independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Vincent Hogan: Just reward for prisoner of circumstance, Noel King

He wanted to be a winner, not a martyr and, under the pale wash of a floodlit October night, Noel King got that blessing at least. But it was an oddly straitened occasion, the stands occupied only in narrow pockets, the sounds so muffled players' voices climbed to the fifth floor press-box with disarming clarity.

The victory may, in time, prove the gift that secures second seed status for Ireland in next year's Euro qualifying draw, but it would be naive to beat such drums too loudly. After all, when the fixtures for this World Cup qualifying campaign were announced, this looked like a smart piece of husbandry by the FAI. The assumption that Germany would top Pool C was, at least, intercepted by an expectation that Ireland could welcome the humble Kazakhs to Dublin with a play-off place still on the table.

Which was, of course, to pre-suppose a great deal we now know to have been blissfully self-regarding.

So we watched Andy Reid sing the anthem lustily before summoning some beautifully subtle interventions; we noted the powerful left-flank runs of Anthony Stokes and, before his injury, we admired Darron Gibson's ability to communicate a kind of ambling midfield authority; all of these things we noticed without ever quite feeling they registered as a condemnation of the Trapattoni years.

The single, over-riding sentiment then was one of simple pleasure that King had got his triumph, a deserved one too that he greeted with two clenched fists and a smile that reached deep into his eyes.

He has been a prisoner of circumstance in this story. Like a guy in the mart, leading an admired heifer in circles round the sawdust, knowing that any transaction pending won't resound in his pocket. He has held the reins, but never the real attention here. At least not outside the circles of hired parody dressed as punditry.

So it's been difficult to gauge the dynamic between him and players not, historically, responsive to men schooled in the domestic game here. Brian Kerr struggled as senior manager because too many in his dressing-room turned a starched collar up to human skills that, at under-age, could regularly pull lightning from the sky.

Kerr could probably write a book on the multiples of gentle, almost passive signals of disconnect he would encounter from workaday English-based players who seemed to regard anything homegrown as somehow second rate. When he texted each squad member at the end of an international week, it was unusual for him to encounter the courtesy of more than a handful of replies.

Professional footballers aren't, generally, big on little pleasantries. Maybe the game conditions them to think in straight lines. They certainly prefer to answer to a single unequivocal authority, words like 'interim' and 'caretaker' just glazing their eyes.

So how could King waterproof his confidence from the starkness of this position? How could he sell anything to the Irish dressing-room beyond a simple call to do what they have always done, run hard. He is not in contention to replace Giovanni Trapattoni, therefore any vision he might hope to sell could find no purchase here.

As such, his notes in the match programme amounted, above all, to a beautifully humble letter of gratitude to family. He mentioned his late father. The words bore an intimacy not commonly written in such forums.

Remoteness

And, no question, the players worked for him with their customary high energy. They are a habitually hard-working team, if not one with a huge personality. By and large, there's a remoteness about the players as people. This week, Aiden McGeady had genuinely smart and interesting things to say, yet it was like listening to a stranger offer bright solutions to some household bills.

He's almost a decade playing for Ireland, yet it is hard to say any of us really know him.

Within seconds of replacing Reid (left) last night, he took advantage of Stokes' wonderful end-line rescue to knife into the Kazakh box and create the chaos that resulted in Dmitry Shomko shunting the ball into his own net for Ireland's third. McGeady, of course, was a Trapattoni man.

The team won comfortably in the end, but they'd had their anxieties along the way.

In the opening four minutes alone, Gibson and Richard Dunne both jabbed short passes inexplicably into touch.

Against modest opponents pressing high, Ireland looked hurried, restive.

Then a Shomko thunderbolt brought the most penal of punishments for Seamus Coleman's fresh-air, and nervous whistles went fluttering into the sooty sky.

Just 13 minutes had elapsed and Ireland looked like a team in need of a helping hand.

That hand would duly come two minutes later in a rather prissy black glove (it was balmy down by the Dodder), thrown up by left-back Alexandr Kislitsyn to ward off what looked an unremarkable Reid delivery.

A penalty by any correspondence and Robbie Keane wrote the appropriate letter of gratitude with his 61st international goal.

Soon, the nerves dissipated and Ireland began to play. For a man whose career incorporates such a body of work in Champions League football, John O'Shea would not have been that familiar with the calibre of goalkeeping error that gifted him a 26th-minute lead goal. Andrey Sidelnikov just flapped at a Dunne header like someone trying to clear leaves from a window sill. O'Shea looked completely startled, yet retained the presence of mind to score.

They turned the sprinklers on at half-time, hoping – presumably – to accommodate slicker use of the ball. It didn't really happen, but Ireland kept playing with that earnest willpower that, eventually, brought the comforting third.

When it ended, Kazakh manager Miroslav Beranek moved to the Irish manager for a warm embrace that seemed to place a perfect signature on the evening. And Noel King turned to the tunnel, sated and proud.

A winner.

Irish Independent

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