Thursday, March 02, 2006

TSA Report: Ireland v Sweden

Ah, international friendly night at Lansdowne Road. How many precious minutes of my existence have been carelessly cast away, spent standing on a Victorian terrace in Dublin 4, watching our beloved boys in green scamper about eagerly against disinterested visitors whose prime concern is to avoid sustaining injury from overenthusiastic tackles or the treacherous pitch? Feeling the life force ebb away as a half-dozen double subsititutions render the match, and, it seems, my existence, meaningless? Quite a few I'd say.

By those inexacting standards last night wasn't so bad.It was colder than a frosty morning on Pluto, Sweden were as enthusiastic as a teenager at mass and my half-time snack box contained a new, hybrid combination of avian flu and salmonella, but, all in all, it was a rather jolly affair.

There was the whole new gaffer novelty thing, an energetic and committed Irish performance in which most of the new caps impressed and several of the more familiar faces looked reinvigorated, and three fine, cockle-warming goals, all watched by a full house of 44,000 odd.

I often think that the Irish soccer team and the Dublin gaelic football team in tandem perform the role of providing the city with the sort of Newcastle-style unifying sporting cause to identify with, in the absence of a professional soccer team befitting the city's size and status. That hunger for top-class action must be why such hordes continue to flood to any friendly match in the old ground - be it Brazil or China - when nations like Scotland and Wales play their friendlies against the background of empty seats and general apathy.

Just as there was an air of positivity around the camp in recent days, so too the huddled masses seemed in good form. I even overheard some Gardai outside the ground giggling michievously about poor Charlie Bird's misfortunes on O'Connell St. last Saturday. There was none of the usual scowling at Ian Harte and John O'Shea, and the sense of a slate having been cleaned was palpable.

Anyhow, back on the field, as much as the Swedes - especially after Zlatan Ibrahimovic's enforced departure -were poor and as much as the extension of our record in friendlies at Lansdowne Road made people wonder if we couldn't host some kind of Friendly World Cup, there were several real positives to be drawn for the Gaffer and his sagacious sidekick.

Firstly, there was the obvious spirit, confidence and enthusiasm with which the Irish team played. They looked like a bunch of lads who were happy as Larry to be running around playing football on a February evening in front of thousands of people who had paid good money to watch them. Which, of course, is as it should be. Secondly, several players made timely contributions that bode well. Richard Dunne was absolutely immense at the back. Stephen Reid played with forceful vigour and maturity in central midfield. Duffer and Keano took responsibilty and led the team like they realised they were no longer the precocious whippersnappers anymore. Of the new caps, Joey O'Brien and subsititute Stephen Ireland looked absolutely at home in the international environment. Liam Miller would not have galloped confidently forward and smashed a twenty yard shot into the roof of the net a year ago, mired as he was in his Manchester United reserves nightmare.

Thirdly, goals. Ireland scored three of them, all quality and all differently fashioned. For a team that averaged only 1.2 goals per game in their World Cup Qualifying group, such prolific scoring, were it to be continued, would be a godsend. Sweden were uncharacteristically generous, but you still have to put the ball in the net.

My fear for this Irish team was that its lack of seasoned international pedigree and leadership would leave it exposed under the glare of the international spotlight. With the usual caveats about friendlies and their worth, and the obvious poverty of the Swedes effort, there were real signs that people like Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, Stephen Reid and Robbie Keane were prepared to stand up, seize the day and take ownership of this fledgling side. Youth need not be a disadvantage and the management will hope to exploit the obvious freshness and energy of their squad.

Stuttgart in September will be a whole different assignment, but if these lads continue to be happy in their work, then they should do a pretty good job.


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