Lost in wilderness of the international break

The displaced gathered listlessly in shopping centres and parks and various public amenities last Saturday afternoon.
Lost in wilderness of the international break

You could identify the truly broken by the way they looked around blankly, half-seeing things they had never truly seen before. Their heads weren’t buried in their phones because there were no scores to check. The prospect of making it home for a second half quickened nobody’s stride.

Back in the homes and bars, those too set in their natural routines scanned the spectrum of Sky Sports and BT Sport and eir Sport for solace. There is even a suggestion that in parts of Rugby Country they switched on rugby, the added scrutiny causing Connacht to buckle entirely.

But mostly they despaired. And asked themselves what could justify this callous disruption to their lives, just three weeks into the Premier League season.

They are used to this uncertainty hanging over them, of course. This lack of security. Knowing another international break will soon sneak up, signalled by some 40-man squad announcement they must have missed.

But were they ever this angry? Perhaps the terrible Euros — parochial interests aside — festered too pungently in their minds.

On Twitter, they lashed out in great numbers, cursing the cruel vacuum. They even began to pine for ‘controvassy’. And a marvellous story did the rounds of Wenger not letting Mourinho sit beside him at a conference, the truth of it dubious but still a tantalising taste of the rich vicarious life they had been cut off from.

And when they put on their televisions again over the following days, the anger dissolved into deep existential crises as people subjected themselves to turgid scenes from Trnava and Prague and Belgrade as England and Northern Ireland and the Republic dug out precious points.

And many people began to calculate just how much of their lives had been spent watching Ireland take an unexpected lead, then sit back into an orgy of aimless hoofing in a futile attempt to defend it. And wondered if the odd Roy Keane presser was really enough to hold the interest.

That must be the chief worry for the marketing men at the helm of the big leagues. Could forcing people to watch international football eventually damage the game? Is there a real danger of brand contagion?

Those concerns must have deepened when word landed during the week that Nike were considering pulling out of their England shirt deal, because people weren’t buying England shirts any more.

And in time, we will probably learn that newspaper sales and internet clicks fell to an all-time low, as we tried to tease some kind of half-hearted post-mortem out of men like Richard Dunne and Kenny Cunningham.

All to fill pages that should have overflowed with Premier League managers hitting out at one another.

Eventually, Gary Lineker arrived to tweet a sarcastic ceremonial end to the moratorium.

“Thrilling though it was the international break is over. The weekend approaches, time for a slice of @BBCMOTD.”

You feared international football would never truly recover from Saturday, September 3. And yet, the darkest hour gave way to a small shaft of dawn, as word spread of the scheme that propelled Wales and Romania up the international rankings and into prime seeding slots for the last World Cup.

Sure, Wales’s climb from 117th in the world into the top 10 was speeded by winning a few competitive matches but just as important was a strict no-friendlies diet.

Might this be the first hint of vision from Fifa in a long time? The kind of blue-sky thinking that could only have come out of a crisis branding meeting?

By making friendly matches, even wins, detrimental to your ranking, they have given us a brave way forward for international football; less international football.

Now, all we need is to lose the qualifiers.

At last, Uefa’s move to spread Euro 2020 around the continent made sense. Unrestricted by the logistics of cramming everything into a host nation, what’s to stop them inviting everyone to future tournaments?

Euro 2016 finally made some kind of sense too; a trial run where almost everyone was invited.

Any financial shortfall could surely be topped up by the big leagues, in return for making international football go away for two years at a time.

Actually, they could do more, and release their gladiators for patriotic duty.

“I’ve asked myself many times why Guardiola does not manage Spain, why Mourinho does not manage Portugal,” Diego Simeone said recently, pondering how the great managers could revive the international game and expressing an interest in doing the Argentina job part-time.

For now, the world will satisfy its great infatuation with these gladiators at lunchtime today. And leave international football to the likes of Big Sam, a living symbol of its faded allure.

This week, the FA officially gave up on its longstanding plan to win the 2022 World Cup, with new chairman Greg Clarke admitting the installation at England HQ of a countdown clock to Qatar had been “daft”.

And it already seems to have dawned on Sam that he is a key plank in scaling back expectations.

“It’s not for me to tell Wayne Rooney where to play,” he said after escape in Slovakia, proudly clutching a lucky coin but sounding as helpless as the displaced in the Saturday shopping aisles.

Let Tipp enjoy one in a row

The savage intensity never lets up. There’s less time to rest on your laurels than you get on the ball in Croke Park.

Hurling is consumed restlessly. In fast forward. Chapters skipped to flick to the end.

The year is wished away.

The league is still only the league. Munster and Leinster, phoney wars. Championship starts at the quarters; semis really, for the heavyweights.

And the minute it’s over, all we want to know is can they do it again next year.

Time was, you’d stay in credit for a few days anyway.

We’d be occupied for a week placing Seamus Callanan in the Tipp pantheon. Or where last Sunday’s spree stood him in the ranks of big-day performers.

We’d be plotting Michael Ryan’s tactics, which proved again that you cannot really cut down space on a hurling field or any other field; all you can do is move it around.

We’d focus on the Savage Hunger and where it came from and how the other crowd became just so slightly sated. Usually, that would lead us to WTSAUCUHT. What They Said About Us Coming Up Here Today.

Bubbles tried to take us down that route. Once upon a time, we’d knock a day or two of fun out of his inexactitude, rather than burn it out within hours in a viral storm.

Instead, all the focus is on dynasty and power shifts. On going back to back.

The very same restlessness that had us tired of Kilkenny’s brilliance in the first place.

Heroes & villains


Nicklas Bendtner: For decades, Nottingham Forest have sought an ego to fill the great vacuum Cloughie left behind. Now, the human billboard has landed.


Dean Saunders: His ‘hilarious’ anecdote about a drunk Clough trying to sign him for Forest went viral. Saunders’ relish at recounting a meeting with a man unravelling into alcoholism was crass enough, even before it was shot down by a witness as nonsense.

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