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Ken Early: FAI’s farcical search for an Ireland manager has an answer staring them in the face

FAI seems incapable of making a decision but they already have a candidate who satisfies the criteria, who is available, and who they know wants the job

March 4th, the FAI pressroom, Abbottstown. The search for the new Ireland manager is about to enter its fourth (official) month, but FAI director of football Marc Canham, sitting next to new interim coach John O’Shea, delivers a soothing message of reassurance.

“The process of the appointment of the permanent new coach is very close to the end, nearing its end point, and we look forward to announcing that new permanent head coach in early April. Existing contractual obligations mean that we’re not in a position to announce any further details at this point, but as we’ve committed to, we will announce that in early April.”

Canham comported himself throughout this briefing with an air of calm confidence – verging on self-satisfaction? – that we now know to have been completely unearned and unjustified. By the time his deadline expired last week, the only relevant “existing contractual obligations” that had changed were those of the FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill, whose exit from the organisation was confirmed on April 15th.

It’s saying something that if people in the future ever argue over who was the worst chief executive in the history of the FAI, Hill will be in the conversation.


Nobody would have expected him to understand the peculiar resonance of the “absentee landlord” trope in the Irish consciousness. But how obtuse do you have to be, as incoming chief executive of the FAI, not to grasp that refusing to move to Ireland might lead people to suspect you weren’t taking the job seriously?

His task at the outset was simple: to be a plausible frontman to represent the interests of Irish football after the chaos and shame of the John Delaney era. In Ireland we have an absurd and unjust situation where the Government lavishes support on the elitist sport of horse racing and the moribund entity of greyhound racing, while keeping the mass-participation sport of football on subsistence rations.

In this context, the main job of the FAI chief executive is to lobby Government for more investment. But Hill blew up his own credibility over the “accidental” holiday pay chicanery. Instead of Hill pressuring Government over the big-picture injustice of how funding is allocated across sports, politicians were pressuring Hill over his petty financial shenanigans.

Maybe the fact that Canham became the public face of the shambolic national team managerial search can go down as one of Hill’s rare personal successes. By last Friday, the pressure on Canham had built to the point where he felt he had to issue a public statement explaining why the FAI still hadn’t managed to hire anyone.

He did this in a video recorded with the FAI’s in-house communications team, rather than a public press conference. The benefit of this for Canham was presumably that he could expect his fellow FAI employee, Cathal Dervan, would not grill him too harshly. Indeed, he seemed to be already answering some of the softball questions before Dervan had finished asking them.

The downside of the strategy was that all the anger and derision the Irish football family expressed in response was collected in one place, in the comments under the FAI’s video. Opinions on Canham’s performance ranged from “clown” on the positive end of the spectrum to ... less generous sentiments. Note to the FAI when posting their next communiqué: remember to switch off the replies. Where this organisation is concerned, answers can be every bit as awkward as questions.

Canham expressed regret – not for having failed to find a manager, but for having suggested he would have one hired by early April. It seems the issuing of public deadlines is the one thing he’d do differently if he were to do it all over again.

“What’s the reason for the delay in the process, Marc?” Dervan asked. Canham gave three reasons that were not reasons. First he explained that they were looking for “a coach with a good mixture of club and international experience”. That is a description of the type of person they are looking for, not an explanation of why they have not found such a person. Second, he said that the FAI have spoken to some coaches who are currently in a job, and some who are not. This was a statement of the obvious and a non sequitur.

Third, he talked about “the competitiveness of the market”. Now at last he seemed to be referring to something concrete – or at least hinting at it – the FAI’s inability to offer enough money to attract their desired candidate.

We know that Pep Guardiola wouldn’t get out of bed for €500k or €600k a year. But €600k annually would be more than one-third of the coaches at Euro 2024 are earning. There are plenty of coaches available at this price point. If the FAI haven’t found anybody, they need to adjust their search filters.

The fiasco is reminiscent of Hill’s failure to secure a main sponsor for the men’s national team for three years. Plainly he was demanding more than the market was prepared to pay. His refusal to accept that and recalibrate cost us three years of income. The common theme here is the inability to make a decision.

Canham now says the aim is to have a manager in place in time for the Nations League match against England in September – nearly 10 months after Stephen Kenny’s last game. Ten months is a long time in international football. Of the 24 coaches at Euro 2024, fully one-quarter of them have had the job for 10 months or less, and fewer than half of them have been in the job as long as two years. International coaching is increasingly a short-term business. The one thing everyone apart from the FAI seems to agree on is: it’s better to have a coach, even if they’re maybe not your ideal fantasy dream coach, than to have no coach at all.

The truly farcical element of all this is that the FAI already have a candidate who seems to satisfy their criteria, who is available, and who they know actually wants the job. “John O’Shea has excellent experience across domestic and international football as a player and also as a coach, at senior level and under-20 level.” Not my words – these are the words of Marc Canham as he introduced interim manager O’Shea in March.

Maybe the most remarkable moment of Canham’s Friday video was when he said the FAI were expecting to have an interim coach for the two friendlies in June and that “we would like that to be John O’Shea ... we’re talking to him at the moment, we hope to be able to confirm that as soon as possible.” How could he not have established O’Shea’s availability for June before recording the video?

Some have suggested that if O’Shea had any self-respect he would tell the FAI where to stick their interim job. But clearly that’s not the way to go if he wants the job on a permanent basis. In that case O’Shea is better off playing Forrest Gump to the FAI’s Jenny, and trusting that at some point they’ll realise the answer has been staring them in the face all along.