Ireland Give Us a Smile
Stephen Staunton is probably still smiling this morning. Certainly, appearing in front of the cameras after last night's game, the grin that sat resplendently on his hitherto haunted chops seemed like one that would take some time to shift.
It was the smile of someone who'd just been defrocked from some religious order for whom the vow of non-smiling was sacrosanct. It was the smile of the reprieved man being unstrapped from the electric chair just moments after the call from the governor. It was the smile of the teenage boy with the newly-popped cherry.
It was also a different smile to the hollow sneer that had been deployed in the previous days during Staunton's futile game of cat-and-mouse with the media. This smile was pure in its expression and honest in intent.
Which, while we're at it, is pretty much a fair summation of his team's performance. Much like in the draw with the Czech Republic, Ireland played with that commitment and fierce drive which we once took for granted. Again, the fuel of criticism probably fired the display, but, leaving the reservations and problems aside for just a moment, the template for this team's future success seems just a little more apparent this morning.
Last night was also a redemptive experience for Irish soccer more generally, with specific reference to how the crowd and team did belated justice to their new home, providing a timely rejoinder to recalcitrant Gaels and nouveau rugger-lovers who'd expressed acidic glee at Saturday's damp squib.
I don't know if it was the lights, or just the fact that we'd had a few drinks, but my, you looked a lot prettier last night than in the cold light of Saturday. The awesome roar which accompanied the commencement of battle belied any notion that the supporters might have grown cynical and distant from their team. That said, even the loudest backing would soon have dissolved to nothing had Saturday's wan aimlessness continued on the park.
Instead, Ireland set about their task with aggression and conviction. Every player did their work with an appetite that suggests (although we made this same point after the Czech game) that Staunton's motivational abilities might yet be his making. Of course, picking the right team is more important than motivating the wrong team, and, largely, this time, Staunton's selection was correct.
Most remain confused as to the point of swapping John O'Shea and Steve Finnan. But that aside, Stephen Ireland revelled in his advanced role, Damien Duff was at his classic, tormenting best on the left wing, Kevin Doyle led the line brilliantly and dear old Kevin Kilbane put in one of those fulsome efforts that explains his attractiveness to embattled managers in search of honest toil.
Aiden McGeady was disappointing in comparison, yielding possession too often, and contrary to my thoughts yesterday, appeared not quite ready for the international arena. However, his presence gave balance to the side and, by holding a disciplined position on the right wing, helped allow Ireland to stretch the Slovaks sufficiently to provide Damien Duff with the space in which to conjure.
Stephen Hunt might seem worthy of his place right now, but, being purely a left-sided player, his deployment would require Duff's relocation, and the sleepy fella remains our best outlet on the sinister side of the field.
That's all fine and dandy, but what of that hair-raising spell in the second half in which the Slovaks laid siege to Irish territory? A pause here, before proceeding, to recognise the magnificient resistance of the Irish back six - Given, O'Shea, McShane, Dunne, Finnan, Carsley.
Resolute and pugnacious to a man (yes, even O'Shea), they set the tone.
But the fingernail-munching part? We come back to the charge against Ireland that remains unanswered: the lack of a ball-playing midfielder. Repeatedly last night, as the Irish defence repelled Slovak advances, the ball simply squirmed back into enemy possession and the onslaught resumed. With no-one in the Irish midfield able to take charge of the tiller and dictate the pace of the game, we listed badly before regaining buoyancy.
The vessel reached home port to the cheering welcomes of the multitudes, and the spoils of the journey see Ireland's group D campaign restored to reasonable health. And finally, Stan has something to smile about.