Back on rocky road to the Euros

Ahead of the resumption of European Championship qualifying with the game against Gibraltar in Faro on Friday, the Irish team will get its first taste of its new training base when they commence preparations at Abbotstown on Monday morning.

Back on rocky road to the Euros

To judge by a recent sneak preview, they shouldn’t have any complaints about the immaculate Pitch Number One which, one of six — including an all-weather pitch — in the FAI’s new National Training Centre, is being reserved exclusively for use by the senior men’s and women’s teams.

Since the squad will be bussed in and out from their hotel, it ought not to be of any great concern to them that all around them in Abbotstown they will see evidence that the long-awaited National Sports Campus, while certainly taking impressive shape, is still a project under construction.

The same can most certainly be said of Ireland’s opponents next week, both on and off the pitch. Gibraltar is the newest and, with a population of under 30,000, the smallest member of the Uefa family.

In the face of local opposition and pending the possibility that they might yet be allowed to host games in their existing Victoria Stadium, ambitious plans for the building of a new stadium on the Rock’s southern most tip, Europa Point, are on hold. In the meantime, the national team is obliged to play the home games in its first European Championship campaign in the capital of the Algarve.

Further evidence of Gibraltar’s ‘developing nation’ status in football terms comes with an advertisement recently posted on their official website: “Are you passionate about football? Do you want to be involved with Gibraltar’s National Teams? The Gibraltar FA is looking to create a pool of Medical Professionals, who will form an integral part of all Gibraltar’s National Football Teams, (including but not limited to): Doctors, Physiotherapists, Osteopath, Strength & Conditioning Experts, Rehabilitation & Massage Therapists.”

Interested parties were invited to submit their details to the FA at their headquarters in, of all places, “Irish Town, Gibraltar”. (Intensive research — hello Wikipedia! — suggests the origin of the name, now that of a pedestrianised street, dates back to the 18th century when an Irish regiment was based there. (I hardly need to add that it acquired a reputation as, in the words of one scandalised visitor at the time, “a street of ill repute.”.

Meanwhile, Gibraltar’s national team which — with the appointment in July of former Charlton goalkeeper Jeff Wood, is already into its third manager of the campaign, after Allen Bula and interim boss Dave Wilson — lurches from one baptism of fire to another, their inaugural Euros having begun with back-to-back 7-0 thrashings by Poland and Ireland before progress of a sort was made in their next two outings in which they shipped just the four goals each against Georgia and Germany. Then, last March, they finally had something to cheer about when policeman Lee Casciaro scored the country’s first goal at this level against Scotland at Hampden Park. The celebrations were short-lived as the Scots ran out 6-1 winners.

It seemed to be back to square one for the Rockies on their last outing in the Euros, against Germany in June, when, at the Estadio Algarve — where Ireland will play them next week — they took their third 7-0 hammering of the campaign, leaving them with, currently, the worst record of any qualifying team in Europe: Played 6, Lost 6, Goals For 1, Goals Against 34. (That’s 11 worse off than Andorra who are propping up Wales’ group as the only other country yet to register a point). All of which might just explain why you can get odds of 100/1 on them to beat Martin O’Neill’s men Friday.

It also, of course, gives encouragement to those who hold that the best way to stop the beatings is not to let them begin in the first place — in other words, the minnows should be weeded out in a pre-qualifying process before the survivors are allowed grace the same turf as giants of the beautiful game like, er, Ireland.

Quite apart from the fact that it’s difficult to see how any team can hope to progress unless it pits itself against superior opposition on a regular basis — hello Celtic! — I would suggest that those who view the football world through green-tinted glasses should be the last to pull rank, bearing in mind a star-crossed history which includes that famous “draw with a mountain top” (0-0 in Liechtenstein) and a narrow 2-1 win away to San Marino.

Furthermore, in this week of the latest Champions League draw, I’m sure I wasn’t the only greybeard thinking fondly of those long ago days when the European club competitions were an open door, knock-out affair, such that a perceived minnow like Shamrock Rovers could once come within a hair’s breadth of beating mighty Bayern Munich. A blue moon occasion? Maybe. But you couldn’t say such nights aren’t worth waiting for. To put it another way: a large part of what remains of the appeal of the FA Cup has to do with the enduring romance — even if in dreams more often than reality — of a David slaying a Goliath. Is there any good reason why the same shouldn’t be part of the international picture?

So good luck to the amateurs of the Rockies when Ireland come calling next week. Although, if they don’t mind, we’d prefer if they wait at least another few years before emulating the Faroe Islands — who, having already done the double over Greece in the current qualifiers, host the North on the same day — as a striking example of a still developing story of footballing rags to relative riches.

A heartfelt farewell, Ian

All hail Hartey — he of the educated left foot and spectacular free-kicks.

The news of the retirement from football of former Leeds and Ireland full-back Ian Harte cuts another of the few remaining active links with the Irish side which excelled itself at the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea in 2002 while, at the same time, making it seem even more remarkable that, 13 years on, we’re still looking to the shooting boots of the incomparable Robbie Keane to help salvage our latest campaign.

Of course, on a personal level, the memories of 2002 are bittersweet for Harte, who had a penalty saved in the second half of the last 16 game against Spain which, tied 1-1 after extra time, eventually saw the Irish desperately unlucky to be eliminated in spot-kick shootout.

“I was absolutely devastated that I missed the penalty,” Harte remembered this week, as if anyone ever needed convincing otherwise. (And the same could be said of Kevin Kilbane, who missed the rebound from Harte’s effort before later having his own penalty saved in the shootout, with the result that, as I remember vividly from being in Suwon on the night, he was still in tears leaving the stadium).

Saipan might have cast a dark shadow over what was by some distance the most consistently impressive football played by an Irish side in any of the the five finals the country has reached but, in acknowledging this week the huge contribution of Roy Keane in getting Ireland to Japan (“What set the tone — against Holland — was that within two minutes of the game kicking off, Roy Keane absolutely nailed Marc Overmars”) as well as praising Mick McCarthy for his management after a difficult start and then overseeing some tremendous displays in adverse circumstances at the finals themselves, the Drogheda man was right to mark his retirement by putting the former adversaries side by side on the same pedestal.

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