That’s life, that’s what all the people say, you’re ridin’ high in April, shot down in May…
When Frankie warbled that one, he could hardly have guessed that his true target audience would be one composed of football managers and football players.
To be more specific, substitute Thursday for April and Sunday for May and you couldn’t get a more succinct summing up of the giddy highs and plunging lows of last week’s climax to Ireland’s European Championship group campaign.
After Poland had burst the Germany bubble, consigning Ireland to the play-offs, Martin O’Neill sought to lift the mood again, declaring: “We’re not out of this by a long shot.”
Ironically, he could of course have said that, actually, we’re still in it because of a Long shot, Shane’s stunner having delivered that remarkable victory over the Germans to send the nation’s spirits soaring. True, Robert Lewandowski’s late equaliser in Hampden on the same night meant that even a scoreless draw in Dublin would still have been enough to see Ireland through to the play-offs, but that only goes to reinforce how fine the margins have been for O’Neill’s team, not only in the last two games of the group, but throughout the whole campaign.
Indeed, it doesn’t require much tweaking of the key moments in the Germany game to see how things could have panned out very differently. Simply imagine that Long had blasted over and Muller had blasted home, and the whole picture would have changed utterly. Instead of one of the greatest nights in Irish football history, we’d have been writing about how, as was always fully expected, German class finally won out over Irish guts, and how the qualification force was now back with Scotland after their draw with Poland.
And the way things did actually transpire 72 hours later, a straight and by no means implausible reversal of the Germany result in Dublin would have meant Scotland would now be the ones eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s play-off draw in Nyon while Ireland would already be well into an agonising postmortem and with nothing to look forward to but a summer of discontent.
Alternatively, leave Dublin as was and imagine that Richard Keogh had taken his chance in Warsaw. The upshot? We’d be on our way to France and spared the anxiety of a two-legged decider next month — and instead of the sinner he is perceived in some quarters to be, our manager, in the manner of Saint Jack, would at the very least be Blessed Martin.
All of which is by way of saying that the difference between success and failure for this Irish team so often comes down to the footballing equivalent of ‘events, dear boy’. And it has been ever thus, with some of our greatest days the product, not of sustained superiority over the 90 minutes, more the result of one goal against the head or one inspired solo performance, invariably backed up by prodigious quantities of guts and a large helping of luck. Think of Packie Bonner having his finest hour in Stuttgart or Paul McGrath at his inspirational best in Giants Stadium or Jason McAteer digging one out against the Dutch at Lansdowne Road.
Sport’s almost unrivalled capacity to either uplift or deflate was intensified by the shortness of the gap between the Germany and Poland games. Judging by how the media and public reaction soared and plummeted, the uninitiated would have been forgiven for thinking that, somehow, we’d gone from being the best team in the world to the worst in the space of a couple of days.
The reality, of course, is that we were and are still pretty much what we’ve been for a very long time: A middle-ranking European side with a limited talent pool and a style of playing that will always rely more on fire than flair. To have finished third in a group behind two manifestly superior teams in Germany and Poland, and just ahead of Scotland — a side with which we are more or less on a par — seems to me to be a pretty fair and accurate reflection of Ireland’s standing in the game.
Before the match in Warsaw, Shane Long said his goal against Germany would count for nothing if Ireland don’t qualify for the finals in France next year. Which is absolutely true in the sense that the ultimate measure of success in sport is winning.
But you could hardly say his thundering the ball past Manuel Neuer was without meaning. It meant everything to the players, the bench, the supporters in the stands who were demented with joy, and to the thousands more looking in from afar in a similar state of ecstasy and disbelief.
It also laid to rest, once and for all, the notion that the Aviva is somehow innately lacking big match atmosphere, proving rather that it’s goals and victories, not bricks and mortar, which maketh a stadium. Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember the pre-1988 and ’90 days, when the old Lansdowne often slumbered, always knew that to be the case. Win it, you might say, and they will come. And go positively bonkers.
There’ll be time enough before next month’s games to tease out the selection and tactical issues with which Martin O’Neill will have to wrestle — and upon which, depending once again on the results, his reputation is bound to rise or fall.
More immediately, there’s tomorrow morning’s play-off draw in Nyon, when Ireland will learn if they are to face Sweden, Ukraine, Bosnia or Hungary. Whoever comes out of the pot, they won’t be as inviting as Estonia were four years ago although, come to think of it, before we went to Tallinn I don’t seem to recall anyone predicting anything like as decisive an outcome as the 4-0 win for the visitors which effectively secured a place at Euro 2012. Our play-off experience tends to be rather more stomach-churningly knife-edge than that – and, regardless of the opposition, almost certainly will be again next month.
But if anyone is still in a Polish rather than a German state of mind, just ponder this: A few bounces of the ball either way, and we’d be Scotland now.
How was it ol’ blue eyes put it? “I know I’m gonna change that tune when I’m back on top, back on top in June.” (And if it’s all the same with you, we’ll ignore the song’s last line about July, OK?)
Belated congratulations to Dundalk for successfully defending their League of Ireland title for the first time in the club’s history.
Boasting a rare combination of pace and panache, already this is a side worthy of comparison with some of the best in the league’s history, while the players’ achievements over this season and last confirm Stephen Kenny’s standing as one of the most astute and inspirational managers to have graced the domestic game.
Of course, with a cup final date looming, the Lilywhites are not done yet for 2015, though at the Aviva on November 8, Cork City, their closest rivals in the last two years, will be determined to reverse the outcome when the sides met in that league ‘cup final’ at Oriel Park last season.
Last week’s 1-1 draw in Tallaght which secured the title for Dundalk suffered somewhat for being sandwiched between those headline-grabbing international events in Dublin and Warsaw, but with the FAI Cup final getting in ahead of the play-offs next month, there should be no shortage of deserved attention paid to Irish club football’s annual big day out.
Still, for those who don’t know, I think it’s worth highlighting the fact that tickets to see the top two teams in Ireland play for the game’s most prestigious cup trophy in our national stadium, are on sale at a mere €10 for adults and €5 for kids — surely the best value Irish sport has to offer this year.
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