Sunday 18 August 2019

Aidan O'Hara: The moment against Bosnia that epitomised what this Ireland team is all about

Several Ireland players, including Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters, have taken the long road to success
Several Ireland players, including Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters, have taken the long road to success

Aidan O’Hara

When most players get kicked in the abdomen by an opponent who is already booked, they stay on the ground long enough to ensure the referee gives a second yellow card, leave the pitch for treatment they don't need and return soon afterwards happy they have done a good job for the team.

Had Jon Walters done that last Monday night, the likelihood is that Emir Spahic would finally have been dismissed and Ireland would, probably, still have gone on to qualify for the European Championships.

Yet that scenario would have required Walters to go off the field, meaning that instead of being at the back post to score the decisive second goal, he would have been waving to the officials to get back into the game.

That minute's worth of action was a perfect symbol of Walters' career and that of several of his team-mates which could only have been made better if the PA system at the Aviva Stadium had blasted out Tubthumping by Chumbawamba when Walters' second goal hit the net.

I get knocked down/But I get up again/You're never going to keep me down.
Former Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner making the famous penalty save during the Italia 90 shoot-out against Romania that made the Donegal man a national hero.

When a team qualifies for a major tournament, there is always the temptation to say they will be an inspiration to children like the ones who, around the time of Italia 90, demanded a garish yellow Packie Bonner jersey which had enough padding in the wrists to rest a small child.

But this current group of players aren't just capable of inspiring those who are yet to be discovered, they can do so for players who are already at professional clubs because almost every one of them has dealt with rejection at some point in their careers.

Walters is the poster boy for this type of player who has persevered with his career when, in his early 20s, it would probably have made for an easier life to keep playing football as a hobby and go get a "proper" job.

Republic of Ireland players, from left, James McCarthy, David Meyler, Shane Long, Robbie Keane and James McClean celebrate in the dressingroom after the game. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Play-off, 2nd Leg, Republic of Ireland v Bosnia and Herzegovina. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

By the age of 24, Robbie Keane, for example, had four clubs pay a total of £38million for his services and, despite struggling at Inter Milan, he was already well-established as a Premier League striker.

By comparison, at the same age, Walters had five permanent clubs - Blackburn, Bolton, Hull City, Wrexham and Chester City - as well as four loan moves to Hull, Crewe, Barnsley and Scunthorpe before Ipswich bid £100,000 for him. It's a measure of how far he has come that if he sees out the contract he recently signed at Stoke City, presuming they are not relegated, Walters will have spent eight years there as a Premier League player.

Keane is a superb ambassador for Irish football but his early success is very much the exception among the dozens of Irish players who continue to be chewed up and spat back out again by British clubs.

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It's lamentable that there aren't greater services available to help such players who are often labelled as "failures" by people who wouldn't be fit to lace their boots, simply because they were unable to immediately succeed in such a cut-throat industry.

The profile and character of Martin O'Neill's current squad is such that most of them have known struggle and rejection at some point in their career and their experience should be an inspiration to those 17-22-year-old Irish players in Britain who, perhaps, are becoming cynical about the whole thing and contemplating calling it quits.

Several of the heroes of the Jack Charlton era are FAI ambassadors but, in the coming years, the likes of Walters should be encouraged to speak with Emerging Talent Programmes as well as those already in professional football in Britain about the reality of being a pro.

Jon Walters

In Walters' case, you can go from being on the losing side in November of 2005 as Boston United beat Wrexham 2-1 to, 10 years later, being an Irish national hero.

There have been many teenagers who have left Ireland with huge expectations and not succeeded at their initial club and those that do so again in the future could look to, or speak to, Robbie Brady about the difficulties in coping with any feelings of failure and re-building a career.

Glenn Whelan knew the writing was on the wall at Manchester City as a teenager but was mature and determined enough to treat a loan move to Bury as an opportunity rather than a hindrance and succeeded in earning a move to Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke City to the point where he was Ireland captain last Monday on one of the team's most famous nights.

There were players on the pitch who had played for Vikingur in Iceland (Richard Keogh); Accrington Stanley (Darren Randolph) and Livingston (Wes Hoolahan) while Daryl Murphy couldn't make the breakthrough at Luton Town, which should be enough to make anyone question their future as a footballer.

The League of Ireland's role in bringing on the careers of several in O'Neill's squad is well-documented, if still under-appreciated, but it is for those players playing in Britain in their late teens and early-20s that this group can show what is possible.

They have plenty on their plate already but their stories of fighting for years to be an overnight success need to be harnessed so that players don't continue to leave Ireland, not make it immediately across the water and find themselves cynical, dispirited and gone from the game within a few years.

This is more of a "determined generation" than "golden generation" but for the reality of what faces young Irish players, their journeys of battling for points in the outposts of the English lower leagues are more applicable than tall tales of being on £100,000-a-week wages in the glamour of the Premier League.

These players got knocked down throughout their career but, to a man, they all got back up again.

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