Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Stormont's dream team is good at scoring own goals

Key player: Peter Robinson's man-management skills, not his football skills, bear little comparison with Alex Ferguson.
Key player: Peter Robinson's man-management skills, not his football skills, bear little comparison with Alex Ferguson.
FILE: Sir Alex Ferguson To Retire At End Of Season As Manager Of Manchester United FC...(FILE PHOTO) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson applauds the fans after victory in the FA Community Shield match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 8, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)...S

As another football season ends, don't worry about your future in the European Community, or the slaughter in Syria, or the forthcoming G8 summit in Fermanagh.

Get your priorities right. The really Earth-shattering news is that David Beckham has hung up his golden boots, Alex Ferguson has been given a bigger send-off than Margaret Thatcher and Wigan are relegated.

Forget the recession, traffic jams at the Balmoral Show, or how much it cost to send the First and Deputy First Minister to South America.

Concentrate instead on a matter of true global concern – will Wayne Rooney go or stay at Manchester United?

Premiership soccer has become the national religion. The church pews are empty, but the collection plates at Sky Sports brim with contributions.

However, on this side of the Irish Sea, Peter Robinson may thank his lucky stars he doesn't manage a soccer club.

If he did, he would surely have either transferred some players in his Stormont Executive team by now, or resigned, or been sacked himself.

It's been another average season for Stormont, with a failure to produce convincing results. The body language on the pitch is not good.

Thousands of fans have drifted away already. Season ticket sales are dropping. The empty spaces on the terraces are becoming an embarrassment in televised matches.

All in all, there were too many draws and defeats in important games and too few inspiring performances.

Team tactics are baffling to players and fans alike. Mr Robinson, as the manager, and Martin McGuinness, the head coach, have a worrying lack of mutual understanding with some key players.

Team talks are punctuated with outbursts of anger and frustration on and off the pitch and, most frequently, in media interviews.

The breakdown in relations reached a new peak last week. Fans were treated to the spectacle of the manager rounding on some of his players, berating them in the Stormont dressing room, in a style which suggested he was trying to emulate Alex Ferguson's infamous hairdryer treatment at Manchester United.

Mr Robinson accused some of the most wayward players of poor performances. He fumed at them: "I am depressed and fed-up to the back teeth with foot-dragging, whingeing, stalling, posturing and pontificating." They weren't a team, in his estimation. They were "a tribe of Jeremiahs".

In spite of such outspoken condemnation, we can expect no transfer talk, or sackings, up at Stormont. All the existing players, no matter how infuriating they may be, look destined to plod on into next season, with no threat to any of their futures and no sign of genuine team spirit among them. Manager and head coach can agree that neither is in complete control of the team selection. The fans know also that, no matter how badly a player performs, his contract virtually guarantees he cannot be sacked, or transferred.

Mr Robinson seems to gel only with players who hail from his own DUP background, while those brought into the team from other clubs are treated with disdain.

The manager and head coach have their favourites. For example, Mr Robinson was strongly supportive of one key player, Edwin Poots, who was forced to make a public apology recently to elderly fans. Another player, John 'So what?' O'Dowd, cocked a snoop at his colleagues on the team, but escaped any fine.

Team flags and emblems are another constant source of friction among fans, yet no-one can agree on a solution.

Next month, the club faces a home friendly in Fermanagh against a world-class team, which includes famous players such as Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin from the USA and Russia.

Fans can only hope that everyone on the Stormont side will be on best behaviour and that no-one will score an own goal. In the longer term, the future is most uncertain if the manager and head coach cannot engender more respect for their tactics.

Mr Robinson did hint a couple of seasons ago that he might consider stepping down, but unlike Beckham, or Ferguson, he now looks determined to see out his full contract to 2016, if not beyond, irrespective of the relationship he has with the Executive team.

The omens do not look good. One solution might be that either the manager, or the players who disagree with his game plan, consider their futures before the new season begins. Perhaps the time has arrived when such an option needs to be considered more seriously and urgently for the sake of the Stormont club's future?

Surely something has to give soon on one side of the dressing room, or the other?

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