Tommy Martin: Irish soccer like George Bailey on the bridge in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

Tommy Martin: Irish soccer like George Bailey on the bridge in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’
Mick McCarthy has found himself cuckolded by the future, his team’s stuttering Euro 2020 campaign stodgy gruel when compared to the haute cuisine his successor has served up with the under-21s, writes Tommy Martin.

The term annus horribilis was used by Queen Elizabeth to describe the year 1992, in which three of her children’s marriages split up and one of her castles burnt down. Quite how horribilis things can really be when you get paid millions by the taxpayer to wave and shake hands with people was never fully looked into at the time.

Still, if 1992 was a bad year for the head of the Windsor mob, it had nothing on 2019 in Irish soccer.

Now, there was plenty about 2019 that wasn’t that horribilis at all. For one thing, we appear to have stumbled upon an exciting new generation of talent, the vanguard of which is represented by Stephen Kenny’s U21 team.

They sit atop their Euro 2021 qualifying group and are noteworthy for the strange habit they have of passing to other fellows with the same colour jersey. It’ll never catch on.

Some of this batch are starting to break through into what, for many, represents proper football – in other words, the stuff you see on Match of the Day. Aaron Connolly scored two in a Premier League match for Brighton, the first Irish teenager to do so since Robbie Keane in 1999.

Troy Parrott sat on the bench for Tottenham in their Champions League game with Bayern Munich, a journey from dodging doggy poo in Fairview Park to the Allianz Arena in less than two years. And still only 17.

At 17 I was singing ‘Wonderwall’ in my bedroom and desperately trying to make sense of organic chemistry.

Mick McCarthy has found himself cuckolded by the future, his team’s stuttering Euro 2020 campaign stodgy gruel when compared to the haute cuisine his successor has served up with the under-21s.

But Mick has only had eight competitive games in charge, the best performance of which was in the last. Maybe they are hitting form just in time for those treacherous March play-offs.

League of Ireland attendances rose for the third sea son in a row, aided by a cadre of clubs who appear to have their act together in terms of marketing and connecting with their communities.

Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers served up a decent rivalry and Bohemians were your hipster nephew, all pale ale and bearded sustainability.

There is still a drop-off in quality outside the top clubs, a criminal lack of investment in facilities and one club went bust, but, in the words of Osgood Fielding III, nobody’s perfect.

The women’s national team continues to inch up the sheer slope of the international game. They have improved to the point where we could openly slate them for not beating Greece away.

This is significant because you don’t actually exist in Irish football unless people feel able to tell you, when the occasion requires it, that you were absolutely shite.

Alas, all this feels like passengers in the Titanic noting how lovely the food was before they plunge into the icy waters below.

There’s no need to go into the gory details of the current unfolding catastrophe, which can be best understood if you think of Irish football as Pompeii and John Delaney’s ego as Vesuvius.

The disaster started with a distant rumble, when The Sunday Times asked the FAI about Delaney’s €100,000 loan to the association in 2017, and were told to move along, nothing to see here. The speed of the destruction was such that the man now talking up the FAI’s demise, Shane Ross, was a little over a year ago trumpeting what a splendid job they were doing.

We hear it said that there may not be an FAI soon, that there may not be a league or a national team. This is the abyss.

Irish soccer is now like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, standing on the bridge on a cold Christmas Eve, bankrupt and broken, wondering if everyone would be better off if they weren’t around.

We suspected that the country had got the football association it deserved, that an uncaring public mightn’t care if it all disappeared.

And then something strange happened.

Suddenly here’s Clarence the angel and he’s pointing out just what Ireland would be like without football. No endearingly grumpy League of Ireland fans giving out about barstoolers. The couple who met in a pub during Italia 90 and had their first kiss to Packie’s save? They never met, they never kissed. That guy? The only time he saw his Dad cry was when Robbie Brady’s goal went in.

The kids playing with their local team at the weekends, dreaming of being the next Robbie Keane?

They’d all be playing Fortnite. What about the ones from the tough areas, where football is a good thing amid too many bad things? The coaches, the players, the fans, the people who line the pitches and put up the nets and organise the raffles? What would they do? What would happen to Brian Kerr?!

People do care. They didn’t sneer or laugh when the shit hit the fan. They know what football means to this country, even if they are not soccer people.

Of course Irish football will survive. There will always be football. Football is not a statutory body — it’s a means of expression and the world’s pastime. And now through the gloom, there is finally an opportunity to make Irish football like it should be.

People want the grassroots to be cherished, a strong and vibrant league and a national team that plays with confidence and joy. No more gravy train, no more personal fiefdom, no more disdain for the little people. The Government knows they need to sort it out because people won’t forgive them if they don’t.

At the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey dashes home to find all his friends and family have organised a whip-round and the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan is saved. They all belt out ‘Auld Lang Syne’, George picks up a book to find a message from Clarence. It reads “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

The good thing about an annus horribilis is there’s a new annus just around the corner. Altogether now: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot ...”

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