‘We rolled up socks into balls and practised bicycle kicks too’

Colin Sheridan on Ireland’s footballing philosophy. The Beautiful Game it ain’t.

And clenching your fist for the ones like us left

Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty

You fixed yourself, you said well never mind

We are ugly but we have the music....

 - Leonard Cohen – Chelsea Hotel No. 2

In his essay tilted “Kids? Just say No”, South African philosopher David Benator argues for Anti-natalism; the central thesis of which is that people should never, under any circumstance procreate. To do so he argues is a dereliction of moral duty.

His reasoning is that much of our lives are made up of miserable occurrences – illnesses, misfortunes, accidents and general despair. 

You can spend 20 years doing good, but be killed by an errant teddy bear left on the stairs. Death is the only certainty. Better never to be, according to old Prof Benator.

Not the guy you want to be sitting beside at a wedding. I thankfully don’t subscribe to this theory, but, watching Ireland play Wales last month I almost started to. 

And I’m certain Gareth Bale’s girlfriend did.

There was nothing surprising about that Irish performance. Not the allergic reaction to possession of the actual ball from which the sport gets its name, nor the rousing climax that papered over a million cracks. 

All the while we were actively promoting anti-natalism in Cardiff, Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick for Argentina against Ecuador to rescue their qualifying campaign from oblivion. 

On the Messi scale of things his goals were not overly remarkable. On an Irish scale they were the Aurora Borealis.

No kid grows up dreaming of hoofing the ball aimlessly up the line. Not in Buenos Aires and not in Bohola. 

Every one of us, whether on street corners, green fields or even on the Xbox, well we dribbled and shimmied and Cruyff-turned our way through our formative years. We rolled up socks into balls and practised our bicycle kicks, falling gracefully onto our couches. 

We dropped the shoulder and we glided past lamp posts all the while providing voiceovers to our brilliance. 

Ethiopians make better long distance runners because of genetic predisposition, likewise, people of west African descent make the best sprinters. 

The same prohibitive rules of nature don’t apply to football. Every kid, from Kiltimagh to Kinshasa is born with a couple of feet, a ball and an imagination.

Every kid could be Messi.

But not in Cardiff. Not that night. For pretty much an hour Ireland committed crimes against football and nearly convinced the watching world that anti-natalism was a sunnier proposition than following the boys in green. 

And then, in a flash, thanks to Jeff Hendrick displaying some of that good old Irish heart, Ashley Williams succumbing to narcolepsy and James McClean suddenly remembering what it is to be a kid playing ball, we snatched a victory from the jaws of spectacular tedium. 

All sins forgiven. The ugliness drowned out by a few bars of the music.

An encyclopedia of words has already been devoted to why Ireland could and should play better football - arguments made by far more knowledgeable people than I. Despite all the verbiage the one inevitability is this: we are not for turning.

Our stubborn commitment to being average is less a pledge to being true to ourselves and more an acceptance of some obscure lingering Catholic Dogma – Careful now! ease up on those nutmegs. Don’t get above your station.

How does this afflict a national team? All of whom live off this island, many of whom never set foot on it before accepting a call to arms. 

Dublin footballers, Kilkenny hurlers, Katie Taylor, Carl Frampton, Aiden O’Brien, Padraig Harrington – all organic to these shores, yet none carry this baggage, but a gang of seemingly detached professional footballers do? They should be freer than most of all the latent neurosis, yet here we are; crippled by the debilitating legacy of low expectation.

The beautiful game is there for us but we have chosen a different path. One favoured by junior clubs the world over whose team talks revolve around proving the ‘effers on the high stools wrong. We are the underdog and we are the little guy and the rest can all go fudge themselves. We are ugly, sure, but we have the music.

I hope it works. If it does I will shout louder than anyone and dream big of glorious nights in Nizhny Novgorod next summer. I will clench my fist and echo the words Janis Joplin uttered to Leonard Cohen that night in the Chelsea Hotel. But, if it doesn’t, maybe it’s time to burn this mother down. Rebrand. Relaunch. It can be done: Four years ago the Houston Astros were the worst team in Major League Baseball. Last week they won the World Series. Before they became the worst team, they changed their philosophy.

That change saw them immediately get worse, bottom out, build, improve and eventually triumph. I get it - unlike the Irish football team the Astros could spend many, many millions and recruit better ball players.

But that misses the point. It was an acceptance of a need for change, a willingness to embrace something different and a want to not only have the music, but have a little beauty as well, that took them to the summit.

Let us try to learn from it. It couldn’t hurt.

PaperTalk Extra: Who will want the ball in Copenhagen?

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