My attention was caught t’other day by a piece in the paper headlined ‘World Cup: Ten Talking Points From The Midweek Friendlies’.
It made for interesting reading. If I may be permitted to quote from the top: 1 Ireland won’t be there. 2 Ireland won’t be there. 3 Ireland won’t be there. 4 Ireland won’t be there. 5 Irl- Er, hang on a mo. (Pushes laptop to one side. Leans forward. Bangs head violently against desk. Retrieves laptop. Resumes typing).
And so it seems I’m not quite over that Danish pasting just yet.
For the record, those World Cup talking points actually referred to stuff like the mess Argentina are without Messi (the Albiceleste been thrashed by Spain), the even bigger mess host nation Russia appear to be in having conceded nine goals in three games and with no wins in five and, on foot of a 1-1 draw with Italy, the suggestion that England’s best approach come the summer might well be to “opt for reckless all-out attack and to hell with the consequences”. (That was the Guardian saying that, by the way, not Gareth Southgate. More’s the pity).
The closer the World Cup gets, the further away it seems for those of looking on with green envy.
Whether it’s Vardy worrying about VAR, the absence of British officials at the finals for the first time since 1938 or the straws in the wind arising out of those friendly games – all of which footballing matters are being played out against a backdrop of increasingly troubled relations between Russia and the West - that familiar quadrennial fever is starting to take hold.
Even the appearance of Bryan Robson in Dublin this week couldn’t help but take us greybeards present back to that luminous Mundial of 1982 in Spain - Tardelli’s scream, Northern Ireland’s heroics, France v West Germany, Brazil’s beautiful losers, et al – and the Man United legend’s own claim on immortality for what was, at that time, the fastest goal in the tournament’s history, when he set England on the way to a 3-1 victory over France by finding the net in Bilbao after just 27 seconds.
But, in the long run, that just proved to be yet another false dawn for our noisy neighbours, failure to beat the host nation seeing them tumble out of the competition short of the semi-finals.
And it sure doesn’t sound like Robbo is holding his breath in anticipation of Gareth Southgate’s boys being the ones to end fifty-two years of hurt in Russia.
“I think England, with all the young players, they have a good energy about them and pace about them but I’m still not sure whether we can create enough to go on and have a real good competition,” he said.
“I’d be really disappointed if we don’t get through the group stage but then England have to overcome this nervousness that we show once we get into the knockout situation. For about the last 16 years we haven’t done it and we look nervous rather than the players expressing themselves and just enjoying the competition.
“We’ve had enough of people saying, ‘ah it’s the media pressure and the expectations’. That’s on every country. The Germans go through it, the Italians, the French. If you have a bad World Cup you’ll get criticism, it’s as simple as that. What you have to do is put that to the side. You’re playing against the best players in the world so go express yourself and try to become one of those best players in the world, because that’s your stage.” Of course, it helps if you’ve got one of the best to begin with.
“You always need a world-class player, one who is in the top six,” Robson observed.
“Gazza was that, when you look at his performance in 1990 at the World Cup, that’s why England got to the semi-final, as well as having really good players around him. You need a player like a Gazza to stand out and do something to win you games out of nothing when you’re playing the best teams.
"Argentina had Maradona, France had Platini, Zidane, people like this. You can do well if you have players like that.” And so a nation turns its lonely eyes to Harry Kane?
“That’s your stage,” said Robson. “There weren’t too many people outside of England who heard of Gary Lineker but Gary Lineker goes into ‘86 and comes out top scorer. Gary could do it at the highest level.”
And so dear old Eng-er-land approach their latest date with destiny as they always do: hoping for the best and fearing the worst. While, stuck on the outside looking in, we have to be content with digesting the breaking news that, added to our friendly programme, an Irish XI will take on Celtic in a Scott Brown testimonial.
Not quite the same thing, no.
Yet, it’s still possible that we will look back on this fallow period at senior level as a positive time – perhaps even a turning point - for Irish football in general. The FAI were well within their rights to point out yesterday that, this past week, 56 graduates of their Emerging Talent Programme represented Ireland at international level, from Colin O’Brien’s U17s –who have qualified in such convincing style for the Euro Finals in May - through to the senior squad. Kudos also to Noel King’s U21s for that dramatic 11th-hour win against Azerbaijan which keeps their own Euro Finals ambitions firmly on course.
And that’s just the boys. The senior women’s team have had their best ever start to a World Cup campaign and fully deserve the Irish football public’s support when they return to competitive action, this coming Friday and the following Tuesday, in big home qualifiers in Tallaght against Slovakia and European Champions the Netherlands. Not forgetting either the women’s U19s who have vital games coming up at Turner’s Cross next week against Austria, Spain and Turkey.
So, while there’s no getting away from the fact that the World Cup will get on fine without us, thanks very much, we’ll console ourselves somewhat by leaving the last, encouraging, word to Niall Quinn who, while reflecting this week on Declan Rice’s impressive senior debut in Antalya and his subsequent contribution to the U21 win, took the opportunity to accentuate the positives for the Irish game in general.
“There’s a lot of young players there,” he said.
“The onus rightly fell on Rice as there were times when it looked like he had 50 caps under his belt, the way he dealt with certain situations. I wouldn’t be negative about it at all.
"With the 17s and 21s and this young blood coming into the senior team, maybe it’s time to pat the FAI on the back a little bit as they persevered with strategies that they put in place a few years ago, and I thought this week was a great tonic for what they have set out to achieve.”
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