Friday, March 23, 2007

Can Ireland Rise To The Occasion?

Back to Croker we go, and another historic first. Not soccer at GAA HQ (the 1901 Irish Cup Final got there before St.Patrick banished the size 5 ball from Jones' Road), but rather seats on the Hill. Wittily, the bucket seats installed on the famous terrace are sky blue and navy, the favoured hue of the metropolitan hordes that normally occupy that storied facility.

Will we hear the sound of those seats appreciatively flipping upright tomorrow as their occupants stand in praise of Stephen Staunton's team? Or will that be more of a disgusted clatter as punters exit another rum Irish performance?

Certainly, the sense of foreboding is all-pervasive. If even Ireland's gifted rugby team were somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion in the opening period of their first match in Croke Park, one must fear for our hapless footballers under the gaze of 70,000-odd pairs of eyes.

Jock Stein once said that "the Celtic jersey does not shrink to fit inferior players" (the great man was speaking many years prior to the signature of Regi Blinker). Equally, an arena like Croke Park will not shed any of its grandeur to accomodate an inferior team. Which begs the question: will this Irish team swell to perform at a level appropriate to the surroundings? Or will the mediocrity which has long been associated with the Irish soccer team see them lost in the vastness of the occasion?

There would seem to be little to suggest that this team have the capacity to deliver a performance befitting a venue of Croker's scale. The draw with the Czech Republic at Lansdowne Road last October stands as the only acceptable display of Stephen Staunton's stewardship, the debut victory over Sweden and the facile home win over San Marino aside.

Either side of that game we endured perhaps the two most embarassing evenings in the history of Irish soccer. In many ways, the win over San Marino was even more abominable than the humiliation in Cyprus. Cyprus could have been written off: wrong selection, bad formation, calamitous individual errors and a sense of freakishness in the way that every time a Cypriot entered our penalty box, he was wheeling away in celebration only moments later.

We hoped our young manager would learn quickly, that the return of Lee Carsley would stiffen the midfield, that Paul McShane might instill solidity at the back and, anyway, there was always Shay.

San Marino was so depressing because it felt like nothing had been learned, and the rudderlessness of the display represented a team bereft of leadership on and off the field. While we've grown to accept that Staunton - how sad it is to see a great servant mortified so - will be unable to positively influence matters, all hope seems lost when the players lack the footballing intelligence to put to bed a nonentity like San Marino.

All this doom is giving me a headache though. At least Ireland arrive without the weight of expectation that caused their rugby counterparts to initially buckle. But even though anything less than a win against Wales would be greeted with outrage, there is also a sense that any grim outcome is possible. This Irish team should, in normal circumstances, feel confident of overcoming the Welsh, but confidence cannot be an ample commodity in the camp these days.

Wales are fundamentally ordinary, however, with Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy backed by a supporting cast of journeymen and kids. Everything else aside, Ireland should win tomorrow, based purely on the quality available to both teams. Undoubtedly, big performances are required from the senior players, and one must hope those on the park have the wherewithal to engineer a victory suitable to the occasion. Recourse to the Croke Park sideline may be futile.

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