The last time Ireland played in Slovakia was a Euro 2012 qualifier in Zilina in 2010.
That was a game now best remembered for a saved Robbie Keane penalty, as the sides shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw after Sean St Ledger had given the visitors the lead.
It all seems like a very, very long time ago now, which is why it’s remarkable to note that a certain Glenn Whelan was on duty in the green shirt that night, alongside the likes of Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Shane Long, Aiden McGeady and Keith Fahey.
Away from the football, which was hardly memorable, my outstanding recollection of that trip is that we meeja types found ourselves billeted in the hill country above the town, our lodgings offering a calming view of rolling fields, orchards and mountains.
Not exactly the kind of hot spot to which we have grown accustomed on our travels around the football world, then, yet quietly seductive in its own bucolic way, as Autumn in Slovakia lived up to its poetic billing as the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Except that was during the day, when the sun still retained some deceptive warmth. But by the time we had abseiled to the town on match night, winter had suddenly come stepping in, plummeting temperatures catching us, figuratively and literally, cold.
Consequently, we were obliged to do an emergency run on a supporters’ stall right outside the stadium, with the result that I have often wondered what Giovanni Trapattoni must have made of the spectacle when he glanced up at the press box before the game and seen that, for this big European qualifier away from home, the Irish media were arrayed like Slovakian Ultras, most conspicuously kitted out in red, white and blue hats and scarves.
Given the deep-rooted mistrust with which plenty of gaffers regard the media — we’re always out to get ‘em, don’tcha know, always looking for the vulnerable opening into which to plunge the knife — a lesser man than the venerable Trap might even have come to the conclusion that we were trying to send him a message about the dubious wisdom of fielding Paul Green as part of his starting line-up.
The truth, of course, is that deep down we are fans. Wouldn’t, couldn’t be, doing this gig in the first place if we weren’t. Indeed, often not so deep down, last Monday night’s heart-thumping conclusion to the game against Denmark at the Aviva being a case in point.
Objectivity might demand that a certain emotional detachment be applied at all times and, for the most part, it is, but speaking for myself, it was all I could do after Matt Doherty’s equalising goal not to jump to my feet and start roaring like a dingbat as the green shirts piled forward in search of the winner. Trust me, it’s hard to type when you have your fingers crossed.
But, sadly, as we know, it wasn’t to be and, once the final whistle had blown, it was time once again in the press box for barely-restrained passion to yield to what we like to think of as clear-eyed professionalism.
And the most honest appraisal I can muster on that front is that, close as Ireland came to getting over the line on the final night, their performances and results over the course of the whole campaign were more or less accurately and fairly reflected in the final table, with Switzerland and Denmark finishing, respectively, four and three points ahead of Mick McCarthy’s men.
And that’s before you get to the real devil in the detail, the Swiss having scored 19 goals and the Danes 23 to Ireland’s seven.
So, no complaints. But no emergency grounds, either, for withdrawal of support for the manager as he now faces into the substantial test of having to negotiate two more away days if Ireland is to see football coming home next Summer.
The notion, floated in some quarters this week, that the FAI’s succession stakes should be activated early to see Stephen Kenny parachuted in as Mick McCarthy’s replacement ahead of the play-offs, is grossly unfair to both men.
Even in a sport with a managerial casualty list as high as football’s, it’s hard to imagine any country in which the boss of a third-seed national team, having lost just one game in regulation qualifying and who are still in with a real chance of making the finals through the play-offs, would be discarded at the 11th hour in favour of a nominated long-term successor — even one as capable as Stephen Kenny.
While the sensational application at U21 level of his enlightened coaching philosophies means I can happily share the mounting excitement at the prospect of Kenny taking over for the next World Cup — a development which we’re entitled to hope will herald a sea-change in the way the Irish game is played at senior international level — I simply cannot see the merit of throwing him into these back to back knockout games, with minimal preparation time with the players and absolutely no safety net.
And Mick McCarthy deserves better too. Ireland’s heartening display against Denmark last Monday, even if it finally came up short, was confirmation enough that under his leadership this side does have within its grasp something approaching the kind of big performance which will now be required, not once but twice, to make it to the Euro 2020 Finals.
The qualifying group’s best defensive record speaks for itself and, while a lack of real midfield creativity remains a concern — we will definitely return on another day to what should at least be a lively debate about Jack Byrne’s claims in that regard — there are now legitimate reasons for hoping that our crippling goal shyness could be alleviated by the time Spring is sprung.
Because, allied to the helping of luck that will be needed if key players, like David McGoldrick, are to stay injury-free, the potential for continued progress on the part of Aaron Connolly and perhaps even a breakthrough at club level for Troy Parrott, could make all the difference in terms of providing, literally, the finishing touch, when we make our return to Slovakia in March.
So, not really for me to say, you understand, but hopefully two more times with feeling: COYBIG!
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