Sunday 22 September 2019

Frank Coughlan: 'Ireland became a team barely worth watching, even if you still cared'

Martin O'Neill during a Republic of Ireland press conference Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin O'Neill during a Republic of Ireland press conference Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Frank Coughlan

Frank Coughlan

Gary Lineker once quipped that the best way to watch Wimbledon FC was on Ceefax.

He probably wasn't joking at all because back in the 1980s the Crazy Gang played the sort of crude, brutalist football that was hard on the eyes and damaging to the soul.

Ceefax is no more, of course, while time and good taste eventually saw off Vinny Jones and the rest of those man-and-ball pirates too. But the principle still applies today. If there's a team you can't bear to watch, but you still want to know they're getting on, there are infinite ways and means of following them.

So this past year and a little more I've stopped watching Martin O'Neill's Ireland.

First, I decided that the trek to the Aviva was an investment of my time (scarce) and money (scarcer) that I was no longer willing to make.

If I wanted to watch aimless running around in circles chasing a bouncing ball, I had only to take my daft mutt for a ramble.

Then in March of last year, after we were thumped nil-all by Wales at home, I reckoned that inviting this crude anti-football into my home was as unpalatable as asking Sammy Wilson around for an Ulster fry.

So I settled on a compromise that worked for a while: I plugged in my earphones, went for a long walk with the dog and followed them that way.

It worked too. An aimless, mistimed pass backwards, most probably destined for a lurking opposition striker, didn't sound half as bad on radio as it must have looked on the telly.

I was sparing myself the worst miseries while still wearing my heart on my sleeve.

And hoping, against vague and waning hope, that they'd turn things around.

They did. Briefly. In the return game in Cardiff just over a year ago, we beat Wales in a biggie. Ireland sounded great on the wireless.

I even recanted and returned to the couch for the home leg of the World Cup play-off against Denmark. The first half, anyway. Then it was headphones for the second with a bonus hour of John Creedon.

This year, though, was something else. Even in a news cycle defined by the awfulness of Trump and the surrealism of Brexit, the bleak Irish performances got noticed.

Instead of listening, I now started following Ireland on Twitter, the nearest millennial equivalent to Lineker's favoured Ceefax.

A nervous scroll here and there, but nothing too scarring.

Then this week I gave up all together. A dead rubber in Aarhus? I don't have any hair - but I washed it anyway.

The truth is I bailed on O'Neill a long time ago. I literally switched off.

So did tens of thousands of others, if attendances are anything to go by.

I'll leave it to the wall-to-wall experts to decode his team preparation and tactics. But football is a simple enough game for the average fan. It is either worth watching or it's not.

Matt Busby used to tell his famous Babes, possibly the best club side England ever produced, to go out on the pitch and pass to another lad in a red shirt.

I know football has become more complicated since, but that truism has stood the test of time. This Irish side couldn't be arsed, or weren't allowed, do that.

They'd much rather hoof it away or gift it carelessly to the other lot, then retreat like Mussolini's finest, with no clue of what was going to happen next.

So what does happen next, John Delaney? I'm all ears.

Irish Independent

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