Football: An Insider’s View

In this special report, Current Affairs and Sport Editor Dylan White talks Cristiano Ronaldo, Sir Alex Ferguson and the Republic of Ireland job with Irish media personality, broadcaster, author, RTÉ sports pundit and former professional soccer player Eamon Dunphy.

For the past thirty five years, no Irish commentator on sport has been the object of so much controversy, love, hatred and fascination as RTÉ soccer analyst Eamon Dunphy. Dunphy’s opinions on soccer made him Ireland’s public enemy number one in the summer of 1990 and continue to polarise the nation today. However, at 68, it is fair to say that he has acquired the capacity to enlighten the Irish public on his footballing ideologies and has become an almost lovable character for his rock n’ roll persona on air.

The emergence of the Madeira born sensation Cristiano Ronaldo on the footballing scene in England took the media world by storm as he exploded onto the Old Trafford pitch wearing the iconic number seven jersey of Manchester United. Despite the hype that surrounded the Portuguese winger, Dunphy was initially far from impressed, claiming that ‘Ronaldo’s performance was a disgrace to football’, following his “brattish” like performance in a Champions League semi-final in the Camp Nou against Catalan giants Barcelona in 2008. Dunphy went out on a limb on numerous occasions, criticising the goal predator for his on-field antics but he says it was not personal at all. “There was something about him that was unappealing despite the goals he’d scored. He was so petulant, a prima donna diva if you like. Great players generally have great characters and at that stage of his career he did things you wouldn’t expect from great players in any sport,” Dunphy explains. He added: “I’d be very interested to know what Roy Keane would have thought of Ronaldo diving and throwing himself around the place. I think Keane would have been on his case real quick”.

Dunphy is adamant that Sir Alex Ferguson was “wise” to let Ronaldo move to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in 2009 for a reported €94m and accept the fact that CR7 was no longer happy at Manchester United, opting to join his dream club Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. “Ferguson was really pragmatic about it and did what was best for the club”, Dunphy said. He also feels Jose Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid helped mature Ronaldo into a world class player and believes CR7 will “always be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever play the game”.

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If your manager and coach believe in you, you sense it. If they don’t have faith in you, you’re less likely to have faith in yourself.

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Ferguson’s decision to retire as long-serving Manchester United boss at the end of the 2012/13 season shocked the footballing world. Dunphy thinks the realisation that he no longer had another “great winning side” was central to Ferguson’s decision to retire and having won 38 trophies, he has ultimately “left a very difficult situation for his successor [David Moyes]”.

Dunphy also has his reservations about Ferguson’s new directorial position at the club and whether or not Wayne Rooney will be at Manchester United next season.  “My question for Manchester United fans is when David Moyes wants to buy or sell players who will the Glazers consult; Alex Ferguson who’s on the board or David Moyes who’s the manager. So the politics of Manchester United may come into effect. We will see what will happen with the passage of time but my suspicion would be that by hanging around, Ferguson may make the same mistake that Matt Busby made and overshadow his successor. A lot of people in the game will be watching that in the next big transfer window next summer,” Dunphy explains. On the topic of Rooney, he feels Moyes was “dumb” to essentially call Wazza a backup player for Robin Van Persie. He added: “It did get Rooney going but it’s a dangerous tactic”.

The revelations in Ferguson’s autobiography have caused quite a stir amongst some of his fellow players, with many critics questioning the timing of the book and the influence it could have on the players and new gaffer David Moyes. Dunphy considers the book to be “unbecoming for a man who should be an elder statesman in the game” and questions the motives behind Ferguson’s criticism of some of his ex-players. “It wasn’t just [David] Beckham and [Roy] Keane. It was small players who are struggling now. I thought it was really kind of cheap. Alex Ferguson is very much about Alex Ferguson. He has been great for the club, rebuilding it and winning more than anyone probably ever will win. From personal experience I was very impressed with him as a person but his public persona, bullying journalists and having no respect for other managers, clubs and players; I don’t like that side of him,” Dunphy said.

Dunphy was very open in his criticism of the Giovanni Trapattoni regime as Republic of Ireland manager and feels the Italian’s approach “sapped the moral out of the team and our fans even to the extent that people were in the stadium watching crap, especially at home. Away we went with the attitude that we were not going to give anything away but at home you have to do more than that”. Dunphy’s public disapproval of Trap’s methods had led to several on-air disagreements with fellow pundit and friend Liam Brady. The Italian was Brady’s manager at Juventus, and the pair, along with Marco Tardelli, had since worked together with the Republic of Ireland. “Liam’s a very clever arguer in a debate and I would expect someone to defend their friend. Liam’s view is that with the players at his disposal Trapattoni did his best; qualify for one major championship final and almost qualifying for another only for the [Thierry] Henry handball incident. But I didn’t agree with that assessment. I think the players are better than what Trapattoni made them appear and at the heart of it was a disagreement about the potential of the team,” Dunphy explains.

Dunphy also refutes Aiden McGeady’s suggestion that the Irish manager’s job is a ‘poisoned chalice’ and thinks the Irish public has “the right to expect”.  He said: “The public feel what Roy Keane felt when he was in the team. We should be expecting to win games and not be defeated in our attitude”. He added: “Between Trapattoni and [Steve] Staunton it was a mess for seven years. Sadly some of our older and better players like Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne are not quite what they were but I’d still be optimistic. Martin O’Neill said the spirit of the Irish players and their commitment is a plus that other nations don’t necessarily have”.

Dunphy is optimistic about the Republic’s chances under the new management of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, and is certain that “common sense will rule”.  He added: “If your manager and coach believe in you, you sense it.  If they don’t have faith in you, you’re less likely to have faith in yourself. I think there are loads of things Trapattoni did wrong. Séamus Coleman and James McCarthy should have been in the team long before they were in it. Andy Reid should have never been banished. Wes Hoolahan should have played more than he did. Steven Reid was exiled altogether. So you had all this going on all to the detriment of the team. I thought that was terrible. It affected the team. I think we will get rid of all that stupidity in this new regime. If you’re good enough to be in the squad you’ll be in it. There will be no communication difficulties like there was with Marc Wilson for example who was exiled from the squad on a misunderstanding. All that nonsense has to stop. Trapattoni called Shane Long an idiot. You just can’t do that. Séamus Coleman never even went to the European Championships in 2012. Gibson sat on the bench for the 3 games. All that nonsense has to stop and I’m sure it will stop”. Dunphy believes that the margins are fine and that we’re “only missing out by a smallish margin”.

When asked what he would have said if FAI Chief Executive John Delaney had offered him the Ireland job, Dunphy laughed: “Yes I would have taken it. It would have been great and fun. We would have played attacking football and Andy Reid could have played the guitar all night”.