Billy Connolly’s love of football, like a slick passing move from one penalty box to another, can be traced back through the length of his long career, writes Brendan O'Brien
But the Big Yin never allowed that prevent him from prodding the game with a stick or holding aloft its follies and those of the people whose lives revolve around it.
He lampooned the violence that wrapped itself around the Old Firm rivalry between Rangers and his beloved Celtic, bemoaned the consistent failings of his national team — “Scotland has the only football team in the world that does a lap of disgrace” — and quipped once that he thought another Glasgow club’s name was actually Partick Thistle Nil.
That last jibe sprung to mind last Tuesday.
The nightly news wasn’t long started on RTÉ when Shane Long found himself with just the Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy to beat. Already flagged offside, the Irish striker elected to have a pop anyway. With just two goals for club and country since February of last year, the temptation not to find the net was too much. Then he hit the crossbar.
The groan that rippled around the Aviva Stadium was accompanied by the odd hollow laugh. Not just for the striker whose confidence in front of goal must be at inconceivably low levels, but for an Irish team that couldn’t register a goal three nights earlier when Denmark downed tools and Jeff Hendrick got a carpet ride through towards Kasper Schmeichel.
The paucity of goals — and chances created — has been a sore point this last week with the Republic drawing two blanks but the main purpose of actually playing football has always been a stretch for the Boys in Green. In the past ten years, they have managed an average of just 1.18 goals per game in competitive fixtures other than dates with Gibraltar, Andorra and the Faroes.
“I have had this problem with the national side here for five years,” Martin O’Neill said before the latest pair of blunt performances.
O’Neill’s regrets over the Tallaght man’s date of birth have been an ongoing feature of his tenure and perfectly in keeping with his assertions that the squad at his disposal is lacking in both quality and quantity. He said as much again after the 1-0 loss to Denmark but the goalscoring discussion is a thread worth unspooling.
It took 74 years for the Republic of Ireland to avail of a player with the instincts to score 68 goals, at a rate of one every 2.14 games, until he retired in 2016. It could be 2090 before another Keane is even ready to make his debut for his country. That’s roughly the span we have to wait for a sighting of Haley’s Comet so O’Neill’s wistfulness is grating.
What Ireland need to find now is another Niall Quinn or Don Givens. Someone who can do an honest shift up front and maybe call time on his career with 20 or 30 goals to his credit. Someone like Kyle Lafferty who has 20 for Northern Ireland, or David Healy who accounted for 36 during his time at international level.
Lafferty can take minding.
Some madcap antics in the past suggest he would have slotted in seamlessly to Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ culture in the 1980s and 90s. And he is in the bad books right now with the Irish FA who have responded to his failure to report for duty this last week by invoking a FIFA sanction that prohibits him from playing for Rangers at the weekend.
Lafferty’s club career, as a whole, has been a disappointment and his imprint at international level wasn’t much deeper until Michael O’Neill got inside his head. Suddenly, he was scoring in crucial ties away to Hungary and Greece at a time when he was coming up empty-handed for Norwich City in the Championship against Shrewsbury and Rotherham.
“What Michael says inspires me and gets me up for the games,” Lafferty said after claiming both goals in a 2-1 Windsor Park win over Finland in the qualifiers for Euro 2016. “I’m buzzing playing for him. He is the best manager I have played under and gets the best from me. He pulls me to one side before every game.”
That proves again that players struggling to keep their head above water in the day job can spearhead a seachange in fortunes for their countries. But only if they are supported by the proper structures and a manager who talks them up rather than down.
Martin O’Neill’s part in the Republic’s precipitous decline of late has been debated over and back. Some point accusing fingers at the FAI and/or the players instead but it is impossible to dispute the fact that the man in the dugout is failing to produce a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts. Finding, and fuelling, a Lafferty would go a long way towards remedying that.
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