Stephen Hunt: ‘As football supporters and a nation, I thought we were better than that’

Darren Randolph kicks tennis balls off the pitch following a protest by some fans against John Delaney. Photo: PA
Darren Randolph kicks tennis balls off the pitch following a protest by some fans against John Delaney. Photo: PA
Ireland’s David McGoldrick shoots at goal. Photo: Sportsfile

The main headlines from an excellent win for Ireland last Tuesday centred on a load of balls, when they should have been about Conor Hourihane’s wonderful free-kick and six points from the first two games of the Euro 2020 campaign.

If there was one thing guaranteed to happen in the aftermath of tennis balls raining down on the Aviva pitch, it was a UEFA charge and the FAI can expect a fine. I have taken up tennis since I retired and I would quite happily see those balls saved for me during the Sean Cox legends game next month.

I feared the worst on the afternoon of the Georgia game when the idea of a protest with tennis balls started to gather momentum on social media. Sky then jumped on the bandwagon, recalling previous similar incidents in recent years, and seemed to be actively encouraging the planned disruption.

I still hoped it wouldn’t happen but we fell into the trap of believing this kind of disruption is the only course of action. As football supporters and a nation, I thought we were better than that. We have our own sense of humour and pride and although only a couple of dozen balls were thrown, I felt we let ourselves down.

I understand the fans’ frustrations, but banners, chanting and singing at key moments during a game are surely a much better ways to get your message across. The only good news is that the only balls which went in Darren Randolph’s net were the ones he kicked in there and that the added time caused by the delay did not give Georgia time to equalise.

Whoever comes into the FAI as the new CEO will be taking over Irish football when it is arguably at its strongest across the board.

The senior team has made a great start under Mick McCarthy, the underage teams are making significant progress and we can look forward to Dublin being among the venues for Euro 2020 next year, as well as for a major youth tournament next month.

The game in the gales on the plastic in Gibraltar was far from perfect, but we got the job done and that was followed by one of the most positive performances we have seen from an Ireland team for some time, certainly in the first half.

Stephen Kenny made a good start as under 21 coach, without one or two of his best players, and Keith Andrews has been a positive addition to the 21s coaching staff. I know how good he is as a coach and he enjoys that side of the game, as well as the punditry, which bodes well.

The under 19s qualified for their finals with three wins, including one in Russia with a weakened team, and the under 17s enjoyed their games against Finland as preparations for the finals which will be held across Ireland in six weeks. The UEFA under 17 championships are a major coup for our country and a practice run and opportunity to show that we can stage major tournaments through the age groups to the seniors.

Yes, we have had our successes in the past with Brian Kerr’s youth teams, but based on performances across the board this is as good as it has ever been for our underage sides and proves we have made significant progress over the last few years under the guidance of Ruud Dokter and John Delaney.

These things take time and work and I do not think that should be overlooked in any determined campaign to get rid of John Delaney.

I still think the FAI will need a voice within UEFA and who better than the man who has worked for several years with the powerbrokers in the European game and who has helped put Irish football on the map?

I know it will not be a popular view but are we foolish enough to disregard Delaney’s experience in the rush to get him out of the top job in our game?

When the new CEO is appointed why shouldn’t he or she be brave enough to work with Delaney and have confidence in their own abilities? He has built bridges and numerous contacts in UEFA which will enable him to continue to have a voice within the organisation.

As for the actual football, I was delighted for my old pal David McGoldrick, who was deservedly named man of the match in the Georgia game.

I have been saying for years that Didsy is more than capable of performing for Ireland – and when I saw him at the team hotel last week, I asked him if there was any chance he could prove me right. And he certainly proved a few people wrong on Tuesday.

He is quite a relaxed character and it was a shame that, on occasions, his body was simply not up to performing for Martin O’Neill, but it does show that some managers can just get the best out of certain players. And that is the case with Mick and Didsy, and clearly with Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder too.

He will take everything in his stride. He doesn’t get too down when times are tough, doesn’t get too carried away when things go well, but the ovation from the fans will mean a great deal, and probably come as a surprise.

He knew what Mick wanted on Tuesday and things just came naturally in that team. How many times did we see him making runs into the channels at the right time, or dropping to get the ball when necessary? That is going to be important to stretch teams, which didn’t happen under O’Neill.

For those of us who have known him for a while, Didsy’s performance against Georgia did not come as a surprise, but it was long overdue. It’s just a shame we are not talking about it a lot more and a load of balls has been allowed to overshadow it.

Sunday Indo Sport


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