Saturday 1 October 2016

Friendly ire consigned to history books

Barely a shot fired in anger as old rivalry finds new common ground in dull stalemate

Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30

Well, we did all ask for solemn dignity. As a noble occasion, this Sunday service was utterly docile in its meek compliance to the revamped relationship between old warring neighbours.

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Twenty years after the heart and soul was forcibly ripped from the beautiful game, Ireland and England, along with their respective players and supporters, once more congregated in this little corner of Dublin.

Only this time the heart and soul of the game was rather less violently removed; nobody's heart was really in it and the day was utterly lacking in soul.

The nearest we got to naked hostility was when Raheem Sterling was consistently booed by a section of Irish supporters.

Their deference to Liverpool was a reminder that nationality can often be, as Jack Grealish is constantly being hectored, a complex beast.

SMOTHERED

The closest we got to witnessing any blood was when Phil Jones suffered a first-half nosebleed.

History, then, smothered the event with a cloak soaked in chloroform and it seemed unable to breathe until, belatedly as the second act developed, a bit more pace and bite attached itself to the contest.

Inevitably, perhaps, an uninspiring draw was the end product; an accurate reflection of the sterility that reduced what happened on the pitch to more of an afterthought, such was the steely-eyed determination to avoid hostility off it.

History encroached at every turn, it seemed.

The emotional pinnacle arguably arrived before a ball had even been kicked when Jack Charlton made a teary-eyed appearance at a ground where he penned so much of Ireland's recent football history.

Perhaps the ageing and visibly frail World Cup winner with England, and World Cup manager with Ireland, knew he may never again be feted here as he just had been; his tears offered a reminder of sepia-tinted days.

He was here when this fixture had been abandoned in 1995 and, while there had been consistent, confident expressions that there would not even be a hint of a repeat, the playing of the anthems served as an icy reminder of context.

Futile derision greeted 'God Save the Queen' from the confused, Premier League-supporting tranche of the Irish support in the crowd.

The English, whose flags reminded one that they draw support from less exalted arenas - Treeton, Grantham and Oswestry amongst them - observed the Irish anthem with consummate indifference.

Or by fiddling with their iPhones. "The behaviour of the respective fans was a remarkable positive and it hasn't always been that way," noted Roy Hodgson.

All the while, the Irish supporters sang with gusto albeit the players were perhaps taking their dutiful deference to their old rivals a bit too far when all but one of their number decided to blithely ignore it.

Oh, apart from David McGoldrick, who rather elegantly chewed gum with all the decorum of a teenager slumped lazily on the couch.

Coincidentally, his performance in the actual game would plunge to similarly unremarkable levels of exertion too; we were informed he limped off at half-time.

It seemed he had limped all the way there. As did the contest, it must be said. The atmosphere of a crowd seemingly subdued to the state of subordination made one wonder if each of the 44,000 had been paid a slice of FIFA hush money.

This was the silence of the becalmed. At times, one could hear the players exhort each other to greater effort; the more they exhorted, the worse they got and the quieter the audience, too.

A constant cycle of mediocrity in a hushed library. The 10,000 or so empty seats reflected the wisdom of those who declined the opportunity to spend €70-100 of their hard-earned cash.

Congratulations were due to the players from both sides who were striving more manfully than anyone else to ensure the match passed without incident.

The highlights of the first half were condensed into two glaring opportunities for Daryl Murphy.

The Ipswich man is one of the seemingly interminable string of candidates that are perennially lined up to remind us that, soon, Robbie Keane will no longer be around to convert the sort of chances that Murphy has just missed. His first was the production of the sort of move that belonged to that storied era of Irish football history, memories of which had been jogged by Charlton's lachrymose appearance.

A hefty punt from the goalkeeper - Charlton would approve - and a fortunate bounce that allowed Jeff Hendrick to flick the ball on and suddenly Murphy had a clear sight on goal. Sadly, his finishing betrayed anxiety. The spurning of his second opportunity hinted at starker frailty; a perfectly weighted cross to a spot marked 'X' on his forehead produced a woefully mis-timed header.

He was not the only one amongst an exalted cast of professional footballers to dip below the acceptable standards required of lavishly rewarded professionals; Wayne Rooney, in the parlance of the public house, performed as if he was having a kick-about in the Phoenix Park.

On this evidence, he may not have got his game in the 15 Acres. Ireland were submissive, nobody more so than James McCarthy, whose default setting in this sphere of football remains resolutely untouched by any sense of fervour.

McCarthy is the complete footballer but his personality continues to undermine him; Jack Wilshere dominated the midfield.

ARISTOCRATIC

Ireland normally apply physicality in their attempts to topple aristocratic pretensions but, the odd crunching tackle aside, there was little evidence of that here.

For all the pregnant anticipation, a game here against Scotland next week, rather than this one, is more important to the immediate health of Irish football.

O'Neill did, at least, manage to acquire valuable lessons about the revived merits of deploying Brady at left-back, while James McClean agitated in typically boisterous fashion for a start next week.

Otherwise, only historical context could provide any sliver of meaning to the proverbial meaningless friendly. That the fixture could be staged here peaceably at all was of much more significance.

As a tribute to grace and diplomacy, this was an unblemished triumph. As much as the day never even threatened a riot, sadly it also didn't produce an appropriate football match.

In the spirit of this newly-acquired mutual respect and co-operation across the Irish Sea, let's leave it another 20 years, shall we?

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