On the one hand, everybody’s talking about Stephen Kenny’s job performance after a 1-0 defeat at home to Luxembourg. The team seemed lacklustre, toothless, and lacking in any kind of identity. The best thing you could say about the Irish performance on Saturday night is that all eleven players were definitely there, on the pitch, and most of them got a touch of the ball.
Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, did not lose at home to Luxembourg. But the latest poll does have them tied, on 11%, with Independents. In other words, they’re drawing 11-11 with Danny Healy Rae.
It’s interesting to compare the two organisations, actually, just to see how similar the paths they have been on are, and how the parallels of failure afflict them both.
Let’s start with grassroots development. Both Irish soccer and Fianna Fáil have neglected this for many years. When FF were at their height, the party Ard Fheis was a festival of genuine diversity, at which members of Ireland’s elite would rub shoulders comfortably with small farmers from Roscommon, and people whose priorities were things like “more women in politics” would sit in the audience and clap heartily alongside people whose priorities were things like “more headage payments”. The party was a genuine broad church, appealing to people from all walks of life. Irish soccer, too, once had that appeal. Do either of them have it now?
Soccer now competes with Rugby for the attention of middle-class urban kids, and GAA for the attention of working-class kids in Dublin, and rural kids elsewhere. Fianna Fáil, of course, now competes with Fine Gael for the attention of the middle classes, and Sinn Fein and the rural independents for the attention of working-class kids in Dublin, and rural kids elsewhere. Both have been left with a small cohort of uber-die-hard fans who are not breeding much talent. Both have significantly failed to reach out to new supporters.
Let’s talk too, about identity. Irish soccer always had an identity when it was doing well. In the heyday, of course, it was Jack Charlton booting the ball up the pitch and hoping, even if by accident, to bounce it off Tony Cascarino’s head. Fianna Fáil had an identity too: Nationalist, populist, and pragmatic, focused on fixing the small things and leaving the big ideas and fancy notions to the airheads in Fine Gael and Labour. Both have lost their identity.
What about direction, and where they want to go? Irish soccer actually outscores Fianna Fáil on that front, as you can sort of discern a vision about building the league of Ireland into a talent recruitment and nurturing system, and an attempt (God Bless them) to make brands like Shelbourne and Bohs and St Pats into popular brands that people want to watch. This writer is highly dubious of the chances of success (schools, surely, is the sensible place to invest money) but at least you can see that there’s some sort of vision there. What about Fianna Fáil? What’s the plan for the future in Fianna Fáil? Is it….. Jim O’Callaghan?
Jim O’Callaghan is a very nice and capable man, but he’s sort of the Bohemians and St. Pats and Shelbourne of politics. You’ll always find the hardcore fan who knows everything about him, and insists that if you just went to a match/speech you’d be absolutely hooked….. but they’re sort of odd people, aren’t they?
It would be wrong to say that Irish Soccer and Fianna Fáil are both in terminal decline. There’s a path back to some sort of respectability, for both. But it begins by honestly addressing the reasons for their decline, and the people responsible for it. In the case of Irish Soccer, that’s easy enough: John Delaney’s horrendous reign of mismanagement, when Irish football seemed to always be a secondary goal to the primary objective, which was realising John Delaney’s personal ambitions.
Does that sound familiar, Fianna Fáil supporters? Is it possible that for the past decade, your party has been entirely mismanaged for the sole purpose of realising one man’s ambition to be Taoiseach? And does it feel worse, knowing that when he finally got there, it turned out that there hasn’t been much he particularly wanted to do?
Mark Tighe, the excellent journalist for the Sunday Times, wrote a best-selling book about Delaney last year, called Champagne Football.
Maybe when he’s done signing copies of that, he can start on his new biopic of Mr. Martin: Champagne Politics.