Home thoughts from abroad

Home thoughts from abroad

FOOTBALL CHEER: Republic of Ireland supporters enjoyed the expedition to the 2002 World Cup, held in Japan and South Korea.Picture: Tom Honan/INPHO
FOOTBALL CHEER: Republic of Ireland supporters enjoyed the expedition to the 2002 World Cup, held in Japan and South Korea.Picture: Tom Honan/INPHO

It is with a certain amused disdain that I daily digest the dispatches from colleagues out beyond in the Land Of The Rising Scrum, with all that mildly anguished stuff about finding themselves strangers in a strange land.

Of course, like Livingstone, Lewis and Clark and our own Tom Crean, your correspondent was one of the trailblazers in the discovery and charting of parts unknown, a veteran of the great trans-Siberian expedition of the year 2002, back when the century was still in its infancy and there was no such thing as Google Maps to show us the way to the next whiskey bar.

I note, in particular, that there’s much weeping and wailing among the current crop about the possibility that they might get a little wet and wind-blown on the ‘morrow, again something which prompts us greybeards to despair of today’s snowflakes when we remember how we came through Typhoon Roy and were still standing when the other Keane put the ball in the German net in Ibaraki.

Lost in translation, is it? When we first made landfall on the Japanese mainland, in the provincial town of Izumo, we discovered that, for all its loveliness (and its immaculate training facilities….ah, Roy), our ability to communicate with the locals was seriously compromised. As in, pretty much non-existent.

The result was a humiliating first night on the town when a group of us trooped into a succession of restaurants where, after much mutual bowing and smiling, the staff and ourselves would proceed to stare in blank incomprehension at each other for about five excruciating minutes before, after more bowing but rather less smiling, we were obliged to troop back out again.

Sheer desperation and what appeared to be the very real prospect of starvation eventually saw us reduced, in one establishment, to doing the chicken mime which, though it might well have looked to our clearly startled hosts like we were playing air uilleann pipes, ultimately had the desired effect of us getting served the nicest and most welcome Something-On-A-Skewer I’ve ever had.

To minimise the prospect of further chaos, it was decided that some local students who had a smattering of English would be made available to assist the helpless Irish press corps and, to this end, a trio of young women set up a little information/translation desk in the lobby of our hotel. But it was only when we were departing Izumo to head off to Niigata for Ireland’s opening game against Cameroon that I discovered some of my colleagues had been thoughtfully returning the favour by teaching them a bit of Hiberno-English.

And so, when it finally came time to leave the hotel and board the coach for the airport, there was an unforgettably emotional scene as our new friends lined up behind their desk, bowed in unison, clasped their hands together and, with sad but beautiful smiles, offered us all a heartfelt “Goodbye gobshites”.

Mick McCarthy is another survivor of the great expedition of 2002, something to which he recently alluded when, in response to reported Swiss criticism of Ireland’s style of play, he observed: “I seem to think we’ve done alright when we’ve qualified for competition.” It might have seemed a small, almost throwaway line — and an accurate one to boot when you think of how well his team performed in Japan and Korea — but I was struck by its echo of something Martin O’Neill said when I once asked him why his Irish team appeared to have reserved their best football of his reign for the Euro 2016 finals.

“Two very different types of competition,” he assured me. “There’s the getting there, the trying to get there, which is a slog. But when you do get there, you can throw off the shackles and go and play. Tournament football is about getting that wee bit of respect because you’re already there, and the other team, no matter how good they are, will like to keep it and pass it around a wee bit. And that gives time to you to get back in again because they don’t press you as much.

“But asking us to go and be expansive against Serbia in Belgrade? I think that’s asking a lot for us to do that because the more technically gifted players will eventually do you.”

It’s an interesting idea, especially for a mid-ranking team like Ireland, that you don hard hat and overalls for qualifying and reserve top hat and tails for the big stage. It’s not always possible, of course, as old Trap discovered when his team found themselves in a proper Group of Death at the 2012 Euros. And, encouragingly for the future, might I add, it’s a notion with which the current Irish U21s appear to have no truck.

But it’s also the case that, other than for the host nation, tournaments are played out on neutral turf, another kind of leveller when it comes to the crunch. But that won’t, of course, apply throughout the multi-hosted Euro 2020 finals when, to pick the example literally closest to home, Ireland — should they qualify — are scheduled to play two games at the Aviva. And, considering the enhanced sense of expectation that would be sure to bring to bear on the green shirt, it must be at least debatable whether, in such a high-pressure context, ‘home advantage’ would turn out to be just that.

But, soft, we have to get there first. And with only three games to go, and two of them away, I frankly doubt very much that anyone will care a great deal if Ireland aren’t expansive against Georgia in Tbilisi and against Switzerland in Geneva — and for that matter against Denmark in Dublin too — just so long as the necessary points are secured to ensure McCarthy’s men of a place next summer in the Land Of The Occasional Sun. Time enough then to worry about what to wear.

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