Gibraltar versus Ireland in Faro last weekend was the first international I’ve attended where the pre-match traffic actually thinned out the closer you got to the ground.
With the hours preceding kick-off coinciding with what passes for rush hour in the laid-back capital of the Algarve, it meant our taxi from the centre of town had to negotiate a fairly busy motorway until we hit the turn-off for the Estadio Algarve — at which point we pretty much had the road to ourselves for the remainder of the journey.
Though a couple of thousand Irish fans and a couple of hundred Rockies did their best to create some sort of atmosphere, a total attendance of just over 5,000 inside the 30,000 capacity stadium told you all you needed to know about the limited extent to which this Euro 2016 qualifier had captured the imagination of the locals.
Still, even though Ireland eventually eased to victory on the pitch, the occasion wasn’t all plain sailing for every Green Army footsoldier, as I learned the following morning from a supporter from Kerry with a tale to tell.
On the afternoon of the game, he and a couple of mates had been looking around Faro for a place in which to watch Scotland take on Georgia in Tbilisi when they came upon a congenial little hostelry with a television prominent in the corner. Unfortunately, the friendly proprietor explained, he didn’t have the pay per view satellite channel on which the game was being shown. No problem. One whip round to raise the necessary €20 fee later, and the boys were happily settling down to watch the Georgians shock the Scots and get the Irish matchday experience off to the best possible start.
Game over, beers drained, they asked if the owner could order a taxi to take them out to the Estadio Algarve but, after a few fruitless attempts to raise a cab, it became alarmingly clear to his guests that, with kick-off now little more than half an hour away, they were going to struggle to make it to the ground on time.
It was at this point, my friend related, that the owner came out from behind his counter clutching a padlock. Ushering his clientele outside, he turned around, locked up his business, and then pointed them towards a beat-up jalopy on the street.
Thus it was that the supporters made it to the game on time, sharing carseats with a plank of wood and some jump leads, as their Good Samaritan ferried them the 10km out to the stadium and deposited them right outside the front door with a cheery farewell, before heading back into town to reopen his business.
A heartwarming tale, for sure, and in its own way in keeping with a Euro qualifying campaign in which Irish supporters haven’t been the only ones indebted to the kindness of strangers; the Irish management and players, it’s fair to say, have even more reason to be grateful for favours received.
Georgia’s defeat of Scotland was the big one, of course, compounded — to Irish relief and Scottish dismay — by Germany following suit a couple of days later in Hampden Park at the same time as Ireland were doing just enough to see off Georgia in Dublin.
Otherwise, the Irish team have done themselves few favours in this campaign, the most notable exceptions being those late, late goals by Aiden McGeady and John O’Shea in Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen which, alone, can bow be seen to account for the four-point gap separating us from Scotland with two games left to play.
And bear in mind too that, but for another intervention at the death — Shane Long’s stoppage equaliser at home to Poland — that gap would have been whittled down to three which, should Ireland fail to get anything out of their remaining games against the Germans and the Poles, would have been enough to render Scotland’s expected three points against Gibraltar decisive in the head to head for a third-place finish and a berth in the play-offs.
Despite the surface comfort of that four-point cushion —which, in truth, should be more accurately regarded as a one-point gap with a game in hand — the so-near-and-yet-so-far-away cliche still applies as a sober appraisal of Ireland’s knife-edge position in the group. Because the truth of it is that, Eamon Dunphy aside, no realistic observer of the game would dare state with any degree of confidence that a return of one point, let alone three, is anything other than an optimistic prediction for the remaining games.
Liam Brady put it simply but effectively in his column here this week: Germany and Poland are better than us. And, as far as I can see, the only way to counter such clear-eyed analysis is by looking at our team through the football equivalent of beer goggles, such that, for example, a competent holding midfielder like James McCarthy is magically transformed into a wondrous combination of Xavi and Roy Keane.
When Giovanni Trapattoni once begged to differ at a press conference with the suggestion that McCarthy might be a “creative” force, the grand old man was widely pilloried, not least by those elements in media who were always happy to fan the back pages with excitable reports “linking” McCarthy to Arsenal, Manchester United, and, most recently, Man City.
It would be interesting to know what Trap makes of it all now, though I suspect that whatever the Italian for “told you so” is, wouldn’t be too far from the mark.
The Irish management may have changed but the personnel on the pitch remains substantially the same except that, if anything, the pool of talent is still diminished by the loss of Dunne and Duffer and prime-time Robbie. Yes, Wes Hoolahan thankfully gets more of a look-in but, with Jon Walters deservedly picking up successive man of the match awards and no place for the orthodox wing men in Martin O’Neill’s starting line-ups for the same two games, it’s almost as if Trap hasn’t gone away, you know.
And then there’s the deja vu of the qualifying table, with Georgia cast in the role of Armenia. You’ll recall that a Keith Fahey goal gave Ireland a precious win in Yerevan on the opening night of the Euro 2012 qualifiers before the Armenias gradually found their feet and, on a big swing night in the group, put Slovakia to the sword while the Irish were somehow claiming a death-defying scoreless draw in Moscow.
Back in 2011, the play-off draw could hardly have been kinder to Ireland in pairing us with Estonia but there’s a lot of work still to be done in 2015 — not to mention seedings confirmed — before we can begin to dream of similar generosity being bestowed on the road to France.
In the meantime, a bit of self-help, if we really have it in us, would be the most welcome gift of all.
Pity poor Fabian Delph, now suffering insult added to injury, as social media gleefully mocks his nine-second appearance for England against Switzerland before a pulled hamstring forced him straight back off.
Mind, he’s still only trotting — or, rather, limping — after Maurice Cook.
Who is he?
Only one of the eccentric supporting cast at Craven Cottage back when, as the much-loved Guardian journalist Frank Keating once wrote, England skipper Johnnny Haynes “suffered 18 glorious, exasperated years for Fulham, carpeting out the world’s most sumptuous passes to a motley crew of single-jointed unappreciative nuts.”
There was Arthur Stevens, “grizzle-haired wingman who’d be wound up at the start to run the full 90 minutes — but only in straight lines.
‘They also swerve’, we used to plain-chant at him.”
There was Eddie Lowe, “the statutory baldy at wing-half, alleged to have lost all his hair overnight through the shock of reading one of Walter Winterbottom’s coaching pamphlets on peripheral vision.” And then there was the aforementioned Maurice Cook who “ran out one afternoon with that high-stepping, dressage I’ll-show-’em swank — and promptly doubled up with a hamstring and was stretchered off before kick off.”
Notwithstanding Fabian Delph’s cameo, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. And they don’t write ’em like the late, great Keating either.
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