EOIN COYLE GIVES HIS THoughts on the state of the Irish National Team.
From Boom to Bust?
I am firmly in the minority in this I am aware but for me international football still holds a certain misty, odd smelling, dog-eared romance. Growing up in Dublin in the 80s and early 90s, pre-Sky football on TV was a much scarcer beast. The English game in particular was in the doldrums with sparsely populated, crumbling terraces a common sight in the old Division 1. It was most certainly not the glitz and glamour bombastic beast it is today, rather a nation’s dirty little secret, hidden away in the corner of the TV schedule apart from when there was some hooligan incident to report, then it would be on the news front and centre. The game was for grim people from grim cities and towns and they were regarded as little better than animals. Go have a look at the away enclosures that existed around the top divisions back then, they were essentially cages, sadly it took the Hillsborough Disaster to curtail their use.
What hooked me and, I suspect, a lot of the people around my age and turned us into bona fide fans were the exploits of the Irish national team in a golden period from 1987-1994. Euro ’88 is a fuzzy memory, but Italia ’90 is still crystal clear in my head. Apologies in advance to Scotland fans as this will no doubt stir up painful memories of that defeat to Costa Rica which ultimately scuppered their chances. Also, as was then a rare treat, every game was shown live so you got to absorb all these wonderful players you would never normally see. Compared to match of the day on a saturday night and the odd live Sunday game on ITV it was a veritable feast of football.
I steadfastly followed the career of Yugoslavia’s Dragan Stojkovic after watching him produce a two-goal masterclass against Spain (currently manager of Guangzhou in China, in case you were wondering) but there were a plethora of greats to feast your eyes upon at that tournament. An almost-but-not-quite on the way down Diego Maradona cajoling a poor Argentina into the final, Roberto Baggio and his silky runs, Lothar Mattheus being imperious, the temporary greatness of Toto Schillachi, Valderrama and his mental hair and lovely passes, Rene Higuta getting mugged by 38-year old Roger Milla as Cameroon stunned Colombia having already beaten Argentina………oh and England losing on penalties.
No, it was not spectacularly high scoring but as a World Cup it in no way deserves the ridicule it gets as ‘one of the worst ones’.
By the time the 94 World Cup rolled around the game in the UK had already begun to change. Sky had entered the picture and were moulding the game’s image to something much more family friendly, accessible and marketable. The Taylor report forced the clubs to go the all-seater route so improvements were afoot throughout every level of the game (the Kop at Liverpool hosted its last game as a terrace in 1994) the crumbling terraces made way for scaffolding and builders as the clubs set about modernising themselves helped in no small part from the new TV money Sky brought to the game.
What came next, well, who doesn’t know what the premier league became. As for the Ireland team that piqued a nation’s interest in the game and inspired a generation to fall in love with it – their time passed, the players got older and it all came to a rather fitting end in 1995, totally overpowered in a playoff by a young and virbant Dutch team on a rainy night at Anfield. Having watched it back recently it was really more of an emotional farewell to Jack Charlton than a competitive game. The team that always competed, no matter the odds simply couldn’t compete.
Since then the national team has seen its fair share of peaks and troughs, though more troughs if truth be told. Their once seemingly insurmountable position as darlings of both the media and public is now held by the Rugby team who I am reliably informed are quite good and quite successful. The football team are several rungs lower on the affection totem-pole for the admittedly fickle Irish sporting public. From being paraded around as all conquering heroes for over a decade to Robbie Keane (fine player but hardly the most eloquent speaker) appealing for people to ‘get off their backs’ on the Late Late Show (our version of a topical talk show).
Having had a season ticket for the first half of the current campaign he had a point, the ‘best fans in the world’ can groan with the groaniest of them at a misplaced pass or wayward attempt. A guy in front of me almost shouted himself into a state of apoplexy throughout the Scotland game, he literally tuned purple at one point. If John O’Shea effects you that way maybe best to give it all a miss.
I think some Ireland fans (maybe mostly us older ones, spoilt by success of days of yore) are still stuck in that twinkly-eyed optimist mentality when it comes to the national team. About 15 minutes after taking your seat the game kicking off reality sets in and you realise that international football is inherently different now, a bit like the Europa league, devalued in our minds to a third rate alternative on the schedule. Fans and club managers spend more time now bemoaning international breaks rather than welcoming them.
It’s still football, just a bit different, right? No, that’s not how it’s seen, its an inferior, outdated sideshow and you only watch to make sure your club’s star winger doesnt get injured by some footballing peasant you’ve never heard of.
The Football Association of Ireland is presently servicing some pretty high end debt. There’s a stadium to be paid for and outwith the Rugby team (the stadium is a joint venture with the IRFU) the attendances have been consistently poor for a few campaigns now bar the odd glamour game. They need the team to qualify to justify the extravagant salary of the much maligned CEO John Delaney. I have personally seen stewards wade into sections of fans to remove banners with an anti-Delaney or FAI sentiment. If my formal experiences of International football had been almost exclusively joyous and warming then the last few years have been a cavalcade of shitshows; finger-pointing, fan unrest met with the usual blinkered cronyism, even the 2002 World Cup has the Keane-McCarthy fandango hanging over it.
The current Martin O’Neill / Roy Keane era looks like it will not achieve the desired result and qualification for the upcoming Euros in France. Admittedly the group draw was way tougher than it had any right to be but it still stings to be a team to not qualify for a tournament that has a new format designed specifically to make it easier for ‘middling’ sides like Ireland to qualify. Maybe a new manager is the answer but I suspect not, it won’t change the player pool, all you can change is how you arrange them on the pitch.
You can call Glenn Whelan an ‘inverted trequista wing back’ in your system but he’ll still be Glenn Whelan. What we’ll do, again, is hope for a couple of hot shot kids to come out of nowhere and bulk out the squad. We’ll also scour England for players eligible to play for us through an Irish grandmother or attendance at a U2 concert, we’ll take a picture of Jack Grealish to that weird shrine thing from Breaking Bad.
Basically, we’ll hope. We’ll hope for new players to come through and crazy permutations of results to get us to France because there is sure as hell no coherent plan coming from the FAI, there is no hope in that association and the manner in which it is run. They are meant to be responsible for the league over here and to get into the state of THAT would take a much, much windier rant than even I am capable of.
Football in Ireland has been badly administered for years; they did nothing to help the clubs when times were good and money flowed in through the 80s and 90s and several clubs have slipped out of existence since but, in general, nobody cared because everybody loved the national team and they were successful. That success was a barrier from criticism for anyone connected to the national team. In their delusion the men in suits at the FAI did see themselves as connected to the team and their success, owning a little part of it. Accepting that then, they own a lot more failures than successes in recent years.
Maybe the best thing for Irish football would be if these faded individuals with their faded ideas and track record of failure and misadministration and PR fuck ups did the genuinely honourable thing and fell on their swords.