It goes without question that no player on the current Irish national football team are likely to get signed by Juventus or Inter Milan. Or earn the nickname ‘God’ at a club that has won the European Cup. Or even smash the British transfer record.
Kevin O’Neill’s book, Where have all the Irish gone? The sad demise of Ireland’s once relevant footballers, starts with the important (to Irish football fans) question of why this is the case? Why do we not have players like Liam Brady, Robbie Keane, Paul McGrath, or Roy Keane?
O’Neill appears to be very similar to me – Ireland fan, child of the 80’s, who spends too much time thinking about the Ireland team. Unfortunately, at times it feels like O’Neill is a bit too much like me in that he at times comes off as a man shouting at the clouds rather than a serious thinker about the game.
Without reading the book, most sports fans will guess quite easily at the likely answers to the central question – more competition in the Premier League and the total lack of investment in the Irish game/coaches. This makes it tricky to build a book out of answering those questions.
Most of all, O’Neill could have done with better editing. The first few chapters jump around from diagnosing the causes of the problem to reliving the glorious past. The book jumps too much – with Liam Brady’s career, for example, talked about in two completely different segments. While parts of the nostalgia trip are enjoyable, it feels a bit too much like reading the wikipedia entries on the careers of Keane, Quinn etc. The chapters are reasonably long and paragraphs flow into each other in a way that jars. A few breaks for new segments would have helped put some structure on what can be a slightly rambling narrative.
The book picks up in Chapter 3 and 4 when O’Neill interviews a series of people connected to the game who don’t normally get the spotlight shined on them – players who never made it and youth coaches in particular. These chapters add genuine insight in to the challenges for young Irish players and are the best part of the book.
When O’Neill turns his gaze to the FAI and the structures to improve the game, he makes a simple diagnosis – bring back Brian Kerr (most successful underage manager in our history and a man steeped in the Irish game). However, he then doesn’t point out anything that the man in the job, the wonderfully named Ruud Docktor, is actually doing wrong. It seems O’Neill would just feel more confident if Kerr had the job. While I agree its a disgrace that Kerr is not involved in some capacity with the FAI, I think its a bit too simplistic to point to him as such a major part of any solution. The comparisons to Iceland and Belgium are justified – but so well known that the book adds little extra insight.
The book turns to wistful nostalgia of days gone by – when kids played ball on the streets (is it better to be poor but have better footballers to cheer on?). O’Neill talks about some of the great South American players as examples of how street football (poverty?) helps create great players. In reality though, it should probably be pointed out that a continent with more than 400 million people where football is a very popular sport is likely to produce 100 great players for every 1 Irish star.
At times, the book feels like a series of articles that might appear on Irish sports website the42,ie, chronicling the lives of young Irish players in England albeit not as well written as Eoin O’Callaghan’s excellent articles on football history. I haven’t read any of O’Neill’s work on Pundit Arena but will check some out in due course.
O’Neill’s passion for Irish football is evident and his worries are genuine. The book gives a good insight into the lives of those who made it and those who didn’t. It doesn’t offer too much in terms of where we should go (beyond Kerr and summer football) – its instead a realistic chronicling of the woes rather than much of a diagnosis for where to go from here.
The interviews in the book capturing many previous unheard voices make it a welcome addition to the library of football books in Ireland. However, I can’t help feeling there is a better book in there waiting to get out (maybe something akin to Michael Calvin’s chronicling of the English game).
The book was nominated for the eir Sports Book of the Year award so what do I know…