Personally I blame Sky Sports. Not deliberately their fault, obviously, but the sheer relentlessness of their output has helped warp the Irish public’s expectations of the national team.
Think about it. For nine months of the year we feast on the action across the water. Outrageously acrobatic bicycle kicks from Robin Van Persie. Outrageous long-range goals from Steven Gerrard. Outrageous carry-on from John Terry, Luis Suarez or whoever the latest winner of the Overpaid Gobdaw of the Week is. While it scarcely needs to be stressed that much of the weekly diet from the Premier League is hyper-hyped dross, lack of excitement is rarely a criticism that can be aimed at it.
What happens next is this. Every couple of months the EPL takes a break and to maintain our fix we turn to the Irish team. We receive outrageous mediocrity in return and we feel, well, outraged. Ireland a dull and timid team? It is as though our very human rights have been trampled on. Quick, what’s Joe Duffy’s lo-call number so I can vent my righteous indignation? 1800-Talkingthroughmyarse? Grand.
A bad manager may blame his tools, and undoubtedly there’s been an element of Giovanni Trapattoni protesting too much, but a stock take of his toolbox is not an uplifting experience. The team that beat England in Stuttgart 25 years ago contained representatives of both Manchester clubs, both Merseyside clubs, both North London clubs and one of the Glasgow clubs. This team doesn’t. It’s not even composed entirely of Seamus Colemans and James McCarthys, which would at least be something.
David Forde plays for Millwall; no one dislikes him, no one cares. Glenn Whelan plays for Stoke, who under Tony Pulis had no use for midfielders; if you wanted to be mean you could say Whelan fitted in admirably. Shane Long was deemed surplus to requirements at WBA, who’ll do well to avoid flirting with relegation this season. Robbie Keane plays for the Hollywood Ex-Footballers XI. Paul Green plays for — sorry, does anyone actually know who Paul Green plays for?
None of the above should be construed as a defence of the former manager. It is entirely reasonable to want Ireland to play with considerably more enterprise and imagination than they were allowed to by Trapattoni. But too many of the shrillest voices labour under the notion we’re some kind of great football nation when what we really are is a great nation for watching football in the pub and pontificating about it afterwards.
Even Trap’s loudest critics admitted the only difference between Ireland and Sweden last night week was Ibrahimovic, and the only difference between Ireland and Austria was Alaba. So how can we possibly complain if the team with the best player won on both occasions? As if that were some type of travesty of justice. If we were Wales, with Bale, we might possess some grounds for wistfulness.
The overriding problem when it comes to taking a proportionate view on the national team is the lack of effort at contextualising the situation. This is one of the few countries in the world where football is not the popular game; a country whose domestic league is an irrelevance; a country whose governing body, long a byword for chronic incompetence and petty venality, would be in Nama if such an entity existed for football associations.
The model for the schoolboy game remains one of small boys on big pitches. Only two players on the U21 team beaten by Germany during the week are on the books of Premier League clubs. We have qualified for three World Cups in 80 years.
Or take the aforementioned Shane Long. If he’d been a marginally better hurler he wouldn’t be playing football in England at all. Instead he’d be at home in Gortnahoe and have an All Ireland medal? And perhaps more than one with Tipperary to his name. A football association with proper structures would have identified Long from a young age and coached him exhaustively. That the likes of Long and Kevin Doyle succeed across the water is despite the FAI, not because of it.
We snigger at England with their delusions of relevance, the whole “This time we’ll get it right” nonsense, as they step on board the Titanic for each new World Cup or Euro finals. Yet we are utterly, totally deluded about football’s place in the national sporting discourse here and our own place in the international football world.
All things considered, we’re not punching below our weight. We’re punching above it.
After almost six years of being told by a manager how lucky we were to have him, Ireland should resume its rightful place amongst the mid-range nations of European international football.
No longer do we have to suffer reminders that Messi, Pelé or Ronaldo are not Irish. Spot on Trap, but neither are they from Iceland, Hungary or Greece.
These three nations have achieved what the dying embers of Trap’s Ireland project failed to do – nestle into second spot of their World Cup qualifying group and on course for a play-off.
The inquest into Ireland’s meltdown, underway well before the catastrophe over the past five days, has gravitated towards the default setting of self-criticism.
Richard Dunne called for some perspective amid the Vienna fall-out, David Forde decried our small (4.5 million) population while the pessimist-in-chief Liam Brady forecasted a decline into the abyss inhabited by Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Not forgetting, of course, the old chestnut of the battle football is fighting – and losing – for the best young talent against GAA and rugby.
The players aren’t there anymore, booms the beat of the doom drum, and, sure, those that are hardly get a game at a meaningful level in England anyway.
That may apply to Conor Sammon, Paul Green, Simon Cox and Paul McShane, yet any level-headed replacement of Trapattoni will soon realise there’s a squad worthy of assembling without carrying such deadweight.
In the run-up to the fateful double-header, Austria’s Emanuel Pogatetz and Tobias Hysen of Sweden freely acknowledged that Ireland possessed the strongest squad of the three nations competing for second spot behind Germany.
And that’s with Shay Given, Darron Gibson, Stephen Ireland, Anthony Stokes, David Meyler, Joey O’Brien and Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady – all for differing reasons – not being around or used.
With even three, or perhaps four, of the above available for the start of the next campaign, will Ireland’s bid to regain international respectability be improved? Most certainly.
This isn’t to suggest the 2014 Ireland team will suddenly outplay Spain and Germany but, as John Giles noted on Thursday, we should have at least given them a game rather than capitulating like last October’s 6-1 plastering from the Germans.
Under the expanded format for Euro 2016, second place will guarantee qualification for France and that needs to be the minimum target. It must be remembered that Trapattoni’s feat in securing successive play-offs in 2009 and 2011 came through finishing second above Bulgaria and Slovakia respectively. Both teams were creaking, as evidenced by Bulgaria finishing bottom of their next group and the Slovaks now seven points adrift of Greece in Group G and out of contention.
That Ireland will almost certainly be second seeds for the Euro 2016 draw in February makes qualification attainable and realistic. This is an objective a new manager worth his salt must drum into his players and public alike at his unveiling.
And he has every reason for doing so.
GAA doesn’t hold the same allure for players aspiring for a career in professional sport. Cathal Naughton and Paul Cahillane became stars at inter-county level after their dreams of progress at Nottingham Forest and Celtic didn’t materialise. One of Kilkenny’s great hopes for the future, Mikey Drennan, told Brian Cody in his front room ‘thanks, but no thanks’ before heading to Aston Villa.
Despite hysterical reports to the contrary, top UK clubs still scout for, and recruit, gems in these shores. Arsenal’s lack of Irish personnel is not by design as five players, including Robbie Brady, have rejected them over the past decade for other suitors.
In the past week, Liverpool have, sanctioned by Brendan Rodgers, completed a €1 million deal to sign an Irish teen before he’s even reached international level. This wasn’t a one-off spree by the Reds, rather the third successive year they’ve committed a seven-figure package for a product of the Irish system.
It’s time to ignore the naysayers and accept the realisation that our pool of talent, both current and emerging, would make many others envious. Using the Trapattoni era to consign Irish football is misguided.