We are the boys in green

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FAI facing tough task to put Ireland centre stage again

We are the boys in green

FAI facing tough task to put Ireland centre stage again

The best you’ve ever seen

You’ll wonder where we’ve been

When you see the boys in green

The second of those lines is clearly inaccurate. More worrying is the fact that the line immediately afterwards is so on the money. It was bang on when it was coined, too. Ireland hadn’t qualified for a major tournament in, well, ever. Then, there we were at Euro ’88, Italia ’90 and USA ’94. Now, unfortunately, it is a refrain that is more applicable than ever. But for very different reasons.

Where has the Republic of Ireland’s national team gone? For the past few years now our first XI has been fading more and more from view, like an old family portrait in a dusty hallway. The ties that bonded have been frayed by time spent apart. Crowds have diminished, with the recent attendance at the Aviva Stadium for the friendly against Turkey feeding into the perception that the FAI can’t even give tickets away.

The week leading up to the fixture had seen the association actually offer family packages free of charge in an attempt to engender interest and even at that, the footfall on Lansdowne Road on the night was paltry. It’s a worrying time for the FAI given its finances and the need to cover its portion of the debt on the redeveloped stadium in Ballsbridge which it has so infrequently managed to pack out.

Of course, we should point out this isn’t the first time the Irish team has left the general public cold. The dominant memory for those of us who followed the side assiduously in the 1980s isn’t the packed house at Dalymount Park that welcomed Italy’s world champions in 1985 but the emptiness of the open stand and terrace that were habitually on display for the rest of the decade.

This columnist can recall, in particular, having the run of the Upper East Stand for the visit of Switzerland this month 29 years ago while the arrival of a star-studded Denmark team containing Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer and Morten Olsen a year later failed to mobilise the home support, that is not until half-time when the seats taken by visiting fans in the Lower Stand were claimed by fast-thinking Irish scallies standing below them in the terrace.

It probably doesn’t help that the current side is playing three of its friendlies on neutral soil this summer. Keeping tabs on events in Craven Cottage where they faced Italy last Saturday is one thing, but Philadelphia and New Jersey where they meet Costa Rica and Portugal represents a whole new ball game for punters who are humming and hawing on whether they could take or leave the national side as it is.

There’s any number of other theories.

If we’re being honest, the Republic has rarely dazzled as a football team, and under Giovanni Trapattoni, any penchant for poetry was dispensed with for a preference of perfunctory prose. Even then the result was rarely enough to make you overlook the obvious limitations on show. The relentless onslaught on our TV screens of the English Premier League and Champions League has also served to undermine the product that is placed before us in Dublin on international weeks, just as Match of the Day did for the League of Ireland all those years ago, and the steady flow of supporters across the Irish Sea between the months of August and May are testament to that.

The EPL may be fuelled to a ridiculous degree by its own sense of self-importance and general worth but it is little wonder the Republic pales into the shadows compared to a game at Anfield or Old Trafford which will provide a selection of the world’s top footballers in a setting of suitable import.

Most of Ireland’s current crop of players play on the same stages, of course, but only as visitors with clubs such as Hull City and Sunderland, fine institutions and worthy representatives of their local communities, but entities that fail to ignite the requisite levels of passion in your average punter.

Form and the fixture list have conspired against them, too. Ireland’s last meaningful game of note was the World Cup qualifier loss to Austria in Vienna last September. Seven games have been played since, three more have to be suffered before the real business can begin away to Georgia next September.

Euro 2012 showed again the momentum that can be created off the park by the boys in green when they hit their stride, but the task facing Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane in re-energising a side and re-engaging a country behind them while doing so is not to be underestimated as they continue their preparations in America this next week.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob

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