Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ireland v Sweden: Time to Meet the New Boss

The first Englishman to step onto the Croke Park pitch since the Black and Tans, and a rather more genial one at that. For those who shudder at the thought of our erstwhile oppressors setting foot on Gaeldom's hallowed sod, the effervescent Sir Bobby Robson was a refreshing reminder that not all English soccer men are to be feared, and this one possesses the same pure sporting enthusiasm that built the grand palace he visited yesterday.

His second in command's good cheer has been in keeping with the tone of the first days of the Steve Staunton regime. Pressmen have been writing of cooperation and communication, where once there were scowls and silence. Mick Byrne, the confidant and vibemeister of the Charlton and McCarthy eras has been brought back into the fold. His ostensible job title, physio, is a cover for the role of providing Staunton's young squad with an experienced and friendly ear in times of trouble, and also as good luck charm from better days, when the nation's soccer team were kings.

The boss himself has talked a good game, giving the aura of control and seemingly at ease with the arrangement between himself and Robson, whatever that may turn out to entail. He has been helped in no small part by his "international consultant," both by his humility - Robson has repeatedly referred to doing whatever Staunton wants, or needs him to do - and by his ease with the press, his flow of patter keeping the scribes happy and channeling some of the attention away from the inexperienced boss.

Staunton was even comfortable enough to venture that rarest of commodites - a joke - yesterday. When asked about the formation of the team he had surprisingly just named, he responded "It's one to eleven."

All this is, of course, well and good, with no ball having been kicked in anger thus far. Almost all managerial stints begin with such optimism and good cheer, with talk of rectifying the mistakes of the past and giving the fans something to shout about. Remember the first days of the Brian Kerr regime? The talk of doing things right, dispensing with the slipshod half-arsedness of the past and introducing a new, methodical way of doing things?

What was that expression about the first shots of war rendering all battle plans irrelevant?

Let us hope the positivity around the Irish camp continues, buoyed by good results in the forthcoming campaign. The scale of the Irish task is immense, and, in fairness, the new management have spoken in terms of a four year plan to return Ireland to the elite of international football. Wise talk, after the loss of most of the squad's experienced performers from a squad which finished fourth in a poor World Cup qualification group.

As Staunton named Robbie Keane, a 25-year old centre forward, as his pick as captain from a fairly thin field, and selected his first team from his callow squad, the fear lingers that this happy camp could end up as lambs to the slaughter.


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