Irish Football Eyes Are Smiling Again

Eoin Coyne looks at the impact of a successful national team

It is a long-standing belief both on this island and further afield that Ireland is the basketcase of Europe. The weird distant relative, jutting out at the arse-end of the continent, getting battered by harsh weather… and the British. Sure it would make you odd. A lot of what goes on here is at odds with convention both in relation to our friends in the British isles and our pals in mainland Europe and football is no different.

I count myself as one of the incredibly lucky generation who were just at that ‘right age’ when Irish football, in the guise of the national team, came to prominence in the late 1980s. Although football was hugely popular here it was consumed almost entirely via the medium of ITV’s big match on Sundays and Match of the Day on Saturday evening. The Irish sporting public had, by and large, abandoned the domestic league once football from glamorous places like England and Scotland (yes, really) became more widely accessible. A domestic league that drew comparable crowds during the 50s and 60s began its steady decline once coverage of the English game exposed its fanbase to far shinier jewels.

By the time the 80’s rolled around the domestic league was, as it often does, mirroring the economic state of the country; edging ever so slowly into the precipice. Delapitated ‘stadiums’ with rotten facilities and soft, boggy pitches were the order of the day. There were still good sides and great players around the league during these years but the overall package was so unnapealing and downright ugly that it was a hard sell to families or kids. Yet in or around this time the national team was starting to pick up results, Jack Charlton was appointed in 1986 after another ‘close but no cigar’ moment in heroic failure as Ireland narrowly missed out on the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Within four years the Irish sporting landscape and football’s place therein were irrevocably changed.

Italia ’90

Personally, the 1990 world cup was the real revelation. Now widely regarded as one of the worst World Cups of all time (harshly, in my opinion) it started a tumultuous love/hate relationship with the game that has endured, cheering and depressing me in equal measure costing me money, my sanity and even a couple of girlfriends. I was utterly enthralled with every aspect of that World Cup. Ireland’s involvement was the doorway in but the love of the game and all its nuances stuck. I bawled my eyes out when Toto Schillachi’s goal knocked Ireland out at the quarter final stage, unable to comprehend that it was all over. The country had been in party-mode, everyone was happy, we had street parties that went all night and there was an overriding sense of pride and us all being in this together, now the good times had to end? Oh yea, I bawled my fucking eyes out.

A Toto nightmare for Ireland

A Toto nightmare for Ireland

It seems though that I was not the only soul so moved by the national team’s exploits. It was no coincidence that there was something of an explosion in terms of interest and participation in the sport. Junior clubs and local pub teams began springing up throughout the country in uprecedented numbers, even the poor old league of Ireland picked up on some of the goodwill with Shamrock Rovers v St. Pat’s drawing a crowd of 25,000 to the RDS in 1989. When non-league St. Francis faced first division Bray Wanderers in the 1990 FAI Cup Final a whopping 33,000 came out to see the spectacle – Ireland had, it seemed, fallen in love with the game.

Though the league did get some knock-on effects the national team was the focal point. Hard as this may be to believe but at times from ’88 through to around ’95 it could even be quite difficult to get tickets even for friendly internationals. Home games were a cauldron of noise and at away games there was always sure to be a sizeable green contingent – typically mixing freely with the locals and boosting the local bar trade. With a lack of a real hooligan ‘scene’ at home and with these being people who may ONLY attend internationals for their live football fix there were rarely reports of any kind of trouble or anyone burning anyone else’s flags. They never boo’ed anyone’s national anthem and generally travelled about Europe in peace, taking on a role as ambassadors for the most good natured football fans in the world.

On a downward spiral

It was truly a golden time for Irish football and as someone who grew up with that early success when things did not go so well then that became hard to reconcile. My formative experience was of Ireland being a good side, they could give anyone a game. When those stalwarts who saw us through those heady days from ’88 through to ’94 began to retire and guys who were not quite as good began replacing them crowds dropped off but criticism increased. Mick McCarthy was regularly slaughtered by the media during consecutive unsuccessful qualifying campaigns when, in all honesty, we did not even have that great a squad. We were expecting to qualify for everything even then. Even when we could see the older players creaking and the new players struggling with the weight of our expectation we expected. Then they failed, and we moaned and demanded better next time, and when they failed again we went away. Not all at once and not everyone to a man but Irish football’s time as the darling of the national sport scene was winding down.

Since that initial burst of success in qualifying for two World Cups and a European Championship within six years there has been further successful campaigns and yes of course – everyone gets excited and yes of course – football is the only gig in town and yes of course – everyone talks about how this is just like 1990 and 1994. It isn’t though. In 2002 the whole Saipan ‘thing’ meant that instead of celebrating that World Cup in the true, pure sense we did in the 90s we mostly just dissected it, took sides and re-enacted the civil war. It had its moments to be sure and Robbie Keane’s last gasp equaliser against Germany is one of THE iconic Irish sporting moments but the fallout left a bad taste in the mouth.

By the time Euro 2012 rolled around Ireland’s pragmatic style under Giovanni Trappatoni had won them qualification but few admirers. The culmination of his defence-first policy and lack of any coherent attacking plan saw Ireland eliminated with three straight defeats and the worst overall record in the tournament. Though thousands flocked to Poland for the group games the experience was, ironically, a sobering one. Ireland looked light years away from the required standard to be competitive at that kind of level and the media and public soon rounded on the manager and some of the senior players. Resignations and retirements were demanded and crowds for subsequent games were abject. The shiny, expensively redeveloped Lansdowne Road serving as a sterile backdrop as paltry crowds watched the Italian tread water whilst he waited for the inevtiable chop.

A new hope?

The new stadium is a joy to behold and certainly a lot more supporter-friendly than the old ground but too few games there have drawn decent crowds since its opening. Stated attendance records are often a little ‘massaged’ and some games at the fag-end of the Trappatoni reign drew crowds that looked under the 10k mark. It seemed it had all come full circle, the national team was regarded as an embarrasment and a golden generation of rugby players bringing success in a different code enjoyed playing to packed houses in the same venue. The Irish sporting public are notoriously fickle and the great numbers that travel to major tournaments does have an element of the ‘event whore’ to it. They’ll go to Poland on a junket but they are less likely to turn up on a cold October evening to watch Ireland take on Gibraltar in a qualifier and I doubt they would even countenance going to a League of Ireland game.

I’ve never put much stock in the idea that football is cyclical but on this island there seems to be a very clearly defined boom-to-bust process that repeats ad infinitum. After several years of draining austerity the Irish economy is showing flickering signs of life and so too is the national team. A solid start to the Euro qualifiers culminating with a creditable draw away at the World Champions leaves Ireland well placed before visiting Celtic Park to face Scotland in November. It would appear Ireland’s national side could be on the cusp of another boom, how long this one lasts is anyone’s guess.

Can Martin O’Neill emulate the success of Jack Charlton or go even better? Let us know your thoughts below or on @90MinuteCynic.

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