Thursday, October 12, 2006


Yes, it couldn't have been any worse; but how was it so, so much better? At times, in the second half in particular, the performance and attitude of the Irish football team not only redeemed its protagonists from their most recent abominations, but also seemed to raise the ghost of those far off afternoons and evenings at Lansdowne Road when team and crowd fused into an overwhelming, irresistible force.

Remember those days? The terraces swaying on a sunny, breezy afternoon as corner after corner was swung wickedly onto the coiled forehead of Moran, McGrath, Cascarino. Opposing teams left the field like bold children after having their arses skelped; their socks in ribbons from the piranhas around their ankles.

Last night, in spells - but significant enough spells to make it the overall impression - some of that spirit seemed restored. And it made you realise how very long it had been since it was there.

After Saturday's unpleasantness, we asked how it could have happened. Let's do the same for last night's restoration.

1. Shape
Aside from the flowery talk of passion, commitment, pride and other intangibles, the way a team is set up is the source-spring from which everything good, or bad, flows. Leaving the individual contributions of the players aside for a moment, the manager, finally - whether by accident or design - sent his team out in a cohesive, solid shape last night.

The presence of Carsley justified the hoo-hah surrounding is prior absence, and his flawless combination of bite, composure and simple ball retention addressed that flimsy, flakiness which scuppered Ireland on Saturday. Jonathan Douglas beside him was similarly steady and the two of them provided a platform for the whole team. Ahead of them, Reid, Duff and Kilbane populated the wide areas, filled in the so-called 'hole' and supported Robbie Keane effectively, adding a potency to the steadiness provided by Carsley.

It deserves to be said: tactically, the manager got it right.

2."Who's your man with the red hair?"
But that would all have been so much wasted marker on flipchart, were it not for the fire of the individual performances by the players. In this regard, take a bow, Paul McShane. The West Brom defender was less familiar to most of us than most of the Czech players, yet, on his international debut produced a performance of such intelligence, controlled aggression and leadership that his place appears assured for Ireland's next match.

Rather than looking for his more experienced colleagues to hold his hand on his induction, McShane took up the challenge of grappling with Jan Koller manfully, and was unlucky that the gigantic striker's elongated leg was able to sweep the ball away from his close attentions and into the net for the Czechs' equaliser. At times McShane was like a ginger McGrath, such was his reading of the game, the timing of his interventions and the doggedness of his spirit.

He was not alone. Every player, from the equally unheralded Douglas to the heavily maligned captain, Robbie Keane, played with an intensity that the Czechs found consistently uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly the bile of the previous few days was part of the fuel for the inferno of these performances. Let's hope that the embers can be kept lit for future matches.

3. Diff'rent Folk, Diff'rent Strokes
As well as shape, tactics and attitude, what also differed vastly from Saturday was personnel. The calamitous sequence of injuries which continued to beset the squad up to Aiden McGeady's withdrawal after Tuesday's training session forced six changes to that side. Therefore, talk of rejuvenation is a little misplaced, given that over half the team were not actually involved in - nor, given the essentially selfish nature of most footballers, scarred by - Saturday.

So, while charged with the not inconsiderable task of rescuing a nation's footballing pride, the players were, for the most part, unsullied with the shame of its darkest footballing hour. Those that were - O'Shea, Finnan, Kilbane, Duff and Keane - were of sufficient experience and standing not to be terminally wounded by the nightmare of Nicosia.

4. All You Need is Love
The great intangible, the one factor no-one within the Irish camp could prepare for, or control, was how the crowd would react to the homecoming of their very prodigal sons.

Verily, they slaughtered the fattened calf.

The encouragement and affection which poured down from the stands at Lansdowne Road must have left lumps in several throats within the Irish camp, and can only have provided wind for the team's sails. There was an evident and deep well of affection for Steve Staunton, an ample font built up over his many years soldiering for the cause on the field. Rather than seizing the tabloid-created blade and plunging it between the manager's shoulder blades, the Irish football public circled the wagons and protected someone who was, definitively, one of their own.

As much as the result - albeit the manager was right to be disappointed with a 1-1 draw - the performances, the attitude and the character shown were the key factors as to why he remains in the hotseat as our national team manager this morning, the warmth that the crowd evidently felt for the hangdog Louthman is the reason why he sits more easily in that chair than we could ever have imagined on Saturday evening last.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

John O'Shea stills needs to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up though

11:10 a.m.  

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