s at the core of any reform is that it may require a lot of individual bodies and competitions to decide whether they must exist.

Evolution is rarely painless. Belgium found that during their own 2002 revolution. As their technical director Michel Sablon explained recently, “it took more than five or six years before everyone could bring themselves to accept… in the beginning it was terrible, but eventually they began to see it.”

Before that, in the mid-90s, the Dutch federation took 20 regions all working independently and combined them into just six. Dokter was involved in that process, alongside the legendary Rinus Michels, but does not necessarily feel a combative approach is the right way here.

“These competition structures are obviously a complex area,” he says.

“It’s about consultation, a professional discussion. Yes, you need sometimes to think outside the box, and that’s the challenge.

“We have to get everybody more working together, collaboration.”

That collaboration could be key because there is still so much separation and discord within Irish football. Even if every player under 12 was to enjoy the perfect coaching environment, the next step is fraught with further political complications.

If the ideal is that elite kids go through a schoolboy club to either England or a League of Ireland academy, many involved can still not stomach the idea of linking up with traditional rivals for players. There is a historic lack of trust – even “hatred” – from schoolboy and junior clubs towards the senior domestic league.

One primary aspiration for some clubs is to make money from selling players on, but one corresponding major fear is other teams poaching the finest candidates. Disputes over compensation remain rife.

Again, actual blame is somewhat difficult to apportion given the situation is so shaped by history as well as the gravitational pull of England, but that also makes it harder to untangle.

To begin illustrating the dilemma, there is the very fact the five biggest schoolboy clubs are not also five of the biggest Airtricity League clubs. That is another situation almost unique to Ireland. Instead, those clubs are found at the top of the DDSL, and have produced the key proportion of internationals over the past few decades. In terms of pure coaching and style, outfits like St Kevin’s Boys and Belvedere are shining examples to the rest of Ireland – another factor in the dispute over the radius rule.

“You cannot argue with how successful the DDSL have been to mine players,” says Dave Henderson, who has worked as a scout for Shelbourne and Aston Villa. “There’s something working there.

“The Belvederes, the [Cherry] Orchards and Kevin’s, they’ve kept the international team going, so you can’t just say go away.”

The crux is the long-term benefit of Irish football as a whole may require them to go a slightly different way. As many interviewed for this article state, the historic success of such teams has blurred the line between whether they are still just schoolboy clubs or effective “businesses” selling players abroad.

In an ideal structure, those teams would be linked to League of Ireland academies. The likes of Cork City and Sligo Rovers should be umbrellas for all the clubs in their region, serving as a defined tier in the pyramid.
Dokter supports this.

“Building strong clubs is very important: financially – which is a problem – but also in terms of organisation, logistics, facilities.”

The problem is not just asking the most successful schoolboy clubs to make a financial sacrifice. There is also the the reality that so many League of Ireland teams remain afflicted by necessarily short-term approaches, but that only reveals another crux. Initial small investments in youth structures would begin to have long-term benefits, gradually breaking the endless cycle of strife. Only a few clubs to do it, most notably Shamrock Rovers, Limerick and Waterford United.

That tension between short term and long term runs right through this entire issue of restructuring Irish football, right to the core of taking hard decisions.

When the idea of lowering the League of Ireland under-20s to under-19s was first broached a few years ago, there was “uproar”. Schoolboys clubs feared it was an encroachment into their territory; senior clubs worried about extra expenditure.

Gradually, reform came. The under-19 Elite League of Ireland was announced in 2011, and is now encouragingly being filled by Emerging Talent Programme graduates. It stands to reason that, over the next few years, the technical level of the League of Ireland will rise.

The FAI maintain that is proof Delaney’s gradual approach is the correct way to about this plan, and will secure sturdier foundations. “John will only make a move on something once he’s put the building blocks in first,” one association source said. “Things cannot just be done overnight.” Those close to the chief executive state he is conscious never to “burn a bridge with anyone involved”.

The other factor that can’t be overlooked is the FAI cannot exactly afford to burn money either. Even the implementation of small-sided games from the 2009 underage review would have cost around €3m, and that at a time when funding was being cut. That slowed the process, but there is still the dilemma that the limited money invested will be used inefficiently while the structure has so many gaps. That, again, makes reform imperative.

Critics of Delaney’s gradual approach argue that makes it all the more important he starts taking harder decisions with people; that the glacial pace will only lead to more rock-faces being formed, all while other countries stream away. Despite Delaney’s reluctance to risk future negotiations with a hardline attitude, some involved believe that is unavoidable. Three different high-profile sources stated that the chief executive now has a “golden opportunity”. They insist, however, that it is necessary to “grasp the nettle”, to draw a defined line in the sand like Germany in 2000 or Belgium in 2002.

The FAI maintain that juncture was the appointment of Dokter as High Performance Director.
of course, similar sentiments have been heard about his predecessor, but FAI sources explain they have learned from the 2012 departure of Koevermans; that they are now ready to rectify previous mistakes.

For one, the job description has changed, given that Dokter’s requirements are now 70% domestic. Secondly, there is his personality. Whereas Koevermans would get frustrated with disagreement, Dokter is much more conciliatory.

“I’m not here to say this is my law, so do this and this,” he states. “That’s rubbish. Our common point is the game – what is good for football.”

“It’s about persuading, and that’s why I’m here – for the football, not the personal. We have to stand above that.”
There are signs that may be having an effect. Previously, figures within the SFAI have been resistant to the idea of the Emerging Talent Programme incorporating players under 14. In January, however, Dokter’s recommendations that be changed will be put to the FAI board. It is expected to be waved through, in what one former association figure describes as a “big step”. It is also hoped the under-19 national league will be under-laid by an under-17 competition, as Dokter completes his technical plan. He will be assisted by a committee of coaches, and it is anticipated the SFAI will put forward John Devine, whose own proposals have earned praise.

“There is a desire for change,” the optimistic Dokter re-iterates. “It has to be step by step, how we can implement the good things.”

With Irish football, it’s hard to know.

Arsenal, Chelsea and the night that changed their rivalry

This article originally appeared on ESPN in December 2013

Miguel Delaney

The night had been that raucous, and the match that riveting, that it was almost impossible for the players to even begin clarifying their emotions afterwards.

Yet amid the “delirium”, as Claudio Ranieri put it, the then-Chelsea manager knew something rather decisive had happened – and not just Wayne Bridge’s winning goal.

“This victory will change something,” the Italian said of his side’s 2-1 win at Highbury in the 2003-04 Champions League quarter-finals.

Between Arsenal and Chelsea, it changed everything.

The nature of both football and football coverage means isolated moments of relatively innocuous coincidence can become imbued with a meaning they don’t necessarily warrant. At the same time, it is that very open quality that ensures some moments do possess a sense of portentous inevitability. Even if they are not truly significant, they carry a genuinely symbolic sense of symmetry.

The night of 6 April 2004 distilled all of that, as well as so much else.

Even on its own terms – a Champions League quarter-final second leg and the first ever meeting between two English clubs in the modern competition – that evening had deeper dimensions than usual.

Arsenal were not just aiming for the Champions League trophy, but the triumph that would confirm their status as the best team in Europe at that time, and one of the finest in history. They certainly played uniquely divine football. As midfielder Edu says in Jon Spurling’s book ‘Highbury: A History of Arsenal in N5’, “that was the time for Arsenal to win the Champions League, with the crop of players they had at the time. You can sense when the time is right, and it seemed that way… the balance lay in our hands.”

The otherwise elegant balance of their season was completely disrupted. Arsenal’s supreme football made them invincible in the Premier League, but not in the campaign as a whole. There was a rich irony to the fact that, in a league season when Arsene Wenger’s team had not lost to a single English side, they were knocked out of the competition that mattered most by one of the clubs closest to them.

Worse, it was a club they had already beaten three times that season, having also knocked Chelsea out of the FA Cup. That very fact only followed a far longer trend, and was the reason this game really had ripples. It was as if, for Chelsea, so much in the rivalry had built up to that 87th-minute winner.

By finishing off that swift one-two to win the game, Bridge actually separated two eras. The stats either side of that moment are striking.

In the decade before that night, Arsenal almost completely dominated their duels with Chelsea, winning 18 and losing just four of 31 games since the end of the 1993-94 season.

In the decade since that night, it has been drastically different. Chelsea have won 15 and lost just four of 25 fixtures leading up to Monday night’s match at the Emirates.

It has been a reverse as resounding as Bridge’s late winner was dramatic.

In the aftermath of that 2004 game, Roman Abramovich issued one of what remains very few public statements about his club. “Chelsea played great and I think the team showed the Russian character to hold on, to fight, to win.”

Whatever about Russian character, they certainly showed the effect of Russian cash.

There can be no overlooking the primary reason for that profound shift in dynamic. While Chelsea accelerated with the influx of Abramovich’s immense resources, Arsenal were held back by the building of a new stadium.

It was something Wenger made sure to mention in his Friday press conference before Monday’s game, when asked about Jose Mourinho’s unbeaten record against him.

“We had restricted financial resources for years. Everybody knows that. It’s simple.”

There is a danger that is a slightly simplistic reading of it all. The finances were undeniably the main factor in Chelsea winning so many more trophies than Arsenal since 2004, but that still does not explain the extreme nature of the swing in their games. Statistically, the money should not translate into such a stark contrast between two sides who are actually so close in quality in a wider Premier League context.

To illustrate that, Chelsea actually have a worse record over the same period against Tottenham Hotspur, with just 10 wins and four defeats from the same number of games.

There do seem a few other issues exacerbating the effects of the financial changes. In the Highbury mixed zone after that 2004 match, Thierry Henry said Arsenal went into the game “without being at our best physically”.

That is likely true, given that they had also been eliminated from the FA Cup semi-finals by Manchester United just three days beforehand, but the question is whether it all had a psychological effect regarding Chelsea too.

As recently as January 2013, Wenger said Bridge’s goal “remains one of the big bad memories of our club”.

Perhaps part of it is that none of the Arsenal team at that point could themselves remember Chelsea ever winning at Highbury, and had burned so many painful memories of the Stamford Bridge club’s consciousness too.

It was not just that Chelsea had not beaten Arsenal in the league since 1995, it was the way they so often lost: late goals, thrashings, commanding wins, atrocious errors, unlikely scorers, comebacks. The nadir was in October 1999, when Nwanko Kanu scored goals at Stamford Bridge in the 75th, 83rd and 90th minutes to hit a hat-trick and convert a 2-0 Arsenal defeat into a devastating 3-2 win.

Even Wenger’s very first game against the new Chelsea, in October 2003, continued so many old trends as Carlo Cudicini spilled the ball for Henry to plunder a winner.

Initially, the 2003-04 Champions League quarter-final seemed set to perpetuate all that. Arsenal had claimed the advantage with the away goal from the 1-1 first leg, and Jose Reyes made that more secure with an ‘insurance’ strike in the 45th-minute of the return.

Gradually, though, the ground under the teams started to move. On 51 minutes, Claude Makelele – of all Chelsea players – hit an untypical long-range strike that Jens Lehmann could only parry. Frank Lampard, one of the players that preceded Abramovich’s takeover, followed up with the equaliser.

Wenger later lamented his team were “very good in the first half” but “lacked sharpness” in the second half. That description could be applied to the last two decades between the teams, not just that match. Shortly before the winning goal, Chelsea served notice with a move that rivalled Arsenal’s football. It fell short. Bridge would go all the way. In the 87th minute, one of the players that was the first to arrive under Abramovich gave the team a statement win. He exchanged passes with Hernan Crespo before firing low under Lehmann. “Delirium”.

As Spurling’s book acknowledges, “you couldn’t disguise the significance of that night”.

Chelsea had denied Arsenal what they felt was [open itals] their [close] Champions League, and inadvertently opened the path for the man that would deny Wenger so much more. Mourinho would go on to win the 2004 Champions League with Porto and then solidify Chelsea’s superiority. There can be no disputing the Portuguese’s edge over Wenger. He is not just unbeaten against the Arsenal coach, but has even won more games than he’s drawn, five to four.

More pointedly, Mourinho’s brilliance exacerbated the effect of both Abramovich’s billions and thatBridge winner, with the baton then taken up by Didier Drogba after the Portuguese’s initial departure.

The striker scored almost every type of goal against Arsenal, while Chelsea have won in almost every conceivable way.

It’s been quite the reversal.

Champions League final 2014 report: Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid (aet)

A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner

Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid

Miguel Delaney, Estadio Da Luz

Having finally put Real Madrid’s name back on the European Cup, a serene Carlo Ancelotti put it into the club’s true terms.

“On my first day, when I went to the Santiago Bernabeu trophy room, I said to the president [Florentino Perez] that there was one trophy missing.”

Ancelotti has completed that job, delivered La Decima, and it’s difficult to think of a more complete victory in terms of the dimensions of their 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid.

This, in so many ways, was the perfect 10th. The wait made it all the more wonderful for Real, the circumstances all the more special.

For a start, right at the death, there was the relief and release of Sergio Ramos’s stoppage-time equaliser. It gave Real new life, and killed all of Atletico’s momentum. From there, there was only one winner, but also one player who needed to score that key goal most.

Gareth Bale went some way to justifying his world-record transfer fee, and overcoming so many earlier misses, by heading in the decisive effort that finally put Real ahead. Marcelo made it 3-1 before the man that Bale succeeded as the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, got his big goal in his home country.

Then, there was the significance of all that. The competition’s most successful ever club brought the trophy back to what they consider its rightful home, and against the side closest to home.

Perez looked on proudly. The Real Madrid president could finally say all that outlay was worth it, given how so many of his expensive stars had struck. It was testament to Ancelotti’s ability to handle top players. It also meant the Italian had his hands on a landmark third European Cup as a manager, finally becoming the figure to match Bob Paisley’s record.

On the pitch and off it, the emotions were clear. Iker Casillas said it was better than winning the World Cup. On 90 minutes, the goalkeeper had energetically grabbed Ramos and kissed him, fully aware of the importance and immortality of that equaliser. The two Real stalwarts were the last to leave the stadium mixed zone, but not until after Casillas had held up two hands to signify those 10 European Cups.

In the end, for all the emotion, it’s difficult not to distil it down to the numbers like that: a 12-year wait since Real’s ninth Champions League, over €1bn spent, three world transfer records… and one minute from the most painful failure.

That shows how close Atletico came, but also how far away Diego Simeone’s side really were.

The story of their season has been how they so admirably defied football’s economic realities. In winning the Spanish title, they spent so much energy, rather than money. It couldn’t continue indefinitely, despite Diego Godin’s opening goal. Real had that bit more.

In extreme circumstances like that, it’s difficult to put such a result down to any single factors. Had a bounce gone a different direction, or a ball gone another way, Atletico would be celebrating.

Instead, the only issue that Simeone was lamenting was the gamble on Diego Costa, who went off injured after nine minutes. The true consequence of that was that Atletico could really have done with that extra substitute as the extremities of the game sapped their energy.

“It was my responsibility to have [Diego Costa] play and obviously I made a mistake because I had to switch him as early as I did.”

Simeone, however, acknowledged that Real deserved it late on, but it takes nothing from Atletico’s campaign.

“You have to look at it overall – Madrid were better in the second half, they kept us in our half and we couldn’t get out. Football is wonderful because of that.

“The supporters should be proud of an excellent season, they shouldn’t waste a single second being sad.”

Bale, by contrast, had wasted many a chance.

“A few thoughts crept into my mind,” he admitted afterwards. “It happens and sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green but you have to keep persisting, keep going and you may get that chance that will may get that chance that will make the difference. Thankfully, I was able to get that chance and I was able to take it.”

Ancelotti, meanwhile, insisted it was down to much more than the “rub of the green”.

“You can say I’m a lucky man in the end, or you can say that we tried to do everything until the last second of the game.”

Real certainly did try to do everything, but not just on this night in Lisbon. It means, for now at least, they have achieved everything that has consumed the club for the past decade: la Decima.

***

A version of this originally appeared on The Score

Right at the death, this Real Madrid team ensured immortality. La Decima was delivered in Lisbon, Atletico Madrid suffered devastation.

And, having set it up, Sergio Ramos summed it up.

“It was incredible,” the centre-half said of his injury-time equaliser in Real’s 4-1 win. “That goal isn’t mine, it’s everybody’s.”

It also meant everything.

For all that Gareth Bale ultimately proved his worth with the second goal, and Cristiano Ronaldo crowned his night with the fourth, it was Ramos who provided La Decima’s decisive and defining moment.

His plundering header brought so much to a head.

This had so much wrapped up in it, even by the standards of late goals in this famous fixture, from Teddy Sheringham in 1999 to Arjen Robben in 2013.

Most immediately, it transformed a 1-0 defeat into a 4-1 procession. Real were suddenly soaring after such a struggle.

Yet, whatever about exaggerating their victory, the unexpected extent of the winning margin only emphasised and reflected the importance of that moment – and not just on the night.

Most obviously, of course, it changed the dynamic. Ramos’s goal ensured all of Atletico’s energy was finally eroded, while Real played with a new momentum. That meant, rather than talking about a modern football miracle, we were merely celebrating the club that were already the most successful in the competition’s history. Instead of Atletico continuing to defy the sport’s economic realities, Real confirmed the value of spending a billion. One side won their long-expected 10th trophy, another were denied what would have been a novel first.

The goal may have changed this match, but it also ensured the game in general remains the same.

None of this is to deny the fundamentally sporting qualities of the Real players’ victory. Carlo Ancelotti’s team displayed supreme character to keep going, and then accelerate.

Yet, when it comes to such proper knife-edge moments like Ramos’s equaliser, it can genuinely be difficult and even foolhardy to place too much importance in any individual reasons for success or failure.

Had one kick been slightly under-hit, or one pass further been over-played, it could have been completely different. Atletico would be celebrating.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to look at the multiple strands that ensured that single moment was so decisive.

Here, some blame must go to the otherwise brilliant Diego Simeone. For a start, quite literally, there was the gamble on Diego Costa’s fitness. While the decision to play the injured striker from the beginning was someway understandable, his bizarrely early withdrawal ensured Atletico were denied a substitute in those energy-sapping closing stages. Imagine, by contrast, the effect of bringing Costa on at that point?

Secondly, there was the way in which Simeone’s cynicism eventually proved a negative for his own team. All that defending, and all that systemic fouling, only increased the pressure. Atletico’s time-wasting, meanwhile, gave Ramos an even greater window to equalise.

Yet, from a wider perspective, it would be hugely unfair to overly fault Simeone and his side for any of that that. They themselves are not exactly playing in the fairest context.

The Argentine cannot spend multi-millions on transfers, or call on a series of the world’s most expensive players.

Simeone has to cut his cloth to measure, and that won’t always be pretty, especially after the exertions of the domestic league victory.

In that regard, there was a certain inevitability about Real’s recovery, even if it didn’t feel like it in the anxious moments leading up to it.

Ancelotti’s side won by sheer force of numbers. That’s in an almost literal sense, at least in terms of transfer fees

They were able to rely on record signings, who simply hadn’t expended the same energy in recent weeks. So much effort had been spent on Atletico’s title win. So much money had been spent in Real’s last decade.

It said much that the world’s most expensive player scored Real’s second goal and the next most expensive scored the fourth.

Of course, you can’t put any value on the kind of emotions authentically experienced by all at the club on finally ending that wait, but that in itself raises another issue.

This is now the third season in a row in which one of the super-wealthy modern super-clubs have ended a long Champions League drought. Chelsea at last won their first in 2012; Bayern Munich won a first in 12 years in 2013; Real did the same tonight.

The novelty value of ending these waits starts to wear off, even if that is obviously not the case for those at the clubs.

The feeling grows that the old elusiveness of the European Cup is now gone for such clubs. A cabal of them will just ending up passing the trophy around, even more so than the last decade. If you have the money, you’ll eventually get your turn.

That the last three finals all came down to the last minute actually emphasises the point. It doesn’t show how agonisingly close Borussia Dortmund and Atletico came, but prove how far away they are.

As the margins lessened, the true gaps were revealed.

That is why that Ramos minute was so momentous, and not just for La Decima.

The final rise of the super-clubs, May 2014

A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC

Miguel Delaney

Lisbon

Carlo Ancelotti was never going to pass up the opportunity. With the Puerto del Sol waiting for the victorious Real Madrid squad in the centre of the Spanish capital, the Italian coach took the microphone, and began to serenade the crowd. Elsewhere Dani Carvajal showed off a beard he had died blonde, while Iker Casillas’s young son cutely bit into his father’s newly-minted Champions League winner’s medal. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.

The exhausted relief of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid had given way to jubilant release. For all the traditional elitism of a club like Real, these were endearingly base human reactions. The squad were simply revelling in the reflection of that 10th European Cup.

A 12-year wait, and one big weight, had lifted.

It was impossible to begrudge the players or coaching staff.

It was also impossible not to think we’d seen similar scenes rather recently.

Of course we had: in the last two seasons.

The emotions on view around Madrid were similar to those in the Allianz Arena last season and London’s Kings Road the year before.

In 2012, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to joyously win the first Champions League in their history. The following campaign, the German side immediately bounced back to end their own 12-year wait.

The speed with which Bayern did that is pointed.

It’s difficult to imagine Atletico Madrid returning to such a position so quickly, just as 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund could only reach the quarter-finals this season. It’s also difficult to think many of the super clubs will ever go on such lengthy droughts again.

This is the wider point to those Champions League wins of the last few years, and the manner in which those three elite clubs claimed victory. While the emotions of people directly involved are obviously so deeply felt, the frequency of these ‘once-a-generation’ celebrations gradually renders them less wondrous for many others. We’ve seen the story before.

If a big club is ending a wait every other season, it only increases the sense they’re all just eventually going to get their turn. That’s possibly because that’s precisely what’s happening. It is the increasing trend in the Champions League, more so than ever before.

A cabal of about seven to 10 super-clubs now have so much power and so close to each other in terms of baseline level that, if they keep generally competitive to a competent level, the odds are the roulette wheel will eventually land in their favour; that the great trophy will come to them.

To illustrate the case, consider the situation in the late 90s, just before the Champions League fully and finally expanded to its current size.

Real Madrid had gone 32 years without winning the trophy before 1998, Manchester United 31 before 1999. Bayern ended up going 25 years prior to 2001. Barcelona, meanwhile, were the great underachievers in the competition’s history. The Catalans only won it once in the first 40 years of the event.

Compare all that to now, and the length of time it is since this list of clubs last won the trophy:

Real Madrid – 0 years

Bayern Munich – 1 year

Chelsea – 2 years

Barcelona – 3 years

Manchester United – 6 years

The point becomes clear. Previously, there was a genuine elusiveness to the trophy, no matter who you were. Now, that true depth of elusiveness only exists for those outside the cabal. Once the big clubs properly adjusted to the extra demands of newly expanded Champions League from around 2007, and built squads of sufficient size, they set a certain bar. Beyond, the sense grows the trophy will merely pass around between them.

This is of course not to play down the achievement of any individual team, since they still have to do all their jobs right and show requisite character to actually go and win it in a given season. But, on a macro level, it is a reality that a core of clubs are no so broadly close to each other that they will just crash against each other to the point the path clears for one.

This is the problem when the economics of European football allow a small group to pull so far clear of the rest. And, if it is immensely difficult to catch up with these sides, it is easy to see who and what they are. It is nothing to do with history or structure, or old money against new money. It is simply those with enough power and potential to employ the world’s top band of players and coaches.

They are, primarily: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City. Five of them have won it in the last seven years, and City’s time is surely coming.

A secondary growing group, meanwhile, are Paris Saint-German, Arsenal and Juventus. They could eventually be joined by the likes of Monaco. Everyone else has to work so much harder to just keep, and thereby properly compete for the top trophies.

Many may point to the fact Dortmund and Atletico got to the final in consecutive years, but both sides virtually prove the argument.

They are not super-clubs, so needed rare super-coaches to come anywhere near victory. It was still not enough in the Champions League, and the elite are already chasing Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The fact both of their finals also went to the wire further emphasises the point.

So near, yet still so far.

Atletico were on the brink of something truly radical, to go with their sensational Spanish title win. Instead, continental football reverted to a default state. Real Madrid were talking about returning to their “rightful place”. That very description sums up the issue.

There are a core of clubs that feel the same way and, by law of averages, will soon get similar opportunities.

On this occasion, Ancelotti took his opportunity, and not just on the Puerto del Sol stage. Next season, we’ll likely hear the same old song.