Thursday 21 September 2017

It really drives you on when you sense whole nation is behind you

Stephen Reid in action against team-mate Jason McAteer during squad training in 2002; Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Stephen Reid in action against team-mate Jason McAteer during squad training in 2002; Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

Sitting in this club canteen, all on our own, 45 minutes after training has ended, surrounded only by empty chairs and tables, the three of us compare notes.

Well, it doesn't start out that way, not on this dark Friday afternoon, 24 hours before we play a Premier League game, 48 hours after we've been involved with three different countries in European Championship qualifiers.

"Well, how was it Reidy?" I get asked. "Tough enough. They'd a lot of good players. . ."

They cut me short.

"Not the football. Never mind that. What was the craic like?"

And I start to smile, telling them about the pranks and the laughs and the fun and the messin' - adding legs to some stories for comic effect, all the while trying to guage the mood of the two guys I'm talking to.

And it's a hard one to figure out. On the one hand they're all about you, laughing at the stories, prompting you to go on to the next one, asking about past players and present ones. "Is Robbie Keane as much fun as they say? What's Roy Keane really like?"

And then, the pair of them go quiet. "What's up?" I ask.

Cliques

And they start speaking about their experiences with their countries. "It's not like that with us," one of them says. "There are egos and cliques. To be perfectly honest pal, I'm jealous of what you guys have got going there. We don't have any of that."

"Same with us," the other player says. "It's just not enjoyable."

The Ireland camp always was, though, and from what I hear from those still involved, it still is. And that's why - in all the analysis that will be conducted in advance of our game against Sweden today - one intangible factor will be missed.

Yes, tactics are important. Now that I'm a first-team coach, I realise that more than ever. Plus, I know all about the various factors that can determine a game's outcome: the quality of player on each side, the intelligence of a coach, the timing of substitutions, the role that luck plays, the absolute necessity to get your set-pieces right.

But what this Ireland side has is something so many countries do not: a team spirit that is unbreakable. And believe me, that goes a long way.

Think back to 2002. The World Cup. Germany. We're 1-0 down. Logic says we should lose. History tells us that the country who, at that stage, had won three World Cups and three European Championships, should see the game out against the nation who were only appearing in their fourth major championship.

Yet we finish the game on top. Our energy levels improve as the game goes on. How do you explain that? Was it down to an edge we had in sports science? No, it was down to the fact we were all friends, that we were all together on this journey, that there were no egos nor cliques.

And behind the goal we are attacking, there is a sea of green, supporters willing us to do well, supporters who have come all these thousands of miles to cheer us along. We're in Japan yet it feels like home.

The fans make us feel that way. Many are staying in the same hotel as us. We meet them in the corridors, the lift, the lobby.

"How'ya Steven?" they ask. And we talk about their journey out here, how they'd saved for months, knowing there'd be no family holiday for a year or two.

And their stories strike a chord. At the time I'm earning £1,000-a-week before tax. Almost all the other players have flown family out. I don't have that luxury. I simply can't afford it. Now I'm not crying about that, either, because - as far as I'm concerned - I'm the luckiest man alive to be here.

But I've an idea of the sacrifices these fans have made and, before every game, we have a team meeting where faxes get read out from people back home. Bono sent one. Mary McAleese sent another. Yet one, from a fan whose name I still remember, Francis Walsh-Kemis, stays with me. "All of Ireland is with you," he wrote.

Simple words, yet they're so apt. As the tournament goes on, we get shown videos of what is happening back home, the pictures of kids watching our matches during school time, of people flooding into pubs to see us, and we get the sense that everyone is behind us.

There's something unique about Ireland in this regard. When Katie Taylor fights for gold, the country prays she wins. When the rugby team plays for the Grand Slam, no-one cares if they are from a GAA or football background. There are no sporting borders. Everyone just wants Irish people to do well.

We got that sense in 2002 and it pushed us to last-minute equalisers against Germany and then Spain. And believe me, the feeling an entire nation is behind you will drive this team forward tonight.

And it counts for so much in international football. Yes, I know the Swedes have Zlatan, the Belgians have the richest assembled squad in the tournament and the Italians have a footballing pedigree that is matched by only a few nations.

Superb

But do they have what this squad has? That superb team spirit?

I doubt if it's possible.

When I first made it into the Ireland squad, I was blown away by how everyone looked out for me. And I mean everyone.

We were on a night out once. And Jason McAteer, the first-choice pick at right midfield, came across, put his arm around me and said, 'come have a drink, Steven'. He didn't view me as a threat but a friend.

And that's the sort of thing all the lads did. They'd sense your mood, offer nice words to put you at ease, then give you a rocket when you needed it.

I liked their honesty and loved their company so much so that often we'd come across for international training weeks a night early, just so we could have a night out together, spend extra time in one another's company. You rarely got that at club level. But with Ireland - texts would fly. "Fancy coming over Saturday instead? See you in town."

That sort of thing still happens.

So be under no doubt that the special bond within this squad will be visible tonight. Even though Zlatan will cause us problems, even though Sweden will have the bulk of the possession, if we use the pace of Shane Long and are smart with our set-plays, we can get a draw, perhaps even a win.

Trust me, even in the modern game, pride and passion go a long way.

Irish Independent

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