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The FAI will find somebody for the Ireland manager job. He won’t be the solution

Are we condemned to traipsing up and down the aisles of world football’s manager superstores, searching for a special offer?

Succession planning. Two houses. Neighbours. Not close.

On the night that Brian Kerr was announced as Ireland manager, 21 years ago, a couple of hundred people crammed into a big, mirror-panelled room in the Shelbourne Hotel: family, friends, reporters, supporters. The atmosphere was giddy and euphoric, like something from a count centre on election night.

Kerr’s appointment didn’t meet universal approval. Not having played at a high level, or managed a club in a fully-professional league, were omissions on his CV that troubled the sceptics. The competing feeling, though, was that Kerr had toiled in the vineyards of Irish football, and against the prevailing climate, he had produced wine fit for any table.

Under his leadership Ireland had won the European U18 and U16 championships and finished third at the World U20 championship. With St Patrick’s Athletic he had delivered two league titles. For everyone who was willing him to succeed, the goodness in his appointment was that he was of the soil.


Like many love stories it ended in tears and it would be nearly 20 years before the FAI took another punt on a manager who had earned his reputation in the domestic league and, from a different angle, on the European stage. You know how that ended too.

In the cases of Kerr and Stephen Kenny, though, at least there was a thread of connection. Whatever doubts might have been harboured about their appointments the work they had done in the game had an undeniable value. Their candidacy was plausible. The appointments had a heart.

There are no such consolations in the drawn-out, broken-down process that has consumed the recruitment of the next Ireland manager. Lee Carsley had been touted as Kenny’s ultimate replacement for so long that the FAI’s apparent failure to land him has sent the process into a spiral of dead ends and stories planted by agents. The successful candidate will be available, affordable and probably disappointing.

In professional sport, succession planning is one of those concepts imported from the world of business that makes an organisation seem smart and serious. How often does a club or governing body pull if off? Not as often as they would like, or perhaps wish us to believe. Most of the time, appointments are reactive. Somebody leaves or somebody is pushed and there’s a hole that must be filled.

There is no suggestion, of course, that the FAI has mastered it. They knew for months that Kenny had no future with them and yet their medium-term planning seemed to revolve around a one-man wish list.

But in a business as volatile as professional football, how realistic is it for a national federation to cultivate prospective candidates in an open market?

How many Irish born managers, for example, have prospered in England or Scotland over the last 20 or 25 years? Martin O’Neill had a terrific club CV. David O’Leary had a charmed run for a while, at Leeds and Aston Villa. Brendan Rodgers has kept the plates spinning. Chris Hughton had an underestimated career in the top two divisions in England. Kieran McKenna has made a big impression at Ipswich. Brian Barry-Murphy has taken another leap in his career with the Manchester City U-23s. Roy Keane had one good season.

Anyone else? How many of them would be suitable now?

In terms of succession planning the obvious and unflattering comparison is with the IRFU. After more than 20 years of outrageously successful transitions, though, it is sometimes forgotten how bad they used to be at this caper too and how much chaos surrounded the affairs of the national team in the last years of amateurism and the early years of professionalism.

In the mid-90s, Murray Kidd lasted nine matches and his successor Brian Ashton lasted eight. By the time a 34-year-old Warren Gatland was persuaded to sup from the poisoned chalice in 1998 six other coaches had either been sacked or resigned since the beginning of the decade. Gatland steadied the ship before being made to walk the plank.

His appointment, though, established a pattern that has transformed the national team into world leaders: every coach has come from within. As Connacht coach, Gatland was on the ground and in the system. Eddie O’Sullivan had been Gatland’s assistant when he was promoted to the role of head coach.

When Declan Kidney replaced O’Sullivan he had not just led Munster to a pair of Heineken Cups but he had spent two years as O’Sullivan’s assistant, early in O’Sullivan’s tenure. Joe Schmidt had made a spectacular impression at Leinster before he succeeded Kidney. He was in the system too.

Schmidt appointed Andy Farrell as his defence coach in 2016, and when Schmidt indicated in advance of the 2019 World Cup that he wouldn’t be continuing beyond that tournament, the IRFU didn’t even advertise the post: they knew that Farrell was the perfect candidate – even though he had never been a head coach before, anywhere.

Just like Schmidt in his time, Farrell has committed to a second World Cup cycle. In international sport, that kind of stability and seamless continuity is incredibly rare. Every Ireland head coach appointed in this century has been a success. Four in a row.

Did they always get it right? Kidney was twice overlooked for the Munster job as overseas coaches were appointed to the position; neither of them stayed long. O’Sullivan applied unsuccessfully for a director of rugby role in each of the four provinces. Both men persevered.

The next head coach? Simon Easterby will be handed the reins while Farrell is on sabbatical with the Lions, but Paul O’Connell is more likely to be the next head coach. One way or another, the IRFU will appoint from within.

The FAI doesn’t have a hinterland of excellence from which to pluck a manager or a management team. Will that kind of ecosystem exist in Irish football? Is it not the role of the federation to stimulate that environment? Is it unrealistic? Why? Are we condemned to traipsing up and down the aisles of world football’s manager superstores, searching for a special offer? Are we really incapable of developing people with the desirable qualities?

Twenty years ago nobody suggested that the IRFU were visionaries. They worked it out. The FAI will find somebody. He won’t be the solution.