Ireland are staring down the barrel of a barren period
On Thursday night Ireland succumbed to Wales 4-1 in Cardiff, a little under a year after they beat Wales 1-0 in the same stadium on their way to World Cup play-off. It was as if all the lack of development and lack of ambition from the FAI all boiled down on this one fixture.
All of Ireland's problems are abundantly clear. A domestic league that, for all it's charms and quirks, for all the drama and atmosphere the Dublin Derby between Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians provide, for all the truly quality players the league has produced, is woefully underdeveloped, unappreciated, and disrespected by it's own governing body. A national team void of a star, a plan and even an identity. A management team that is alienating players, and a Chief Executive who seemingly doesn't care - while pocketing a reportedly ludicrous salary.
Irish football'is used to ups and downs, particularly in the 21st Century, but this is a down that is threatening to keep descending. It's made all the more depressing as it coincides with the Emergence of Iceland, a nation with a population of less than 400,000 (0.08% of Ireland's) who have qualified for the last two major tournaments, famously knocking out England in Euro 2016. On the outside, Iceland have no right to be as good as they are. Isolated from Europe, covered in volcanoes and just really, really small, it doesn't scream 'football paradise.' But for the kids playing, it is. Huge football domes dot the country, meaning the game can be played year round, even during those pesky month where the sun doesn't even rise. Every coach holds at least a UEFA B license. There's a culture forming in the most unlikely of places.
Add to this an FA that cares. Following Euro 2016, the Iceland FA made around 25% of their 14 million prize money available to clubs, based on their performances in the league. The top club at the time took home 117,000 and the bottom team got 19,000. The rest most likely went into developing their facilities to get the most out of their current and future players. Compare that to the FAI's pathetic 5,000 euro 'Strategic Development' plan grant to all League of Ireland clubs in 2016, which two clubs rejected. How on earth can any team expect to develop when it's own association won't even take them seriously.
Dundalk's run in the Europa league a few years ago breathed much needed life and interest into the Irish league, but the effects were not long lasting. The league was back to it's forgotten self in no time, and of course it was. Is there another country on earth where it's top tier domestic league is almost never on TV?
Iceland have seen their development of domestic football reflect in their national team, where as Ireland have seen their lack of development reflect in theirs. After the retirement of Wes Hoolahan, Ireland's only truly quality midfielder (robbed of a career by the conservative Trapattoni) there was no one to pick up the mantle. Declan Rice recently announced he needed time to think about whether he wants to play for Ireland or England, and if he watched Ireland on Thursday, I think that decision was made for him. The FAI are reportedly tapping up Ryan Johansson, a Luxembourg born Bayern Munich player with a Swedish father and an Irish mother. This is how far we'll go to acquire players. Rely on the development of foreign players with thin Irish blood and expect them to join us. Ireland have famously used the 'Granny Rule' to great success, but it's one thing to call up a Scottish man with Irish parents who identifies as Irish, it's another to try call up a Luxembourger/Swede who's as Irish as the Queen.
If you're an Irish football fan, I wouldn't hold your breath for change any time soon. The same drab tactics, the same average players, the same greedy bosses, the same poor league. It doesn't paint a very good picture. Ireland are looking at the most depressing period of the footballing history. A history of plucky underdog achievement is about to be eroded and replaced with a reality of what it is: mediocracy. Ireland are mediocre, and we'll soon have the ranking, team and players to prove it.