LIAM MACKEY: Forget Paris, get packed for Warsaw

IN Dublin Castle on Thursday for the launch of the city as the European Capital Of Sport for 2010, Marco Tardelli was invited to turn his thoughts to another European capital, Warsaw, and the draw for the Euro Championships which will take place there tomorrow.

How would Ireland’s assistant manager feel about coming up against France again?

Tardelli grinned. “I don’t know, it’s a draw,” he said. “France? Maybe, I hope, because I need to speak with Henry, I want to say ‘thank you very much’.”

That sounded encouraging, so we persisted with what seemed a fruitful line of inquiry: would it be a good thing for Irish football and especially for the Irish players involved to have a fairly quick opportunity to, shall we say, settle some issues with the French?

But, perhaps suddenly aware that he might be in the process of creating a few vengeful headlines, Tardelli dropped the smile and put his ultra-professional face back on.

“No, it’s finished,” he said. “I know after the match, once the match is over, it’s over. I think we need to go forward and now we need to find new players.”

In other words – if we may take the liberty of adding something in translation – the heart says ‘Oui’ but the head says ‘Non’.

However, I think it’s fair to say that few others with an interest in Irish football – and not only here but in the wider world which, for a time, became no less obsessed with the events in Paris last November – would have any misgivings whatsoever were Les Bleus and Les Verts to be drawn together in Warsaw tomorrow.

As box-office pairings go, that simmering blockbuster would be hard to beat.

But if France are the new enemy, then the auld one would make suitable alternative top seed opposition for the Irish. Just before Christmas, Stephen Hunt, talking to this reporter, pondered just what it would take for Irish football to fully recover from the ‘Hand of Gaul’ and, after a wee thought, decided that drawing England in the Euros would be just the ticket.

“That would get the blood going alright,” he grinned.

More recently, Kevin Doyle echoed the same sentiments.

But even if Ireland are denied a shot at the French or the English, Pot One can still provide exciting opposition in the form of reigning European champions Spain, reigning world champions Italy (again) or any one from the rest of a familiar line-up of the continent’s big guns, including Germany, Holland, Croatia, Portugal and Russia.

Pot Two also has its fair share of serious opposition, including World Cup finals qualifiers Denmark, Greece, Serbia and Slovakia while, down in Pot Four, lurk the Slovenians, who lest we forget are also going to South Africa, courtesy of a shock play-off win over Russia.

But it’s way down in Pot Six, alongside the bottom feeders of Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Malta, Andorra and San Marino, that we find a hitherto unlikely source of potential headlines.

But should the Faroe Islands end up in Ireland’s group – as they did in the World Cup 2006 qualifiers – then be prepared for acres of coverage as Brian Kerr finds himself in the opposite dugout to four years ago.

All ifs and maybes, of course, but at least it’s nice to be finally looking ahead after all the despair and angst of November. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Ireland’s failure to qualify for South Africa leaves things in a limbo and, whatever happens in Warsaw tomorrow, the prospect of a long, empty summer still beckons.

But if Ireland are to go one better in the Euros than they did in the World Cup, Giovanni Trapattoni and his staff will need to use the time between now and the autumn to good effect. In which context, it was disconcerting to hear Marco Tardelli’s admission on Thursday that no approaches had been made to any newly eligible English players – among them Newcastle’s Kevin Nolan and Spurs’ Jamie O’Hara – to see how they would feel about switching their allegiance to Ireland, this despite Trapattoni himself warmly welcoming FIFA’s relaxation of the rules as far back as last summer.

More encouragingly, Tardelli did speak about the need to bring in fresh blood, but while happy to identify candidates like Manchester City’s Greg Cunningham, Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Wigan’s James McCarthy, he stopped short of second-guessing the manager’s plans for the friendly against Brazil in London next March.

Indeed, not until Trapattoni breaks his silence for the first time since November in Warsaw tomorrow will we get an insight into this latest thinking on these and other pressing issues. (Dare one mention Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland?).

Much to look forward to then, even if, for our French friends and the rest of the World Cup participants, tomorrow will be more in the way of a minor distraction – something to note down in the diary – before they get back to the altogether more urgent business of preparing their players for the greatest show on earth this summer.

Yep, even as we look forward in hope, it’s still impossible not to look back in anger.


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