Analysis: Ireland's absence from major international tournaments is keenly felt by supporters so what needs to be done to change this?

There will be a strange mix of emotions for soccer fans on this island throughout the next month. The excitement and thrill of a major international tournament will be laced with a sad longing in the shape of Ireland’s absence at Euro 2020. We will swoon at Kevin De Bruyne's pinpoint passes, marvel at the saves of Gianluigi Donnarumma and gasp at the skills and speed of Kylian Mbappe. All the while, we will wonder how Séamus Coleman, Troy Parrott and Gavin Bazunu might have fared against the very best in Europe if only Ireland were there too.

Having lost to Slovakia on penalties in their play-off semi-final in October, Stephen Kenny's men will, like the rest of us, have to consume Euro 2020 solely through the mediums of television and social media. No matter what way you dress it up, watching through a screen just isn’t the same.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, former Republic of Ireland player and manager Eoin Hand and The Irish Independent's Vincent Hogan assess the performance of Stephen Kenny as Irish manager

Those joyous scenes of lively Ireland fans painting the town green from Poznan to Lille at Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 will sadly not be repeated this summer across the continent. With supporters heavily curtailed and matches due to be held at the Aviva Stadium also taken away, it may not be the worst major tournament to be missing. Nobody likes missing the party when the festival of summer football rolls around every two years. But if a country is going to fail to qualify for a Euros or a World Cup, perhaps the messy, chaotic, pandemic-stricken one where the vast majority of fans can’t even travel to attend games is the best choice.

Watching the world’s best players fight it out on the international stage during four glorious weeks of endless football action this summer will certainly whet the appetite for Kenny’s players to get back to the promised land. Ireland fans don’t want to make missing out a habit, even though it has been for most of our footballing history.

Since the turn of the century, Ireland’s men’s side has qualified for three out of 11 major international competitions, a success rate of just 27%. Since the brilliant high of battling France in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 in Lyon, Ireland have failed to qualify for the 2017 Women's Euros, 2018 Men's World Cup, 2019 Women's World Cup, 2020 Men’s Euro’s, 2021 Women's Euros and will need a miracle to reach the 2022 Men's World Cup in Qatar. Between men’s and women’s senior international teams, that’s six consecutive major final absences.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Mark Tighe discusses his book Champagne Football

As the contents of Champagne Football, the best-selling exposé of former FAI boss John Delaney written by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan, clearly spell out, there will be no quick fix. But what can Irish soccer do now to avoid this awful feeling of longing as we face into another major international tournament on the outside looking in?

Investment in the League of Ireland

Former Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni once famously said that "there is no league" in Ireland. But the fact of the matter is if Ireland wants to become a nation that qualifies for competitions regularly, investment in the League of Ireland is paramount.

Gavin Bazunu (Shamrock Rovers), Jason Knight (Cabinteely), Chiedozie Ogbene (Cork City and Limerick) are just some of the talented new wave who were developed thanks to League of Ireland clubs. Add Seamus Coleman (Sligo Rovers), James McClean (Derry City), Jack Byrne (Shamrock Rovers) and Matt Doherty (Bohemians) to that list too. Investment in academies, improved infrastructure and increased prize money will all have a massive knock-on effect on the make-up of Ireland’s senior squad in the future. Stephen Kenny’s ability to take Dundalk to the group stages of the Europa League is evidence of the potential in the domestic game here if given half a chance.

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From RTÉ Sport's Soccer podcast, a look at current happenings in the League of Ireland and Women's National League

Changes at governance level within the FAI

Decades of neglect and mismanagement by the FAI has left Irish soccer in a sorry state in both the men’s and women’s games, perhaps best epitomised by Ireland's shock 1-0 loss at home to Luxembourg in March. That result was a perfect storm that reflected years of neglect by the football association that had led up to that defeat.

Things are beginning to change slowly at the FAI following the departure of John Delaney. Under the guidance of new CEO Jonathan Hill, the association has undergone a number of significant changes at boardroom level that everybody hopes point to a more steady future despite being saddled with €55 million of debt. Irish soccer will take a long time to recover from the damage of the previous regime, but it is making a start.

Strategic focus on women’s soccer

In Katie McCabe and Denise O'Sullivan, Ireland’s women’s national team have two genuine world stars at their disposal. Yet sadly, Ireland's women have never qualified for a major senior international competition. Ever. Given the neglect shown to the women’s international team up until very recently by the FAI, this can be no surprise.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport, Kara Kelly previews the return of the FAI Women's National League for 2021

Having failed to qualify for next summer’s UEFA Women’s Euros, Vera Pauw's side have shifted focus to the 2023 FIFA World Cup and aim to be the first senior women’s team to reach a major finals. There is an incredible amount of potential in the women’s game in Ireland with teenagers like Ellen Molloy, Jessica Ziu and Emily Whelan future stars in the making.

Increased investment in the Women's National League (WNL) and improved facilities and infrastructure for international sides is vital to get Ireland over the line. A strong league that can develop young talent, combined with star players playing regularly in England's FA Women’s Super League and the UEFA Women's Champions League is paramount.

Players more willing to play outside the UK

Back when Jack Charlton led Ireland to three international tournaments in six years, Irish stars were littered throughout all the top teams throughout England. Seeing Irish internationals at clubs like Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United was normal, which is unthinkable nowadays. The game has changed a great deal since then, with the top talent from all over the world flooding into English clubs, pushing Irish players further down the pyramid.

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From Irish Football Fan TV, interview with Josh Cullen about playing for Anderlecht under Vincent Kompany and his international ambitions

In Josh Cullen, Ireland has the perfect example of a talented prospect who decided to take a chance outside the UK who is currently being managed by Man City legend Vincent Kompany at Belgium giants Anderlecht. Jack Byrne spent an excellent season with Cambuur in the Dutch Eredivisie in 2016. Underage prospect Connor Ronan has spent time in Slovakia with Dunajská Streda and is currently on loan in Switzerland with Grasshopper Zürich. All three midfielders have demonstrated how looking beyond the UK can boost their prospects of first-team football and their development as well-rounded continental footballers.

Giving young players an opportunity

During last week’s 0-0 draw away to Hungary, it was encouraging to see just how many young players featured for Ireland. Stephen Kenny has shown a willingness to give inexperienced hopefuls their chance at senior level. Gavin Bazunu (19), Caoimhin Kelleher (22), Dara O'Shea (22), Adam Idah (19), Jayson Molumby (21), Jason Knight (20) and Troy Parrott (19) all looked comfortable in the highly-demanding arena of senior international football. There are a host of promising young players coming through and Ireland now have a manager willing to blood them.

This will not give immediate short-term results, but may pay off in the long-term should Ireland’s exciting young prospects continue to develop at club level. With a number of established Ireland internationals from the Euro 2016 generation being filtered out, a changing of the guard is on the horizon with thoughts drifting towards reaching Euro 2024 in Germany.

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From FAI TV, Troy Parrott speaks to the media after Ireland's 4-1 win against Andorra

Reassessing expectations

Apart from the successful tenure of Jack Charlton, Ireland has never regularly qualified for senior major competitions. A golden generation playing at top clubs in England led by a smart and enigmatic manager saw us reach three major finals in four in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Those magic days were an outlier in the overall history of Irish football, and it is important for us all to manage expectations. Ireland currently do not have a squad capable of competing with the very best in the world. Qualifying for major international competitions is also extremely difficult for European nations of Ireland’s calibre. With many Irish fans having grown up during the Italia ‘90 generation, expectations are always high. In many supporters’ eyes, Ireland are expected to reach major finals, or at least come close.

But the recent FAI controversy which has shed a light on the sorry state of Irish soccer and the damage that needs to be repaired. A more realistic outlook and a more long-term strategy are also crucial. Ireland have traditionally relied on short-term fixes, pragmatic football, high-profile managers, or a star player (if we’re lucky), to get us over the line. A long-term plan which develops the domestic League of Ireland, gives women’s football proper strategic investment, and encourages a consistent style of play throughout all age grades, will help ensure major final absences like Euro 2020 do not become a regular occurrence.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ