Kelly hoping supporters' rugby fever proves contagious for make-or-break clashes
Published 05/10/2011 | 05:00
THE Irish soccer team want to feel the love that's swamping Declan Kidney's men in New Zealand -- and Stephen Kelly knows it will take two big performances against Andorra and Armenia to turn interested supporters into fanatics.
Kelly (right) dreams of the green jersey sparking capacity crowds at the Aviva, just as it did when he was a kid bunking off school to watch Ireland play when the stadium was known as plain old 'Lansdowne Road'.
And the former Belvedere schoolboy casts a supportive but envious eye on the way the rugby team is perceived for their World Cup exploits.
That's the kind of countrywide passion he'd love to savour as a member of the soccer team at a major international tournament.
Kelly is already a huge fan of Brian O'Driscoll, whom he met when the rugby star presented caps to the soccer players a year ago, and he certainly doesn't feel the two international squads are in competition for the hearts and minds of the Irish people.
"Sport in Ireland is a very passionate thing. In the last few weeks, with everything the rugby lads have done, and with the Dubs as well, it's really given everybody a bit of a lift," he said.
"If we could add something to that in the next week or two it would be amazing and I hope I can be a part of that. I'm football all the time, but when I see the rugby lads play I can't help but watch it.
"It's inbred. You support being Irish. There's gaelic people, there's rugby people, but when the country is doing well you're going to get behind them regardless of what sport
"It's not a competition between us. We're all supporting the rugby lads."
Ah, but who is supporting Trap's men?
Criticism has dogged their footsteps all the way through this qualifying campaign, but here they are, still fighting and pushing for automatic qualification for Euro 2012.
The message from Kelly is: "We won't let the critics get to us or affect us," but he does wonder if the RTE panel of John Giles, Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady can unduly affect attendances at home games.
"I think it's a little bit frustrating more than anything else, because they can influence how the public feel.
"If it's making people not come to the games, that's what I would find frustrating, because I want Irish people to be enjoying football and getting behind us again like they did back in the '90s.
"That's something that we're famous for. I did it when I was a kid. I went to games, I supported the team, I got off school early to watch matches.
"I love that and I know if we qualify for something, that would change and people would come back on board.
"The fact that we haven't qualified is probably why there's been a bit of a lack of interest in it, but I would hate to think that people's opinion on the TV would have a strong influence on the fans of football, because people should be able to enjoy it."
Enjoyment won't be on the agenda in Andorra on Friday or against Armenia on Tuesday -- at least not until six points are in the bag.
Kelly buys into Trapattoni's mantra of "results first, performance second" and ultimately that's how the soccer team can revitalise the support.
"We may not have played like Brazil or Barcelona, but we've got the results we've needed to keep us in contention for qualifying.
"If we get to a situation where we're through, I'm sure a lot of what people say about us and our football will be forgotten because we're in the European championship finals.
"But all the hard work will be for nothing if we don't go out and perform well over the next couple of games."