John Fallon: Jeopardy and joy light up the Nations League. It sure beats Oman

Israel up. England down. Hungary flying. Uefa's brainchild is working just fine as an antidote to the mundanity of non-competitive fare
John Fallon: Jeopardy and joy light up the Nations League. It sure beats Oman

FEELING AT HOME: Adam Szalai of Hungary celebrates following the UEFA Nations League League A Group 3 match between Germany and Hungary at Red Bull Arena on September 23, 2022 in Leipzig, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Is there anything to be said for resuming the friendly rivalry with Poland or expanding the hat-trick of warm-ups against Oman?

Ireland’s first competitive fixture against the Poles was at the 20th attempt in 1991, a slew of friendlies regular components over the previous years.

Three times over a four-year period in the noughties, Ireland did what hardly any other European nation did once by hosting the Omanis. Only the deposed John Delaney can enlighten us in time as to the benefits it accrued to the team.

No thanks but the Uefa Nations brainchild is working just fine as an antidote to the mundanity of non-competitive fare.

"Friendlies are a waste of time as far as I am concerned,” were the sage words of Alex Ferguson in 2011, provoking a backlash from the traditionalists. "But I am all in favour of the competitions. The players should play in the major competitions such as the European Championship and the World Cup.”

Too true.

Whilst the Nations League has isolated the silverware to just four nations from their top tier, the competitive significance is undeniable given its link to seedings.

There is also the backdoor route to qualification. When Ireland last reached the Euro 2016 through the playoffs, they were one of eight teams in four straight shootouts to reach France.

For the last installment, the pan-European version, it expanded to 12 teams, segregated into three subsections featuring semi-finals and finals.

Ireland, as we know, went out in the semis, whereas Scotland emerged through their quadrangular route to end their 23-year major tournament drought.

Everyone, or at least more teams, were in with a shout to qualify, keeping them active throughout the regulation series in the hope the consolation route would open.

That’s how Ireland clinched their place last time out, despite the team finishing bottom of their group in 2018, triggering Martin O’Neill’s dismissal.

It will be the same principle for the next Euros in 2024. On top of the 20 teams that join hosts Germany at the tournament by progressing from the 10 groups drawn in Frankfurt on Sunday week, there are 12 who don’t stay relevant. They will be chosen once the series ends in November 2023 to contest the next playoff series six months later. If all that sounds complicated, it is.

Friendlies were the inconvenient dates to fill between qualifiers for nations and once Uefa centralised the television rights to allocate multi-million payouts to each federation, the windfalls accrued for landing big fish were eliminated.

Federations could still hit the jackpot in ticket sales, like the FAI enticing Belgium to Lansdowne Road in March, but broadcast revenue was ringfenced.

In the spirit of quid pro quo, the tradeoff was a meritocracy in the Nations League, divided into four leagues.

What appealed to the heavyweights was regularity of fixtures between themselves in League A, mirroring the latter stages of most tournaments. Cry-offs were minimized, rather than obliterated, but the marketability of tickets to punters and corporates soared.

Promotion was the byproduct alongside playoffs for the middling and lower nations, exemplified by Armenia rising to Ireland’s League B section. They, along with Montenegro, Slovenia and Albania, topped their tables to move up the ladder, while Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Turkey and Bulgaria came the other way.

Jeopardy and joy are the contrasting emotions, as Ireland have discovered in their three campaigns to date. Only a reboot of the format after the maiden series prevented relegation and a continuation of woeful form meant them dicing with the drop in the next two.

Bracketing teams into groups of similar standing also militates against landslides, for so long the perils of friendlies. They’re even unavoidable in mainstreams qualifiers, particularly within the three groups reserved for six nations.

Close games sustain interest, engage the public and empower managers under pressure to make the right decisions, whether that be tactics, selection and substitutions.

Undoubtedly, the ridiculing of England wouldn’t have occurred without this concept. Used to qualifying for tournaments with plenty to spare, they’ve pitifully come up short in this campaign; their early fate sealed in the opposite direction by suffering relegation.

By contrast, Hungary have gained the feel-good story status by embellishing their promotion to League A by more than holding their own, beating the English and Germans to finish above them in Group Three.

Israel as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina will be glancing at England and France while jumping upwards to Group A following impressive showings over their six games.

Their ascension just shows Ireland what’s possible for nations on the fringes to achieve, the justification Stephen Kenny felt in predicting top spot and promotion for Ireland.

It will be another two years for the feeling of dejection to be ditched, to reach a position whereby Irish fans can look upon this newly-fangled Uefa project as a friendly ally.

England may well be back in the upper echelons by then but need not worry about the idea of facing the Auld Enemy.

Friendly dates aren’t disappearing completely, illustrated by Erling Haaland’s imminent arrival to Dublin with Norway in November, and a reciprocal arrangement remains in place with the English FA.

They haven’t forgotten, nor will be allowed to, how the FAI stepped in at short notice to replace New Zealand for a November 2020 date. Some traditions will never die.


Athlone women finding their stride at right time

It has been some story for Athlone Town’s women’s team, still in with a shout to claim a league and FAI Cup double.

Established as a senior entity only in 2020, they have reached their first Cup final, scheduled for November 6 at Tallaght Stadium against Shelbourne.

Madison Gibson bagged all three goals in their emphatic semi-final win over Wexford Youths last week, dumping out the holders and league leaders.

The arrival of American Gibson underlines the clever recruitment by manager Tommy Hewitt, admitting he’s had to be creative in luring players when it’s so difficult in attracting them from the established clubs to the Midlands.

Athlone could yet usurp the big guns too for the WNL title. Trailing by just six points with four games left, they host Wexford this Saturday before finishing against lower sides Treaty, Galway and Bohemians.

Wexford have to travel to another contender, Peamount, before concluding with a home match against Shelbourne – a rerun of last season’s exciting finale.

There’s the international break to come after this weekend but the fitness displayed by Athlone, most tellingly in their recent win over Shelbourne, gives them every chance of lasting the distance and putting themselves into contention to break the domination enjoyed over the years by Shels, Peamount and Wexford.

Shine one of the brightest stars to grace game

At just 27, it seems a crying shame that Clare Shine’s talents are being lost to the game.

It seems the Cork native has been around for a generation, understandable given she travelled to the 2010 U17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago as the youngest member of Noel King’s squad.

Gifted with a peach of a left foot, she was first brought to national attention when representing Cork at the underage Gaynor Cup.

International honours were to follow, up to the senior level, as well as her winning Cup final goals. To do so for Cork in the 2017 showpiece at Lansdowne Road was especially sweet but there were strikes either side in the colours of Glasgow City, the club she felt most at home at when away from home.

Shine’s story does, however, bring home the human side of the game, rarely considered when watching a rising star break new ground on the pitch.

Her battles with addiction have been chronicled in a cathartic process for herself, leading to a realisation that she’s got other ambitions to accomplish beyond the game she’s been associated with for 22 years of her life.

Working with the club’s Foundation will suffice for now, yet the hope is that a return to the pitch will feel normal again at some point. That will be her decision alone and must be respected.

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