If, as their famous motto has it, Barcelona FC is more than a club, then I think we are equally entitled to bill Ireland v England as more than a friendly.
From the moment he first unveiled his squad for Ireland’s four end-of-season games, Giovanni Trapattoni has been stressing the primacy of next week’s World Cup qualifier against the Faroes.
And, of course, he’s right. “Friendly is friendly,” as he would say himself. Competitive matches with qualification points at stake are what international football is really all about — even when the opposition is as decidedly unglamorous as that provided by our island friends from the North Atlantic.
Yet, inevitably, Trapattoni’s words have thus far fallen on deaf ears — and you suspect that his message won’t have any real hope of beginning to lodge at least until the small matter of tonight’s game at Wembley against our neighbouring islanders is out of the way first.
Friendly is friendly, indeed, but even at the very end of a long season, Ireland against England can never be a meaningless affair — and especially not when it’s the first meeting of the two nations since their last attempt at playing a game of football was sabotaged by the worst violence ever seen in an Irish football ground.
For the past week, the newspapers and the airwaves have been alive with morbid recollections of, and sober reflections on, that dark night at Lansdowne Road. And when it wasn’t 1995 that was being revisited, it was Ireland’s last visit to Wembley four years earlier — a far happier occasion when Jack Charlton’s men secured a 1-1 draw which might easily, on the strength of a superb performance, have been transformed into a famous win.
The fact is that when Ireland and England come face to face, you simply can’t escape the pull of history, of both the football and political kinds. And when you add in factors like the familiarity of all the players on the pitch and the iconic status of tonight’s venue, then it all adds up to something taking place in Wembley which is as much as event as it is a football match.
Making sure his players play the game and not the occasion will be one of the tasks which falls to Trapattoni this evening, but even more important will be how he manages his resources so that his key men still have plenty left in the tank for the crucial World Cup business ahead.
“That is my duty in this situation and that is why I will probably make six changes during the game,” he said at his pre-match press conference in Wembley yesterday. “Our aim is to keep the Faroes in mind. The players have had a tough season, I know this, and we must preserve energies for the Faroes. With changes, we can do this.”
Skipper Robbie Keane echoed his manager’s note of caution.
“I think the players have a duty to control themselves,” he said. “Of course, it’s a big game for us because of the rivalry, the bragging rights and the fact that a lot of the players would be friendly with each other. But we have a bigger game against the Faroes on June 7 so we have to be clever as well.”
A game against the Faroes bigger than taking on England at Wembley? Even though that’s technically correct, it still doesn’t sound right — something Trapattoni acknowledged when I asked if he’d detected more intensity in the preparation of his players ahead of this game than before any other friendly under his watch.
“Yes,” he confirmed, “but the manager’s job is not to add to that. When the players are a little bit of tense, I don’t need to give them more pressure or tension. I have to give them trust and confidence. There is pressure on the pitch and the ball is on fire. It’s important we show our own personality. We know England is a strong team. Only by playing against these strong teams can we evaluate our improvement. I have always wanted to play against England since Fabio Capello was coach but there was no opportunity until this time. I’m happy to have this opportunity and that the England team is led by a good friend of mine Roy Hodgson.”
Having originally flagged his intention to go 4-5-1 tonight, the withdrawal of Anthony Pilkington through injury seems to have made Trapattoni’s mind up to revert to first principles. Which will hardly come as bombshell news at this point in the Italian’s reign. So it’s familiar 4-4-2 line-up for Ireland and, with Marc Wilson’s calf injury causing him to miss the cut, it means Stephen Kelly comes back in from the cold at left-back after his explosive war of words in February with the manager. There’s no starting place for Wes Hoolhan in an orthodox midfield of Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy, flanked by Aiden McGeady on the left and Jon Walters on the right, while upfront, Keane and Shane Long will look to provide the main strike threat from the off.
“We have the opportunity in the second half to change the system but we can start with the strong, balanced team,” Trapattoni observed.
And despite casting England as favourites, the Italian says he’s confident his team can do well tonight. And he offered a big smile when it was pointed out to him that, leaving aside the abandoned game in Dublin in 1995, Ireland are on a run of four games unbeaten against England, going back to the famous win at Euro ’88.
“Good,” exclaimed the manager on hearing the news. “Because in Italy we say, what is four without five?”
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