Jim Magilton: My vision for Northern Ireland
The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.
So advised Damon Runyon, the great 1940's American writer, who considered life's odds so stacked against the right result that he concluded all of life to be lived at 6/5 against.
Runyonesque huckster-like characters were rarely in short supply at the Irish FA of old.
The new breed of Windsor Avenue suits, more well-cut than half-cut, may be a much less comical bunch. But Runyon's observations on getting it right still hold true — never leave anything to chance.
And that being the case, if the IFA appoint according to their job description for the new Northern Ireland manager, Jim Magilton is the way to bet.
The smart money is already on Magilton, favoured by the bookies and a narrow majority of fans over nearest rival Iain Dowie ahead of the decisive interview process this week.
But educated, well-read Magilton is taking nothing for granted as he prepares his final submissions for the IFA's executive committee on the future direction Northern Ireland football needs to to take and why he is the one to provide the leadership. Magilton is a man with a plan.
By his nature, he has maintained a dignified and diplomatic silence throughout the jockeying for the job, busily and quietly doing his homework on how we can get it right on the ailing international front, and where it has all been going wrong.
He speaks only in the Belfast Telegraph today to assure the football public and those fans, not of his era, who don't know him, that he is seeking the job based on a long-held vision and not merely as a means back into football employment.
It's no secret that the most influential figures at the IFA, president Jim Shaw among them, believe the post should remain in Northern Ireland hands.
That he ‘should know Northern Ireland inside-out', according to IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson in this newspaper last week and be equipped to address future needs, as well as clear and present issues on the playing side.
Magilton meets all the criteria laid down. Not only that ... now back living in his native Belfast, he could also become the first home-domiciled Northern Ireland manager of the modern era, actually working out of an office at IFA HQ.
But, lest anyone should think Magilton has embarked on a box-ticking exercise, he can point not only to an impressive playing and management CV ... he can also direct any doubters to an interesting website, that of the Jim Magilton Foundation, also referred to by him as the Ministry of Football, at www.magiltonfoundation.com
That was set up privately by him a YEAR ago to help develop young players in and for Northern Ireland.
Magilton believes fervently that the IFA must have a strong strategy and development plan in place at all age group levels, an academy-style system based not only on coaching but using the latest sports science, nutritional and fitness advances.
To that end, he would utilise the superb, under-used by football, high performance facilities at Jordanstown Sports Institute and also at Queen's University.
“We can no longer rely on ability alone to take our young players into professional careers and on into international football,” he contends. “Obviously the Barcelona model is the one everyone now looks to emulate, but I've seen how success can be achieved with more modest resources at Ipswich, an area, like Northern Ireland, limited in terms of population and its geographic position. Yet in my 11 years there, seven as a player and four as manager, the youth development system produced £40million worth of talent, including Conor Wickham, whom I gave a first-team debut to at 15.
“A properly and professionally structured grassroots development programme is definitely the way to go ... and if we have players in our systems developing an affinity with Northern Ireland football, the more likely they are to remain.”
But that's the future; what of now ... how does Magilton propose to reverse the malaise so evident in the final months of Nigel Worthington's reign, that effectively forced Worthy's departure?
“I watched all the games in the last Euro qualifying campaign and, like the World Cup one before that, we started well and then fell away over the last few games, so clearly something was amiss,” he acknowledges
“Everyone knows the personal commitment and passion Nigel brought to the Northern Ireland job and, knowing players, I simply cannot accept that they would go out to play badly. Maybe the uncertainty over the manager's position translated into the performances towards the end?
“Whatever the reason, as a new manager coming in, you can only deal with what's in front of you, not what's gone before.
“The players need to be infused with a new desire and what better than to qualify for a World Cup finals in Brazil, in 2014. Of course, it is much harder now to qualify with more countries competing than in '82 and '86 but we have to believe.
“I remember coming into the side in '91 and being overawed by players like Nigel, Jimmy
Quinn, Mal Donaghy and Alan McDonald who had been to World Cups. The confidence and self belief that gives a player is enormous and that is what we must aim to recreate.
“But it all begins at grassroots level and the proper development there.”
No other international manager in world football faces the additional problem of player defections to a neighbouring country than that confronting Northern Ireland bosses, whoever they may be.
The circumstances being beyond his control, Magilton's attitude would be to concentrate on those who want to play for Northern Ireland.
“I would go anywhere to get a player,” he insists. “Whatever their background or beliefs, I'd assure them they'd be well looked after and treated the same as any other player. I'd point out they might be going elsewhere to be small fish in a very big pond and only 11 players can get picked at any one time; that they might get to play two or three times somewhere else but maybe 20, 30 or 40 times for me. Believe me, players want to play. But, if all that failed to impress and they wanted to go, I'd say 'Fine... on yer bike.' We only want players who want to play for us.”
Magilton, proud to be a west Belfast Catholic, but also a citizen of the world, believes the new Northern Ireland, and its football, is moving forward more quickly than some are prepared to credit.
“The old tribalism and its baggage was never an issue for me in my professional career with Northern Ireland though that's not to say it didn't exist. But these are much better times and football deserves its dividend, too. My dream would be to create an inclusive Northern Ireland football family where all are wanted and valued and driven by pride. This country gave me my start in football and I returned after QPR to try to put something back through my Foundation. Now I see an opportunity to take that ambition to an even greater level.”
Politically tuned in he may be, but Magilton, wisely, will not get involved in the pre-match anthem controversy, currently raging.
“Managers manage, coaches coach, administrators look after the administrative side and decisions like that,” he insists. “I'm interested only in what happens when the first whistle blows, not what the band plays before that and every player and manager will tell you the same.”
A leap of faith, bestriding present and future, needs to be taken by the IFA overlords deciding on their next appointment and Runyon also noted: “You can become a winner only if you are willing to walk over the edge.”
If they neglect to take that step with Jim Magilton, it will not be for want of his vision, credentials or qualifications.
If a better candidate beats him to it, we will be a very fortunate nation indeed.
Jim Magilton factfile
Full name: James Magilton
Date of birth: May 6, 1969
Playing position: Midfielder
Youth career: 1986–1988 Liverpool
Senior career: 1988–1990 Liverpool 0 appearances (0 goals)
1990–1994 Oxford United 150 (34)
1994–1997 Southampton 130 (13)
1997–1999 Sheffield Wednesday 27 (1)
1999: Ipswich Town (loan) 11 (1)
1999–2006 Ipswich Town 262 (15)
Total: 580 (64)
Northern Ireland U-23 2 (0)
1990 Northern Ireland U-21 1 (0)
1991–2002 Northern Ireland 52 (5)
Debut: 5 February, 1991 Windsor Park v Poland. Result: 3–1
2006–2009 Ipswich Town
2009 Queens Park Rangers
July 6, 2011: Appointed as Shamrock Rovers assistant manager on a caretaker basis, working alongside former international team-mate Michael O’Neill