Like watching a James Bond movie, viewing the RTÉ analysis of Irish football games is reassuringly predictable. Every time we see a 007 film, it’s obvious what’s going to happen. We all know he will somehow avoid death and get the girl. With the RTÉ panel, it’s the exact same. We’re certain, no matter what the result, Eamon Dunphy and company will still and always find a way to criticise.
Good old Eamo was at it again the other night. We’d beaten Georgia unconvincingly (again) by a single goal (again) and it was high time to lambaste Martin O’Neill, for his selection and tactics. Of course, the fact that Georgia are a decent side,
who did us a massive favour in the last group by defeating Scotland, and have now done us a bigger one by drawing with Wales, was not important. We shouldn’t just be beating them and we should be doing it with style.
Brian Kerr said something similar in his column in the Irish Independent on Saturday, saying we have a right to expect our national side to pass the ball. Now, I like Brian Kerr. He was an exceptional underage manager for Ireland with an unprecedented level of success. He worked his way up from the League of Ireland to manage the senior international team, and was hard done by to have lost his job after just one full campaign. He’s now one of the best and most insightful pundits on television.
But as I was reading the column I couldn’t help but ask one question: “Brian, did we pass the ball when you were manager?” Obviously we can point to the France game in St Denis, where we performed well, and a couple of more isolated moments, but for the vast majority of his tenure it was same old, same old. When we were desperately trying to get a goal in the last minutes of his final game against Switzerland, it wasn’t guile we were using: it was brute force.
We all know what the Jack Charlton and Giovanni Trapattoni reigns were like, but the Mick McCarthy era is held up as a shining example of what Irish football could be. It’s true that under Mick, we played some good football and we scored some great goals. I particularly liked Jason Mcateer’s strike away to the Netherlands in 2000. But when we wanted to get results against Germany and Spain in the 2002 World Cup, what did we do? We brought on big Niall Quinn and we pumped long balls to him.
All of this leads me to my central point: have Ireland ever played good football? Not as in successful football, but in terms of an actual, sustained period of fluid, creative play. Well, maybe they did when John Giles was manager, 40 years ago, but I’ve been an Irish footballing fan for 26 years, since a Damascus-like conversion as a seven-year-old during Italia ’90. And what is the enduring image that our football has conjured up in that time? Long ball, never say die, fighting Spirit. There’s a reason that foreign football fans say that of us. That is, for better or worse, what we are.
This was never brought home to me more than when I travelled to South America two years ago and was discussing football with a Uruguayan. Now instantly when I heard he was from the country I mentioned Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez: two world class, technical players to have come from there. Do you know who he mentioned to me as the players he recognised from Ireland? Robbie Keane and Tony Cascarino. I thought “Tony Cascarino?” And in a way I was completely bemused by this – he could have chosen Roy Keane for example -but in another way, it made complete sense. Who better to symbolise the Irish style of football, than a Cockney competing for high balls with the grace of a drunk uncle dancing at a wedding?
When people outside of Ireland talk about the Irish ‘style’ of football, it’s not Damien Duff or Liam Brady that come to mind but the likes of Tony Cascarino that they’re referring to. Now I’m not saying I’m overly proud of that. I mean, if I had my way, we’d all be playing like Andres Iniesta, or, to be more pertinent, Wes Hoolahan: beautiful, little, skilful ball players who have the “wit and imagination” that the likes of John Giles so love.
But there are a couple of points that need to be made in the Hoolahan debate and I say this as a man who loves Wes as much as anyone. If Wes is so good, how come the biggest team he’s ever played for is Norwich City: a fine, well-run club but hardly Manchester United or Liverpool? And secondly: if Wes is so important to our style of play, how come our best two performances in the Euros were when he didn’t start against Italy and France?
Now, I know that in Ireland any criticism of Hoolahan is akin to killing Bambi. We all love Wes but I think that the biggest problem is that, most of all, he was born in the wrong country. If he had been born in Argentina or Spain, people might have looked at him as a promising youth, and said “That guy is a genius”. But in Ireland or England we look at football players, more like we look at rugby players and say “That guy is too small”.
In terms of Ireland’s style of play, Wes is a bit of an anachronism. Yes, he’s a footballer with beautiful finesse but, realistically, he doesn’t suit us. Or maybe, to be more pertinent, we don’t suit him. A lot of the time, other players just aren’t on his wavelength. Now he did provide our two best moments of the Euros, in that goal against Sweden and that sumptuous cross for Robbie Brady against Italy. But really, when we want any success at football, we revert to what scares our opponents. And, considering we can’t beat them technically, the high ball and physicality is what we’re left with.
When pundits talk about Irish football, it often feels there is some strange kind of revisionism. “Back in the good old days…” But there were no good old days. We’ve more often than not been a long ball side. The FAI has now recognised this too. Their last two appointments as technical directors were two Dutchmen, Wim Koevermans and Ruud Dokter, and we know that the Dutch have a tradition for keeping the ball on the ground. But it’s not just about changing the nationality of the coaches, it’s about altering our attitudes as people.
We play so many other sports (rugby, hurling, gaelic football) where the ball is in the air most of the time, I think we believe that’s where the ball should be. We spend so much time as youths playing on muddy pitches, where the ball doesn’t move, that we’re used to insisting on kicking it into the one place we know it will. We spend so much time lionising our heroes in combat sports (McGregor etc) that I think we want to turn every football game into a fight too.
In an idealised world, we’d play lovely delicate football and we’d qualify in style. Maybe the Dutch technical coaches now involved in our system will change what our footballing DNA is. Maybe in future, the likes of Andy Reid and Wes will not be pariahs of Irish football, but held up as our biggest heroes. But if the choice is between staying at home watching the World Cup on television or getting there by playing a bit of crash, bang, wallop…. well, I know which side of the fence I’m on.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena