Learning from Ronnie’s rocket

Pardon me while I pick this name up off the ground but I once found myself standing next to Pele while the great man marvelled at a great Irish goal.

The occasion was a sponsor’s launch in Dublin a couple of months before World Cup ’94 and it just so happened that, as Pele was watching some video footage of classic goals in international football, up popped Ronnie Whelan’s acrobatic stunner against the USSR at Euro ’88. The great Brazilian’s reaction was an appreciative ‘ooh’ — but then he did see it from the best angle.

“Everyone says it’s a shinner especially when they see if from the camera angle behind the goal,” grinned Ronnie yesterday, moments after that goal had once again been shown on a big screen to another appreciative audience.

“It was one of those that you hit, a loopy one, and you think it could be going somewhere,” he recalled.

“Mind you, I nearly broke my back trying to do it.”

It’s hard to believe it’s taken the Republic of Ireland 24 years to get back to where Whelan scored his spectacular goal but it seems even longer when you consider Ireland’s opposition that day in Hanover no longer exists, an entire empire disappeared into history.

Yet, there are still distinct echoes of Euro ’88 in Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2012, not least the fact that, just as Jack’s men were deemed to be in something a group of death with England, Holland and the Soviet Union, so are Trap’s team regarded clear outsiders against Spain, Italy and Croatia.

Still, Whelan maintains that, again like the class of ’88, the class of ’12 have reasons for confidence.

“The lads as a group knew we could get results back then,” he said.

“We knew the England players. At Liverpool, you had me, Ray and Aldo and we knew Lineker, Barnes and Beardsley. We knew we were half decent. Okay, they battered us towards the end but we did well for an hour against them.

“Then, against Russia, we played a different way. And it wasn’t pre-planned to go against Jack, it just happened on the day.”

Unfortunately, in that truncated tournament, a win against England, a draw with the Soviet Union and defeat to Holland was not enough to see Ireland through. But, this time around, Whelan reckons the Irish have at least a fighting chance of getting out of their group.

“People keep talking about Italy, saying they are ninth or 10th in the world but they are not playing like that,” he observed.

“For me, they are not much better than Ireland and I’d be confident of getting a result — we’ve shown in the past we can do it against them.

“And although the Irish players, unlike in 1988, are not in top teams in England, they are a team with a structure that has got them through and they know what they’re doing. Trap has them believing now and they believe in him because they are getting results and they are very difficult team to beat. Three draws might be enough but we might sneak a win somewhere and a draw.”

Structure, belief, difficult to beat — Whelan doesn’t demur when it’s pointed out that he could be talking about Ireland under Jack.

“Yeah, some managers have systems, like Jack did with us, and although we weren’t all going ‘great, we love this way of playing’ we did play that way and it got us through to World Cups and made us a team that was hard to beat.

“Now this is a team that’s hard to beat and they believe in what they’re doing. It’s not going to be great for us all. We’re not going to be going there thinking ‘we’re going to be playing great football and we’re going to beat everybody’. We’re not. I think we all know how we’re going to play. So it’s a case of, if we can pick a result up, like a win against one of those three and a point somewhere. And I think it’s possible because we don’t concede a lot of goals.”

And, again like Jack, Trap won’t shake up his squad much, if at all, for the finals. Indeed, Whelan reckons there’s only one likely breakthrough between now and June.

“James McClean is the only one I’m thinking of. This lad has come on the scene and for me he looks like a Trap player. He gets up and down the line, he’s big, strong, he works hard, gets good crosses in the box.

“He seems to tick all the boxes for what Trap wants. He is also doing a job week in, week out in the Premier League so, looking at it, he is probably the only one who has a chance of getting in there.”

Ronnie Whelan was walking familiar ground yesterday, helping launch the Project Futsal hub in Ballymun, Dublin, just down the road from where he grew up in Finglas and learned his football at Home Farm. Project Futsal is an EU-funded joint FAI and Welsh Football Trust initiative which aims to provide education and work opportunities for young people in disadvantaged areas and to assist community regeneration via employment and volunteerism in sport.

And the course students who listened to Ronnie in Ballymun’s Civic Centre yesterday were a living reminder that not all worthy goals are spectacular ones which end up in the back of the net.

* For further information about the continued roll-out nationwide of Project Futsal, see www.irelandwales.ie

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