What is that alien sensation you are experiencing? Could it be calm? Spring brings the one international break we almost look forward to. For fans, a spiritual retreat from the rigours and hysteria of the Premier League, an escape from the goading and trolling and the humdrum administrative work involved in filling out spreadsheets calculating likely points returns over the remaining eight games.
And for those who still have skin in the game in the Champions League, an essential period of respite from its concussive pandemonium. A mandatory rest while they complete return to play protocols.
It gives us all a break from Liverpool fans, and their neuroses. And even for Liverpool fans, there is a chance to recharge their batteries for a few days before, in the words of their doomlord Stevie G, we go again. Of course, the Reds will remain on high alert for catastrophe, particularly while Sadio Mane is taking on Madagascar tonight.
But even they may be able to enjoy some precious time with their families away from despair and hope. Because if it’s the hope that usually kills us, everyone should be safe enough during this international break.
Not that Ireland’s task is hopeless in Gibraltar today, rather we have engineered a situation where hope is not the most relevant emotion.
That is the great beauty of Mick McCarthy’s second coming. We know what we are getting and how long we are getting it for. We are not being promised a philosophy. We aren’t being sold a guru. Nobody is offering fundamental change. The future is being taken care of elsewhere, by Stephen Kenny. So welcome to the here and now. Where there is no big picture being drawn and Ireland may just be able to do all those things beloved of gurus — to live in the moment, concentrate on the process, and even take one game at a time.
When there is no narrative to live up to, everyone gets to write their own lines. A guy can play well for Shamrock Rovers and find himself in the squad. Or knock a few goals in for Luton and make the team. Somebody like Aiden O’Brien or Enda Stephens can leave a mark without needing to represent the future. And a centre-half can knock one aimlessly into the channels without triggering existential state of the nation angst. Instead, there is blissful respite from the big questions. Too many big questions have been asked. Too many six-markers.
We have stewed long enough on why we can’t pass the ball, why we must knock it. We have mourned long enough the little guy on the street. We have puzzled over what has become of our players, whether it’s Playstations or third-level education, or traffic to blame. And thanks to Ricey, we have had to wrestle like never before with identity and the meaning of nationality. Now all we are asking for is three points in Gibraltar. And we are asking the small questions. Is Sean Maguire ready to score a goal? Is Jeff Hendrick gone altogether? Can Matt Doherty play out wide?
In less calm moments, were we to reflect on this ‘depth’ at right-full, we might have lapsed into a wistful reminisce on the days when we had so many great players, we didn’t need any full-backs. When we had to accommodate Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan in those areas, to give them something to do.
Looked at in that light, our excitement at having two decent right-fulls might be regarded as an embarrassment rather than an embarrassment of riches. But there is no need for that kind of negativity today, because the future is being looked after elsewhere. This week Stephen Kenny was the guru talking philosophy, selling grand visions of an environment where creativity can flourish, and where Ireland will play in a mythical, elusive, ‘expansive’ fashion.
The great shame, during this period of delayed hope, is that Stephen Kenny will be asked to play matches at all. That this fragile, beautiful vision of the future should be exposed to the merciless European U21 circuit. The one blessing is that Troy Parrott’s toe keeps him out of tomorrow’s clash with Luxembourg. Because when we talk about the future, and hope, essentially we are waiting for Troy. And the longer we can preserve the vision of Troy we see in Twitter clips from Spurs U23 games, the better we feel about the future.
And the present stays calm. Considering the interest in John Delaney’s moonlighting as a financial institution, it has been a calm week. We have come to realise that Ricey might have given us a lot in midfield, but he promises to give us even more as a sitcom character — Alan Partridge meets John Terry. Rugby Country is enduring its own crisis, so we have a short break from the conviction that we should be easily able to grow whatever future we want in a few South Dublin schools for the price of a few grand a term.
And whatever Glenn Whelan or James McClean manage today, nobody will read deeper significance into it. A new book The Quiet Fan, by When Saturday Comes writer Ian Plenderleith, bemoans football’s constant wearying search for deeper significance.
“It’s not just football’s commercialism and endless frothing hyperbole that have become rampant and bloated; it’s the significance that the game has now been burdened with. It’s not just football, it’s deep! Camus said so, and he knew bloody everything. And Shankly too, he said that thing about life and death. Football, philosophy, death — it’s not just about kicking a ball into a goal, is it? Except that, basically, it is.”
That’s certainly all it’s about today. Just kick it in the Gibraltar goal a few times, lads. The future can wait.