BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Memory puts paid to dogged Irish style of play

We’re six games and nine months into the latest qualifying campaign, one that started with a brilliant result and an awful display against Serbia in Belgrade, writes Brendan O’Brien.

Memory is a strange thing. In 2010, researchers at Jacobs University in Bremen asked volunteers to look at videos of people performing a few straightforward tasks. Shuffling a deck of cards, shaking a bottle, that sort of thing. Two weeks later and the same observers were recalling those actions as if they had performed them themselves.

Two years down the road and a study published by Northwestern Medicine found our memories change each and every time we recall them. In other words, how we remember something is coloured by the times in which we are recollecting them. We are remembering memories of events, not the events themselves, and they are changing all the time.

Any sport anorak will scoff at that.

Who doesn’t hoard a plethora of obscure facts from the past and embrace them as a badge of honour? The Manchester United lineup from the 1983 Milk Cup final is a personal favourite — Bob Paisley’s last time to lead Liverpool out at Wembley, don’t you know — but there’s no doubt but that our ideas of days gone by are clouded and contorted by the passing years.

It only takes the lightest amount of digging to prove it.

For years this column was sure that a Mick Martin testimonial between Ireland and Manchester United at Dalymount Park was our first big game as a kid. Turns out that the game in question, in August 1982, was in honour of Don Givens. Martin’s came over a year later, at the same venue, but featured a ‘Mick Martin XI’ versus an ‘International XI’.

Looking back now, there are gaps everywhere in the mind’s sporting scrapbook, although some games do stand out. So does the sense of euphoria when the bandwagon began to hit fifth gear under Jack Charlton, but what has always been absent was any sense of displeasure among supporters during the 1986-1996 era over the Republic’s agricultural style of play.

Maybe all the debate over formations and tactics and strategy just flew over the head of this kid perched high up on the old East Stand but it’s a question that pops back to mind all too often after Ireland games when, as was the case last Sunday against Austria, the boys in green huff and puff but fail to blow down anyone’s disdainful preconceptions about their abilities.

Talk to people who have been watching Ireland play for 50 and 60 years and they can wax lyrical about some great players but there was rarely, if ever, such a thing as ‘building from the back’. Old footage supports that. Long balls, wingers who could cross, and big centre-forwards who could head it were always the order of the day.

More than 50,000 people filled the Aviva Stadium for the Austria game. Few of them were expecting artistry and Ireland ended the evening still sitting joint top of Group D with Serbia after eking out a 1-1 draw. Ask Martin O’Neill about style and you’re reminded of Colonel looking disdainfully at a sceptical Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket and asking: “Why don’t you jump on the team and come on in for the big win?”

But should it be wrong to seek style as well as success?

We’re six games and nine months into the latest qualifying campaign, one that started with a brilliant result and an awful display against Serbia in Belgrade. That was a game which prompted a healthy debate on what constituted the DNA of Irish football and it eventually drew in observations from the likes of Richard Dunne, Stephen Kenny, and Roy Keane.

Keane’s two cents were particularly interesting given a playing career spent in the middle of the park with Manchester United, and his current posting as right-hand man to O’Neill, and there was truth in his assertion that Irish teams he’d played on under Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr had never gone and dominated teams at home, let alone on the road.

But there have been days when the Republic have played against type. Against the USSR in Hanover in 1988. The night in Amsterdam in 2001 when they were 2-0 up on Holland. The go-for-broke verve of that play-off when Thierry Henry broke the rules and our hearts in Saint-Denis in 2009. So we have seen before that maybe our ambitions for the national team should embody more than mere results. Or maybe that’s just memory up to its old tricks again.

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

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