Sunday January 7, 1990 was the day that Mr Alex Ferguson was supposed to be removed from his position as manager of Manchester United. Ferguson had been appointed just over three years earlier to replace Ron Atkinson, who had left the Red Devils in the relegation play-off position after thirteen games of the 1986-87 First Division season. Ferguson’s first game after his appointment was a 2-0 league defeat at Oxford United. Things certainly did not change overnight at Old Trafford. Fergie’s starting XI that day contained three Dubliners, Frank Stapleton, Paul McGrath, and All-Ireland medal-winner Kevin Moran.
Fergie’s United of the period 1986-1992 were described as many things, most notably “dull” and “bland” but also “methodical” and “hard-working”. Retrospectively, though, the one word that comes to mind is “inconsistent”. In these six seasons, United’s league finishes went 11th, 2nd, 11th, 13th, 6th, and 2nd again. Clearly Ferguson was doing something right. He just wasn’t doing everything right and the lack of a spark at Old Trafford had fans frustrated. In addition to this, between the Oxford defeat in 1986 and the Forest FA Cup tie in 1990, Ferguson had recruited 16 players (at a cost of approx. £13 million) and offloaded 18 (incl. McGrath and Scotsman Gordon Strachan). Overhauling a squad is a luxury not afforded to national team managers.
Going into the FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest, United had not won a league game in eight. Their last win coming on November 18, a 3-1 victory at Luton Town and, during this period, the Old Trafford faithful unfurled a banner which read “”Three years of excuses and it’s still crap… ta-ra Fergie”. The Forest game was to be Fergie’s last stand. The Guardian described the first half at the City Ground as “tightly contested and dour to the naked eye… [it] made dreary watching on television”. United’s winner came early in the second half, scored by twenty-year-old Mark Robins. Ferguson’s faith in youth looked like it was beginning to pay dividends. The Guardian wrote of Fergie after the game, “’for the moment, the harbingers of doom will give their manager a break.”. United went on to win the FA Cup that season as the Class of ’91 waited on the wings. Ferguson guided United to 13 league titles and presided over the emergence of such football luminaries as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Alan Hansen in 1995 said of Fergie’s faith in his young players, “you can’t win anything with kids”. How wrong he was.
24 weekends later, the Republic of Ireland national team defeated Romania to reach the quarterfinals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. McGrath and Moran started, Frank Stapleton an unused substitute. The national team has never quite reached those heights and the cautious, dull football employed by Jack Charlton in order to reach that peak became the blueprint for future Ireland sides. “We haven’t got the players to play actual football”, people will tell you. “We’re not Brazil.” The Ireland team has underachieved to an almost unbelievable degree in the decades since. Absolutely remarkable when you consider the world-class players available. Roy Keane, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given, Richard Dunne. People have accused the English of being dangerously pragmatic, but the Irish have a made an Olympic sport out of pragmatism.
Successive Irish managers haven’t helped with their constant belittling of their own squads. At least Stephen Kenny likes his players, that’s a good start already. The criticism of Kenny amongst some Irish fans and pundits is hard to bear at times. People just openly revealing their own ignorance without any persuasion. The footballing philosophy of playing two banks of four and instructing players to chase a hoofed ball into the corners on rain-soaked turf is not something to long for. It’s something that has gone the way of the dodo in other countries. Playing with wing-backs or three forwards or the ‘keeper playing a short ball to his centre-half is not going to kill anyone. Football is something to be enjoyed. Ignore the harbingers of doom once again. There are some serious young footballers emerging from Ireland right now. They deserve the chance to play proper football for their country, and Stephen Kenny deserves the chance to give it to them.