Monday 22 July 2019

Vincent Hogan: Echoes of an angry past in 'derby' stalemate

No goals and little grace as rookie unused substitute becomes main talking point

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill shakes hands with Darren Randolph after the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill shakes hands with Darren Randolph after the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Michael Obafemi could become anything or nothing as a footballer, yet the possibilities around him all but overtook an evening compressing all the awkward energies that still cast shadow on this complex island.

Perhaps wisely, Martin O'Neill chose not to toss the 18-year-old Southampton prospect into what was a largely angry Dublin maelstrom, the two Irelands going after one another with all the refinement of short-sighted Jack Russells. It wasn't a night for hope here. Rather a bankrupt exchange between mostly journeymen footballers committed to little more than grazing one another's shins.

Michael Obafemi in the pre-match warm-up. Photo: PA
Michael Obafemi in the pre-match warm-up. Photo: PA

What local giddiness could be discerned came from Obafemi's pre-match Tweet, depicting him in an Irish shirt with the caption "All in" and emojis of a tricolour and shamrock. It followed a statement from his representatives declaring him "100pc committed" to Ireland in spite of reputed interest from England and Nigeria.

Obafemi, born in Dublin to Nigerian parents, made his Premier League debut against Spurs last January, aged just 17 years and 199 days. Only Luke Shaw has played top-level football for the club sooner.

Peculiar

And maybe this is where we are with Irish football. A quarter of a century on from the most famous meeting between us, an unused teenage striker - with just two senior club appearances to his name - becoming the story of the evening.

The anniversary aspect to the night had a peculiar dimension. Because we were celebrating the anniversary of something rotten. Of a game contaminated with levels of division and sectarianism that lent that night 25 years back a putrid beat.

Those who were in Windsor Park on November 17, 1993 don't so much remember a game as an angry, threatening loyalist rally in which, albeit unwittingly, the windmilling arms of Northern Ireland manager, Billy Bingham, seemed like bellows on a fire.

The single, solitary grace note of that evening in Belfast would be that Alan McLoughlin's goal granted Ireland a place at USA '94. Otherwise, it communicated everything that was wrong with this island back then, a rumbled soundtrack faithful to the hatreds of the time, to the awful beat of tit-for-tat killings and the hijacking of religion as a justification for murder.

In 40 years of journalism, I've never sat in a more depressing place than that crumbling little football stadium in South Belfast.

Remarkably, when we returned for a Euro qualifier exactly one year later, almost all of that rottenness seemed missing. The beat of the Lambeg drums had softened. Strolling beforehand through the labyrinth of narrow, squeezed streets and black, grassless squares that hemmed in Windsor, it almost felt a different place. And it was too.

Maybe the game was part of it, the Republic racing two goals up inside eleven minutes, any sense of contest tapering out into our biggest ever competitive victory (4-0) outside Dublin. Michael O'Neill played that night. And against a Repubic midfield of Roy Keane, John Sheridan, Andy Townsend and Steve Staunton, he barely got a kick. But that was then, this is now.

Last night's teams were threadbare creations, anxiety hitching a ride on the shoulders of both. Between them, they'd won just three of the last eighteen games played, fostering an impression of two sides, essentially, trying to slow a cascade of grumbles.

For all that, it was a night of experimentation too, Martin O'Neill giving Dunboyne's Darragh Lenihan his first senior start in a three-man central defensive partnership. And, of course, bequeathing young Obafemi that place on the bench. Michael O'Neill went somewhat left-field too, giving diminutive Oxford striker, Gavin Whyte (last year's Irish League Player of the Year with Crusaders) his first start, having seen him score with his first touch against Israel in September.

And we were only in the eighth minute when Whyte whistled a defensive clearance rather pointedly close to James McClean's ear and almost out of the stadium to warm, predictable approval from the visiting support. Soon after, Robbie Brady went in a little cheekily on Liam Boyce.

The loud booing of 'God Save The Queen' had insinuated a sourness into the night air that players on both sides now seemed determined to stay faithful to. Boyce and Seamus Coleman then both ended up bloodied from an entirely accidental aerial collision, ratcheting the tension even higher.

The narrative then became one, largely, of snarling faces and intemperate physical contact. After the scoreless first half, Martin O'Neill sent on Portsmouth's Ronan Curtis for Callum O'Dowda. His team had completed just 142 passes to the North's 221. Too much heat. Not enough light. Yes, chances materialised at both ends. But they were accidents of energy more than anything eloquent or constructive. McClean's every touch drew inevitable jeers and whistles as if hostility might, somehow, unsettle a man who meets it in his professional life almost every day.

And, sure enough, loudest eruption of the night came in the 66th minute, the Derryman called ashore to a cacophony of conflicting voices. That really was the calibre of the entertainment. Kyle Lafferty got the treatment too when introduced in the 71st minute. Silly stuff. Sad.

Light echoes of a nightmare past.

It ended as it always felt it might, goalless; Darren Randolph the Republic's best player; Steven Davis the North's.

A goalkeeper and a midfielder. Take from that what you will.

Irish Independent

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