Saturday 22 July 2017

Minnows bite

There are good days when heroic Ireland can prove a match for anyone – and then there are bad ones, when everything goes wrong and the Liechtensteins of this world cause us no end of heartache and pain

David Kelly

David Kelly

Sometimes minnows can flash fangs of unpredictable ferocity.

In the geographically very small matter of footballing Principalities, Ireland have historically made it their own principle to be chivalrously deferent to their less well-heeled rivals.

True, Ireland have always proven adept at matching the world's best, from inflicting England's first ever defeat on home soil in 1949 or defeating Italy at a World Cup in 1994.

And yet, as if to display their egalitarian side, the Irish international soccer team have demonstrated a remarkable facility for slumming it with the pond life, be it lost in Liechtenstein, stunned in San Marino or mystified in Malta.

Jack Charlton's career was virtually ended in Eschen after a humiliating draw against hosts Liechtenstein.

Steve Staunton's dubious managerial reputation never recovered from his side's sleepwalk in San Marino, who led for long periods only to succumb to a late winner by Stephen Ireland, who, it could be argued, has not exactly recovered either.

Eoin Hand had his fair share of mis-haps too, from a sojourn in Trinidad & Tobago in 1982 when the hosts pulled a stroke that would even impress FIFA's corrupt bigwigs to a lucky escape against Malta. Searing images accompany them all -- a jet-lagged Eamon Deacy wearing his shorts the wrong way around in Port of Spain, or Jack Charlton and his substitutes sitting on school benches in Eschen, or the verbal hounding of Staunton and FAI chief executive John Delaney in San Marino.

While Liechtenstein remains the obvious reference point for tomorrow's task against a country FIFA rank alongside the world's worst in existence, bumping into Hand in Barcelona yesterday reminds us that Ireland's difficulties against minnows -- either sinking or swimming ingloriously -- bridges several generations of internationals.

Ireland's trip to Trinidad, in the aftermath of a humiliating 7-0 defeat to Brazil in Rio, had been a hastily convened affair by some bizarre decisions from the FAI leadership.

Liam Brady, who forfeited his wedding anniversary, had to be persuaded by Hand's assistant, Terry Conroy, to remain on the trip as Ireland were short on numbers. For the first game in a two-match trip, the exhausted squad went straight from the plane to the pitch. Despite Brady's lead goal, they lost 2-1 to a Trinidadian club side. Hand replaced the shattered Deacy at half-time. "He said 'thanks'!" smiles Hand.

Four days later, Ireland played the national side and won 3-1, escaping the horrendous trip with some minor consolation. Or so they thought.

"The English guide who was with us told me after the second match that the Trinidad federation were thinking of reversing the schedule, meaning that the club game, which they'd won, would now become the international game," said Hand yesterday.

With the FAI officials gone AWOL, and no press covering the trip, there was nobody to dispute the locals' astonishing claim; thus, what Ireland thought was a 3-1 win against the national side became a victory against a club team.

In the subsequent Euro '84 qualifying campaign, Ireland nearly succumbed in Valetta to Malta when a sandstorm and gale-force winds totally destroyed Irish hopes of winning comfortably on a terrible pitch covered with glass and nails.

Ultimately, Ireland had to rely on a cheeky Frank Stapleton back-heel from six yards out in injury time -- in any event, the result was irrelevant in a group involving Holland and Spain, neither of whom were forced to play on the notorious pitch against Malta, against whom they scored a combined 13 goals.

Staunton's experiences against minnows were novel, in the sense that it was on his watch when Cyprus gloriously confirmed their ascension from the ranks of the minnows to bigger fry.

Belying his curmudgeonly exterior, Staunton was nearly as benevolent in San Marino, who scored one of the most comical goals in history to equalise in the game's death throes, before Stephen Ireland saved his country's blushes.

It would not be enough to save Staunton's job, despite his leading a schizophrenic national team to a subsequent draw against Germany and thus confirming their status as international inbetweeners. Little wonder a baffled Staunton would mutter minutes after Ireland's winner: "We were looking at Liechtenstein all over again." Ah, Liechtenstein.

Eschen marks the nadir, the moment when we realised that Ireland's booze-fuelled, decade-long odyssey as the world's second favourite team was at an end. A mechanic, an architect, a van driver, a postman and a draughtsman helped thwart Ireland, but none more than Martin Heeb, the 5' 9" goalkeeper whose regular job was to tend the very turf upon which he was to produce a most miraculous 90 minutes of netminding.

Liechtenstein lost all nine games in the remainder of their programme, conceding 40 goals. Ireland had 40 shots on goal, 16 of them on target. "If we'd been there until next June, we wouldn't have scored," recalled John Aldridge.

Ronnie Whelan, who travels to Andorra tomorrow on media duties, captained Ireland that day. Like the Charlton bandwagon after the timid USA '94 exit, Whelan's career was running out of road. "I was a long way from the glory days," he writes. Eschen would effectively mark the terminus for his and Ireland's spin on the big fat merry-go-round. Whelan's description of the evening still brings shivers to those who witnessed that zany Saturday afternoon.

"We couldn't get the early breakthrough. The longer they survived, the more they started putting their bodies on the line. With every chance we missed, the more anxious we became.

"I remember screaming at Gary Kelly and Steve Staunton to stop lobbing in long balls. All we had to do was play football...but we couldn't do it. Everyone was programmed to play only one way."

Charlton came into the dressing-room at half-time and helpfully informed the players that the whole mess was of their creation and they would have to find a way out.

Neither manager nor team had anything else to offer. The rest is history.

Charlton legged it to Belfast, the players decamped to Limerick for a week of, ahem, R & R, all washed down with a copious feed in Harry Ramsden's chipper, before caving in to Austria at Lansdowne Road.

Ireland's build-up to their latest visit to a mountain top has featured less chaotic preparations and the Pyrenean principality, world football's basement side, should be a pushover. And yet Ireland are treating them with thinly concealed trepidation.

But then Ireland have been down a rocky road to nowhere before. And Trapattoni knows that to underestimate a minnow can only invite peril.

Irish Independent

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