The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
European Championship qualifying group B was a strange one: Ireland beat Armenia who beat Slovakia who beat Russia who beat Ireland (while poor fourth-seeded Macedonia looked on and whimpered). The logical progression would have been for a match to be played out between twenty-two footballs kicking a man around the pitch. That man turned out to be Richard Dunne, and the final score was Russia 0-0 Ireland, a result you could only call miraculous if you consider Dunne to be a gift from heaven. (Full disclosure: I do.) But things would have got even weirder had Slovakia beaten Russia last Friday. This wouldn’t have been odd per se: they had already beaten Russia away from home. But it would have left Ireland atop the group. That’s the weird part.
Something of the buzz that usually accompanies Ireland’s qualifying campaigns has been absent this time. 70,000 people watched the World Cup qualifier with Italy at Croke Park in October 2009. In the new 50,000-capacity Aviva Stadium (built on the site of the old Lansdowne Road ground), the attendances for these qualifiers have averaged 40,915: hardly awful, but empty seats can stick out. Meanwhile, our lovable rugby boys have hogged the attention and the goodwill, with Leinster winning the European Cup and the national side getting our hopes up in the World Cup. All in all, for the football team, it’s been just a tad flat for a side that has ended up two matches from Euro 2012.
From the start of Giovanni Trapattoni’s stint as manager, the word “caution” has been uttered with a traffic cop’s zeal, and many pin on it such malaise as there is. Trapattoni has Ireland playing in a straight-up 4-4-2. On the odd occasion Shay Given isn’t launching a solid, traditional Irish long ball in the direction of an undersized striker, the wide players are relied upon for creativity. On one flank is usually Aiden McGeady, a throwback to the days when an outside forward would engage his opposing full-back in a gentlemanly duel while the rest of players stood and watched. On the other is Damien Duff, a player whose powers have waned considerably, if understandably. (His ability to draw a foul, on the other hand, remains encouragingly sharp.) But they still have their moments. The central midfielders—Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews are first choice—play as if each were tied to their own goal frame with ropes seventy yards long. In the second half of the concluding group game against Armenia, a spell of patient approach play resulted in Andrews twice finding himself within sniffing distance of the eighteen-yard line. I bet Jimmy Jump wishes he still had such facility to shock.
But most Irish fans can stand a bit of caution, a deficit of daring, even a surfeit of dourness. There will always be a sector of the population with a silhouette of Andy Reid tattooed on their bellies. Most of us, however, remember the Ireland of Jack Charlton, and so have been educated in how tenuous the link can be between beautiful football and the time of your fucking life.
What defines Ireland in these qualifiers is not their style, no matter how much some may will it to be. And it’s certainly not under-performance. It’s a lack of over-performance. All the way through, Ireland have played precisely like the team they are: a third seed in a pretty mediocre group. They have got exactly what they deserved from each game, bar Moscow. The consistency has been extraordinary. They have played exactly to their level with no deviation either way; they have drawn a straight line freehand. If Slovakia had had their shit together, they might be facing Estonia in the play-offs. But Trapattoni could justfiably point out their under-performance at critical moments, point out Ireland’s slow and steady progress, and raise a defiant eyebrow.
My problem with this slow and steady progress—my weedy, solipsistic, bleedin’ heart problem—has been that it’s all felt a bit wrong. I cling here to Brian Glanville’s description in his The Story of the World Cup of the 2002 Ireland team as “gloriously resourceful”. Ireland have rarely been called gloriously anything; one suspects that part of the reason neutrals have praised our supporters so heartily over the years is so they won’t have to praise the team. Fair enough. But Glanville hits squarely on something essential. “Gloriously resourceful” may seem to belong to the lexicon of the drear, but it can be so much more.
Ireland have been a there-or-thereabouts team for the guts of thirty years. Before that span, they had never made a major tournament; during it, they’ve made four, and fallen a step short seven times. This in itself is a real achievement: there’s no inherent reason why they should be up here and, say, Wales down there. Every piece of success—every goal, every clean sheet, every point—has been earned with a struggle. When we dig beneath the mere (mere!) fact of qualification, we’ll find that the vertiginous thrills have come not just from getting the job done, but from the sense of over-achievement sustained just long enough that they could crash the party they’d never be invited to. They’ve come from showing themselves (and us) that they could be more than themselves. Right now, Ireland are just themselves. But we already knew that.
Furthermore, the thrills come because there have been moments. The match known here simply as the Holland game, which put Ireland into the 2002 World Cup play-offs ahead of the Netherlands, had that Jason McAteer goal. In a way, that win was as ill-deserved as the draw in Moscow. As the Dutch missed chances, had penalty appeals turned down, and ended the game with four centre-forwards on the field, you could only laugh, even as your life expectancy was having days knocked off it. But it emerged from the collective will and the proud stubbornness that had made Ireland competitive against Holland and Portugal in that group in the first place. And crucially, the McAteer goal was a tangible, visceral and unforgettable expression of these qualities. No game in the Euro 2012 qualfiers has come close to having such a moment. The Russia game was a triumph of nothing but desperation. The last-ditch defensive heroics, particularly of Richard Dunne and Shay Given, were an expression of a team breakdown. Against Holland, Ireland merely cheated the great odds-maker in the sky; against Russia, they beat him senseless.
And this is why it would have felt so strange had Ireland won a group for just the second time in their history. Cantering into the finals in this way should be reserved for the very best teams in the competition. For a team of Ireland’s standard to win a group, it should feel like they have excelled. Of course, maybe this team is incapable of such feats, not being as good as they were ten years ago; maybe it couldn’t happen under Trapattoni. But remember Paris.
I don’t mean to come across as ungrateful. Should Ireland reach the finals, I’ll be nothing less than delighted. (I may be an Arsenal fan, but I do retain some capacity for joy.) Each qualification ought to be celebrated like it’s our last, because it could well be. I’ve even allowed myself a peek at the schedule for the finals, and imagined Ireland in it, damn my eyes. I’m opposed on principle to the play-offs being seeded, and when Ireland got Estonia in the draw, you should have seen me laugh my principled little head off. Leaving aside the discomfort that being favourites engenders in this team, this is their best chance of making the European Championships since they were one up in stoppage time against Macedonia in their last Euro 2000 qualifier. I admit, however, to being a wee bit sad that they weren’t unseeded, that they’re not facing a Croatia or a Portugal. Apart from the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo looks funny when he’s angry, Ireland would have had no choice but to be something other than themselves. Against Estonia, that’s only likely to happen in recovery from some self-inflicted wound, and that’s not the same thing. But hey. Here’s to victory for now, if triumph later.
But one should bear in mind that this is still the seventh highest average attendence in the competition, and that a qualifier at home to Luxembourg in the early years of the Jack Charlton era attracted only 18,000 spectators. It’s all relative, or somesuch.
I haven’t watched the quarter-final yet. Fingers crossed!
Or “punt”, named after Ireland’s former currency.
They missed out on the 1982 World Cup on goal difference. The team who made it instead? France. France! 1982!
There was a Coventry City fanzine called Gary Mabbutt’s Knee, named after the Lilywhite patella that scored City’s winner in the 1987 FA Cup final. Presumably in Serbia, there is a publication called Keith O’Neill’s Unfortunate Lack of Balance at an Especially Critical Moment.
by Fredorrarci · October 19, 2011[contact-form 5 'Email form']