Currently, football in the Republic of Ireland is in a dark place. Irish eyes are no longer smiling due to a fall in Irish football.
The Republic’s 1-0 defeat to Luxembourg marked one of the darkest days in their footballing history.
Look at Ireland’s recent run of form since late 2020. Four tepid draws and six defeats against middling opposition makes for incredibly grim reading.
They were not world-beaters back then, but now? It’s not hyperbole to describe them as one of the worst Ireland teams of all time. How did we get here?
Fall of Irish Football
Ireland’s Key Flaws
The first call for concern is the general lack of quality players available. Of the 11 players that started against Luxembourg, only two of them play for top half Premier League teams, and even they have had mixed seasons. Worse still, they’re both natural right-backs.
In attack, the situation is far direr. No one seems to provide a consistent goal outlet. Aaron Connolly and Callum Robinson are fast and energetic, but only have a single goal for Ireland between them.
James Collins is Ireland’s best goal scorer at this point. He currently plays his football for Luton Town in the wrong end of the Championship, where he has scored ten goals in 35 league games. It’s not a terrible record by any means, but it’s insufficient by international standards.
Ireland are also lacking a discernible midfield general. Most Irish fans will be glad to see the back of Glenn Whelan, but he provided a base from which attacks could be built upon.
Ireland’s midfielders are energetic but do not have that sharp mind or crisp passing that is needed. Especially so seeing as manager Stephen Kenny wants his team to play nice football.
The experienced players are not good enough either. James McClean, for all his perspiration, shows very little inspiration to back it up. Now his pace has dwindled, he’s ultimately not much use on the international stage. It’s sad to say, but his time for Ireland is up, as it is for many others.
The question of Kenny’s ability to steer the ship is a complex one. He is not a bad manager, as proven by his magical achievements at Dundalk. He is Irish to the core and undoubtedly wants nothing more than for his country to succeed.
But some of the recent results with him at the helm have been truly appalling. At this point, a roll of the dice may not be such a bad idea. However, with the low quality of players available, fans of Eire shouldn’t expect a quick turnaround.
The Issues With Recruitment
The League of Ireland Premier Division is about as devoid of quality as a football competition can be. Anyone with any hope of making it at the top levels is quickly whisked off to England, usually for a pittance. Seamus Coleman, for example, was bought by Everton for £60,000 at the age of 20.
This is not an exclusively modern practice. Roy Keane, arguably one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers, played just 23 games in his home country.
To counteract this, Ireland have recruited players with Irish ancestry from other home nations (mainly England). However, this soon backfired on the FAI. Ireland’s two best prospects, Jack Grealish and Declan Rice, elected to jump ship. Two English players by birth, given a chance at international football, predictably returned to their native country when presented with a first-team shot.
It’s important to remember that Association Football is not Ireland’s main sport. Rugby Union, Gaelic Football and Hurling all take precedence over the beautiful game in Eire. Given the current state of sporting affairs, what motivation does a young Irish lad have to dedicate his life to football?
If he does, he’s unlikely to stay in Ireland for very long. There’s a reason most Irish football fans follow the Premier League more closely than their native competition.
Are Things Set to Improve for Irish Football?
Ireland’s young players are not bad, but nothing spectacular. Reports of a ‘Golden Generation’ are somewhat exaggerated.
The standout is Gavin Bazunu; a 19-year-old keeper who already looks like the best choice between the sticks.
He’s been out on loan at Rochdale this season from Manchester City and has pulled off some truly excellent saves. His reflexes are superb and his handling is good, making him a very solid option even at his young age.
There are other notable examples, but two of particular interest are Troy Parrott and Conor Coventry.
Parrott could be the answer to Ireland’s goalscoring issues, though his loan spells in the Football League have been middling at best.
Over both of them, at Millwall and Ipswich, he has managed just a solitary goal. This is not chiefly his fault, though. Millwall played a long ball game that didn’t suit him, while Ipswich have had a problematic campaign that sees them ninth in League One.
He is smart on the ball and has good positional sense, but is lacking physically at his young age.
Meanwhile, Conor Coventry could pose as a suitable replacement for Declan Rice. They’ve both been developed at senior level by the same coaching system (at West Ham United) and are quite similar players.
His range of passing is solid, but again, he has to develop physically before he’s ready for the seniors. A player of his ilk is needed to ameliorate Ireland’s woes against teams that implement a low block, as the current crop make recycling possession harder than it really should be.
Sitting someone with an eye for a pass in front of the centre-halves would be ideal for Ireland now. In fact, someone with an eye for a pass in general would be great.
Ireland are in a particularly turbulent transitional period right now. The embarrassments seem to keep piling up, with a draw against Qatar being the latest folly.
One thing that can always be expected from Ireland is desire. Martin O’Neill’s teams were never brimming with talent, but there was always a burning will to win.
Once the ship is steadied and the younger talents have been given time to assert themselves, things should return to normal. Having the Irish at international tournaments is always great – they bring their camaraderie and craic, while the team always threatens to spring an upset or two.
The European Championships will be worse off for Ireland’s failure to qualify – let’s hope they can pick up the pieces before they drop out of the World Cup.