LARRY RYAN: More to life than having the ball

Things took an unusual turn, for a Liam Brady column, on the morning of Cardiff.

This one, Brady accepted, “could ultimately come down to which side wants it the most”.

It was an uncommon venture into cliché for Chippy. A little acknowledgement, perhaps, that the things he knows about football and how it should be played may no longer be relevant to this conversation.

After Cardiff, all we have is cliché. Even if the job of qualifying for the World Cup is not done, there was a certain feeling of finality.

That a grand punditry tradition had finally come to an end. That it might well be the night we forever stopped analysing Ireland in terms of the football on show. And accepted we are playing a variant of the sport where having the football is more inconvenience than necessity.

In international week, we tend to boil football down to a few crude brush strokes we like to think of as truths.

So Iceland’s triumph is the bracing resourcefulness of a fearless people who leave their babies out in the cold.

The Panama deliverance is an exuberant story of national holidays and a substitute gleefully booting a football far into the stands to waste time.

A streetwise enthusiasm that duly punished the United States’ lack of nuance and feel for the game.

Meanwhile, it’s still shite being Scottish, as Renton told us 20 years ago. And the stricken Strachan reminded us. A small and sad people. Genetically cursed. A shite state of affairs.

And Ireland. We want it more. Maybe we want it the most.

We have harnessed The Savage Hunger, taken it onto the international stage.

And judging by the reaction of the players since Cardiff — the ‘proved you wrong’ party line — we have harnessed too that other great staple of every GAA success story: Youse Boys All Wrote Us Off Coming Up Here Today.

Now all we can do is enjoy it.

There is little evidence out there to suggest that the Icelandic people spend much of their time dwelling on the rudimentary football their team plays; their fondness for loading it into the mixer.

So we roll with it and essentially boil down the highlights reel of their odyssey to the Thunderclap after matches.

Our tendency, before and after Ireland matches, was to wonder where Wes was — or before him Andy Reid, Stephen Ireland, Mark Kennedy, Ronnie Whelan, Liam Brady, David O’Leary and so forth.

It was to ask why we didn’t have the ball.

But Eamon Dunphy — one of the great survivors — has already embraced the new normal. The post-punditry era. For the team who want it most, who are better off without the ball, explanations must be found elsewhere. The highlights reel has to be stocked somehow.

So Eamon identified a beautiful moment, from the game against Moldova. Shane Long trooping off after a nightmare of squandermania, but hitting pause on his despair at the touchline and summoning the generosity to envelop his replacement Seanie Maguire in a hug of genuine goodwill.

Not a man fearing the arrival of a younger, perhaps more efficient, version of himself. But a man possessing those intangibles of character and spirit that a team without the ball relies on.

Long may be as good as any striker in the world without the ball. But it is another moment, when the ball isn’t even in play, that will prove an iconic, lasting snapshot of this campaign: Long tenderly cradling Seamus Coleman after his terrible injury, trying to teach him his wife’s pregnancy breathing techniques.

When we reflect on the campaign, we also think of Jon Walters’ emotional promises to his late Irish mother.

And we picture Coleman as a wounded leader, prowling the training camp, and excitedly bringing his manager good news of poor old Scotland’s struggles last Sunday in Slovenia.

And we picture the three of them — Coleman, Long and Walters — sitting in solidarity behind the Cardiff dugouts, as one with all the other Irishmen who didn’t have the ball.

We aren’t privy to the moments these players will remember from behind the scenes. But we do know what Roy Keane said to Jon Walters and the other Ipswich players once, after a bad defeat.

“We’d had a bad game and Roy said, ‘You’re not playing for yourselves. You’re playing for your friends you grew up with, who say, “I know him, I used to play with him, I used to go to school with him.” You’re playing for the people you grew up with on the streets. You’re playing for cousins, uncles, aunties. You’re playing for all these people who are so proud of you.’ That stuck with me.”

We can easily imagine the power of those words in an Irish dressing room and how they might inspire a team to want it more.

We must factor in too a manger renowned for an ability to inspire and for his loyalty, who once flew the Distillery Irish Cup-winning side to Glasgow when he couldn’t make a scheduled reunion in Belfast.

And yet we can’t take for granted how this cocktail of togetherness and spirit and other intangibles translates to wanting it more.

We are, after all, a people who traditionally want it less; who have an ‘ah shure it’s grand’ in our lockers.

Roy Keane may have done more than most, over the years, to eradicate ‘ah shure it’s grand’, but when we watch lads like James McClean and O’Neill go about their business, it’s impossible not to detect a certain edge.

To reduce it to crude brush strokes; if the GAA have lent Ireland The Savage Hunger, might the Derry lads have helped cure us of another long-term national condition; the need to be liked?

Last week, we watched another Derryman, Daryl Gurney, win darts’ World Grand Prix.

If Ireland coped admirably in Cardiff without the ball, Gurney played a lot of his best stuff in Dublin without the darts, at one stage even feigning to shoulder opponent Simon Whitlock.

Just as in Cardiff, there was also plenty of time-wasting. And while Gurney was warned and roundly jeered and criticised, he went home with the €110,000 cheque. Maybe he wanted it more.

Ireland committed twice as many fouls as the poor small Scots last week. McClean, who has never sought approval, made the key one that stunned Joe Allen.

And even at the height of his jubilation in Cardiff, Martin O’Neill was up for another little spat with Tony O’Donoghue. Still didn’t care how his truculence looked.

We have an Ireland that like each other but don’t need to be liked.

Ah, we are scratching for intangibles now, but that is all we can do, with the ball forgotten. mAhead of the play-off draw, Chippy is back in cliché territory, insisting “no-one in the hat will want to draw us”.

We are all finally on the same page, accepting there are more important things than having the ball.


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