Can Ireland grab a ticket for Euro 2016 in France?
O’Neill and his players have to make the most of home advantage against Poland and Scotland.
We’ve grown so accustomed to the increasingly popular and baleful view of football as a sport ruined by avarice, cheating and self-interest that it can be easy to overlook the beauty still to be found in the beautiful game.
So, as 2014 begins to recede into history, let us here acknowledge that the World Cup in Brazil last summer — widely and justly regarded as the best since the stellar tournament of 1982 — was, by and large, a stunning riposte to the notion of football as a sport beset by crisis, as well as a timely reminder that, for all the extravagant claims made on behalf of the Champions League, the international game’s premier competition can still thrill, transfix, inspire and — yes, Brazil — break the hearts of millions around the world in a way that no other sports event on the planet can hope to match.
But, still, there’s always room for improvement across the board so, with that in mind, here’s a modest wishlist, in no particular order, of seven things I’d like to see happening in 2015 — albeit that, where most of these submissions are concerned, I certainly wouldn’t advise holding one’s breath.
1. Full disclosure on the circumstances surrounding the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar followed by, as Myles would have it, brute and ranch reform of Fifa at the highest level.
(As a perhaps more realistic alternative, I’d be prepared to settle for world peace and an end to poverty, hunger and injustice).
2. Mind you, just because you’re Sepp Blatter doesn’t mean you’re always wrong. Already a belated convert to goal-line technology — but only after the global embarrassment of Frank Lampard’s perfectly legit effort being ruled out in South Africa in 2010 — Mr Fifa has lately raised the possibility of allowing video-based challenges to dubious refereeing decisions. Which, even if this continues to be a slow train coming, is quite the welcome turnaround for a man who, back in 2009, arrogantly declared: “Please do not insist on the technology — the day that the referee takes two captains aside to study monitors and see if something is inside the box or outside is the day the spectators will say no, we are not coming to the game.”
I doubt the supporters of Leicester City would agree. New Year’s Day alone produced a rash of refereeing wrong ‘uns in the Premier League, the most notorious being the case of poor Wes Morgan of Leicester who had a penalty awarded against him for handball when television footage proved conclusively that the ball had actually smacked him full in the face.
Adding even more insult to injury, the decision effectively cost the Foxes two points in their desperate battle against relegation. But, hey, that’s really no problem because it provides everyone else with one of football’s much-loved talking points, right?
3. It might be a while yet before the game fully gets to grips with technology but there’s nothing apart from a lack of will preventing referees taking immediate action to rid football of a couple of its most irritating scourges — diving and all-in wrestling. Stuttering progress is already being made to eradicate the former — though, here again, cameras would provide officials with a valuable assist in detecting sleight of foot — but the failure to curb grappling in the penalty area is simply baffling. How is it that referees are obliged to punish a player for the innocent act of removing his shirt in a goal celebration but are either not instructed to, or else themselves fail to uphold the rules, when it comes to a player attempting to remove his opponent’s shirt, or even a limb, while waiting for a corner to come in? Just one weekend of Red Terror or Yellow Peril for such offences and the tide would be definitively turned.
4. A happier 2015 for Steven Gerrard. Well, it could it hardly be any worse than 2014, sez you, 12 months during which one of Liverpool and England’s greatest players of the modern era saw him hit rock bottom, as it were, with the title slip-sliding away and his World Cup dream turning to ashes in quick succession. Yesterday’s news that he will depart Blighty at the end of the season, most likely for LA Galaxy, hardly comes as a surprise. The poor man has cut a demoralised figure this season, not even able to muster much in the way of a celebration when he broke the Premier League penalty record with a brace from the spot on Thursday. Robbie Keane has already shown that a top player with the right attitude can thrive in the States and the timing seems right for Stevie G to follow suit. Go get a bit of sun on your back, lad.
5. Euro qualification for Ireland. Easier said than done, of course, after a first phase of qualifying which promised much only to end in the bitter disappointment of a sub-par display in Glasgow.
Defending the RTÉ panel’s lukewarm appraisal of the display in Germany which had yielded a memorable point, Liam Brady suggested in these pages that the subsequent performance against Scotland proved their point. I disagree.
For a trip to the home of the reigning world champions, and notwithstanding Germany’s Brazil hangover, it seemed to me that Martin O’Neill got his textbook tactics spot-on: keep it tight for as long as possible and then, once Germany had gained the initiative, go for it. And, of course, it was an approach which paid off in exhilarating fashion with John O’Shea’s last-gasp goal rescuing a point.
Glasgow was very different. Here, at least on paper, were two evenly matched sides but too many of Ireland’s better performers went missing in Celtic Park and there was no compensatory evidence that O’Neill’s famed match-day inspirational prowess had any real impact on the night. In the long-run, Aiden McGeady’s moment of magic in the opening game in Georgia could still prove decisive but, first, O’Neill and his players have to make the most of home advantage against Poland and Scotland. Given the limited player pool, that will require all the manager’s know-how, a favourable run in terms of player fitness and form and, if Robbie Keane isn’t to continue breaking records then someone else to step up to the goal-scoring plate. A positive end to the Jack Grealish saga would do no harm either.
6. It will be hard to beat last year’s final night for sheer drama but, in terms of a competitive title race, more of the same please from the SSE Airtricity League would be most welcome. Dundalk, Cork City and St Pat’s were all good advertisements for an often unfairly maligned game in 2014, and with Shamrock Rovers now cast as wounded giants with a point to prove and the league’s geographical spread much the richer for the return of football in Galway to the top-flight, there are reasons to feel optimistic about the coming campaign. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the League of Ireland to undercut confidence with some seismic upheaval, usually of a financial kind, but while the finger will always be pointed at owners, administrators and the FAI, supporters can do their bit for the greater good by acting as evangelists for the league — and being realistic about it too — rather than boorishly berating those who choose to get their football kicks from across the Irish Sea.
7. There are just 10 days to go to the announcement of the Ferenc Puskas Goal Of The Year award in Zurich, meaning 10 days in which you can still vote for Stephanie Roche’s wonder goal to see off competition from Robin van Persie and James Rodriguez.
And you should know by now the reason for giving her the nod. Not because she’s Irish, though that’s a source of pride. And not because she’s a woman, although that is a welcome boost for the women’s game.
And not even because, as you’ll discover elsewhere in today’s paper, the gong could hardly go to a nicer person.
Nope, the reason to vote for Stephanie Roche is because it’s not all about the girl, it’s all about the goal — and her’s is simply the best.
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