Even as 2016 slides into football history, the game is still struggling to make sense of the year’s bumper crop of surprises. And for Irish football legend Niall Quinn, it was actually a legend of the GAA who got closest to the heart of a memorably topsy-turvy 12 months.
“I enjoyed the year thoroughly because I’m an underdog person by nature,” says Quinn. “As a neutral watching something, if there’s an underdog I’ll shout for them. So this year in football, from Leicester to Iceland, Ireland doing what they did, Dundalk going so far in Europe, and even Portugal winning the Euros, it brought a bit of romance back, the natural order got shuffled around a bit and it was great.
“The person who probably described it best to me was the great Kerry footballer Maurice Fitzgerald. I happened to be in the same bar as him down in Waterville watching Ireland’s first game at the Euros, the 1-1 draw with Sweden. We got chatting at half-time and he came out with a lovely saying: ‘Your game cleansed itself this year.’ That was a bit deep but I knew where he was coming from.”
Of course, there’s no better race than our own for finding reasons to fall out even over the good stuff. 2016 brought us two outstanding stories, with Ireland’s success at the Euros and on into World Cup qualifying being echoed at club level by Dundalk’s three-in-a-row and, of course, their unprecedented European adventure.
But while the bare facts show that, on the European stage, Dundalk finished the year bottom of their group and Ireland top of theirs, it was not unknown for the former to be used as a stick with which to beat the latter.
After giving the nation some memorable reasons to be cheerful in France in the summer, Martin O’Neill and his team found themselves widely criticised for the quality of their performance in the 2-2 draw away to Serbia with which they opened their World Cup qualifying campaign. ‘Nice result, shame about the football’, seemed to be the consensus.
While various pundits fumed, ex-international Richard Dunne was, as you might expect, quick to leap to the defence of manager and players.
“It was typical of Ireland, exactly the sort of performance we’ve been putting in for years,” he said on a flying visit back to Dublin from his new home in France. “And nobody will remember if we qualify that we were crap wherever it was. It is all about the result. There’s no point criticising it because it’s not Barcelona or what Man City are now. Ireland have always been about fight, tackle, get the ball in the box and see what you can do.”
Dunne went so far as to suggest that, were Ireland to attempt to revolutionise the way they play, it might mean shipping a few defeats and even sacrificing qualification for a tournament or two.
“We will qualify for Qatar [in 2022],” he predicted, “but in the meantime we won’t be doing anything. We will just be playing lovely football and the crowds may not stay the same because, while everyone loves nice football, they also love seeing goals. If we go and start trying to play football, well, everyone else has been doing it for 20 years so they’re all probably better than us. So we should just do what we are good at — fight and, when the opportunity comes, try and play.”
The battle on the matter of what constitutes Irish football’s DNA was quickly joined by Stephen Kenny, the manager of a Dundalk side which, at home and abroad in 2016, gave vibrant animation to his passionately held view of how the game should be played.
Speaking on the eve of what would turn out to be an historic Europa League win in Tallaght against Macabbi Tel Aviv, an at times emotional Kenny declared: “I don’t buy into this whole concept, the train of thought that’s going around. Many commentators have said that it’s in our DNA to play high up the pitch and in a more direct style because it suits our psyche, our level of skill — or, rather, our supposed lack of it. I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that. But that’s the narrative and people believe that. They are conditioned to believe it. And then we go back and blame how kids are coached at U10 or something. It’s about having the ability to pass the ball, the ability to believe in yourself and fulfil your potential as players and seeing where that takes you.”
So where does Quinn, the striker who shot to national prominence during the heady days of the Jack Charlton era, stand on the great debate?
“Richard Dunne has been a hero in many battles with Ireland — the Russian one in particular, no-one will ever forget that performance — so I think he was nearer to the action to be able to comment on that,” he says, when we meet at Sky Sports HQ outside London.
“Despite Stephen doing great things with Dundalk, the reality is our catchment pool doesn’t give us a Gareth Bale. Robbie Keane was some find to pluck out of what we are here. And, for a long time, we’ve had to bring players in under the granny rule.
“There’s a difficulty if you can’t get players into the teams that are playing the best football with the best clubs. We can’t get a player in the Chelsea starting line-up, in the Man City line-up, in the Liverpool line-up, in the Arsenal line-up. If we can’t get into those teams and then you assemble them all and tell them to beat a load of players like that at international level, it’s going to be hard if you’re going to try and tip-tap your way through it.
“Maybe it’s because we’ve never looked at it or we’ve never dared to change our way of playing. Maybe having the GAA so close by, the parochialism leads us there. I don’t know. But to stay with the flow and at least have a fighting chance of moral victories and qualifying for tournaments — if not necessarily winning them — I think that battling part of our football, that spirit we’ve always played with, has to be prominent.
“Now I suppose Stephen’s point would be that tidier players could still have that spirit. And it’s true that all the teams Dundalk played against in Europe were forces to be reckoned with and would have been deemed favourites to beat them, but I would argue that the spirit that runs though his team has also been a major factor. You know that they could play either way with that spirit and still make a lot of progress. And he and the players deserve great credit for that. So the question is could Ireland play more like that? I’ll give you an example: I went to see Robbie Brady play for Norwich against QPR. This is Robbie Brady, one of our best creative players. Another, Wes Hoolahan, didn’t make the Norwich team that day. He was fit, but he didn’t make a Championship team. And Robbie had a bit of a howler, playing left-back. And I’m there thinking: ‘How does Martin O’Neill get guys like him to be so prominent?’
“With Ireland, Robbie Brady takes things by the scruff of the neck and plays like he feels he is one of the main men, but he was anonymous for Norwich against QPR. Now, I know there can be various reasons why that could happen but, in terms of swaying things to one side or another in this argument, if you’re not comfortable with who you’re playing for and the group that’s around you, if you’re not 100% in with that, you’re not going to give of your best.
“You don’t mean not to. I just know, for example, that when I played under Alan Ball at Man City, I couldn’t fathom it and I couldn’t play anywhere near my best. He was a good man, I have nothing untoward to say about him at all, but the way he wanted things done didn’t suit me. The way Peter Reid wanted things done – it was a dream for me.
“So going back to the question about Irish football — what are we? I think we can go further than our ability, through spirit and that will get us there every time before we play like a team of tippy-tappers.
“That spirit is the fuel that makes it all possible. Look at James McClean — I thought his career was in danger of going downhill. He went to Wigan who were poor when he was there and it was all looking bad and now, suddenly, he’s got that inspiration back, he’s more mature, his crosses are good, he’s a good finisher — and yet he’s still not starting at West Brom.
“But there’s an amazing thing about playing for Ireland which I remember from my time as a young player trying to make my way at Arsenal and not really sure about how it was all going when Alan Smith came in to replace me. The great oasis in the desert at that time was going away with Ireland. Being part of this collective that Seamus Coleman talks about.
“Looking at the purists, for want of a better word, or the people who think it should all be pleasing on the eye — they don’t allow for that, they don’t probably get the importance of that spirit that makes you come out of yourself and do better in that environment. But I understand it. I get it.
“Of course, the best thing is to have a mixture of the two, when you have really outstanding players. Ireland has had a bit of that over the years — the likes of Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Robbie scoring goals — so it’s always at its best when you have world-class players in a spirited side that otherwise relies a lot on toughness.
“Seamus Coleman is getting there but then I went to see him play against Chelsea and he got torn apart. So we’re not blessed with absolutely outstanding players oozing with class, like Paul McGrath — he’s the one I’ll always pick because it was like we had this rock, we had this machine, a player that every country in the world would have started if they had him.
“So have Ireland got enough of them? No. Have they any of them? No, I don’t think so. The day we have a player keeping De Bruyne out of the team at Man City or keeping Hazard out at Chelsea or Coutinho out at Liverpool, the day we have two or three players like that, then I’ll sit down with Stephen and agree with him. But until then, give me McClean, give me Walters, give me Long — give me players who are playing to an exceptional degree when they pull the green jersey on.”