Thursday 12 December 2019

No escaping the feel-good factor

Sense of hope and growing optimism makes it just like old times, writes John O'Brien

Ignore the sign advertising a Christmas Fair outside the RDS and it feels just like old times in Ballsbridge. Posters hanging from lamp-posts, bearing grim tidings of debt and austerity, the nation in a terrible state of chassis. Football a cherished balm for needy souls.

A paddywagon, draped in green, white and gold, sits parked outside Paddy Cullen's. Joxer stepped in a while, perhaps, to wet his whistle.

The old stadium has been spruced up a touch, but so much remains reassuringly familiar.

All the old songs seem worth singing again. Que sera seras and ooh-ahs and rocky roads. The fields still lying low. For all those years when the national team seemed locked in a permanent state of mediocrity and decline, no lasting damage appears to have been inflicted. You'll still never beat the Irish.

The Aviva wasn't full yesterday, not even close to capacity, but the occasion still packed a punch and when the strains of the old Pogues' number, Fiesta, rang out after Shane Long headed Ireland in front in the 77th minute, it felt appropriate because something of a carnival atmosphere prevailed.

Maybe the unfamiliar heat had simply made us giddy. Perhaps it was the rare blessing of a meaningful friendly, if that isn't an oxymoron, in May. Either way, hallelujah.

So it felt good to be served a little reminder of football's redemptive powers.

How it can reach parts that other sports, for all their blessed attractions, simply can't reach. At times like these it becomes tempting to see the game as a metaphor for the nation. That no matter how precarious things get, how close they come to being over-run by slicker, more deadlier teams, Ireland somehow will draw it out of the fire and emerge at the other end unscathed.

In some ways, though, yesterday felt a little odd too.

At the end Robbie Keane led his team on a lap of honour and it felt like one of those end-of-season encounters you see in the Premier League when the fans are given the opportunity to show their appreciation for the team's efforts throughout the season. The inference was that, in reaching the finals, Keane and his players had already done the hard graft. In Poland they will be living in bonus territory.

After yesterday they are entitled to travel in good humour. The 1-0 victory didn't flatter them in any way, though it would be a sin to under-estimate Croatia on the basis of Bosnia & Herzegovina's limp performance.

The result didn't matter much anyway. When Keane crumbled under a heavy challenge after 10 minutes, the risky nature of these warm-up matches was driven home. Unsteadily, he rose to his feet, signalled his wellbeing and a cheer of relief and joy echoed throughout the stadium.

It is said that Giovanni Trapattoni is a lucky as well as a brilliant manager and evidence of it grows all the time. If Mick McCarthy had an unfortunate habit of losing key players on the eve of important matches, the aces seem to fall right for the Italian more often than not. Keane took his leave after the hour mark yesterday, followed shortly after by Richard Dunne. Both seemed hale and hearty.

For Ireland, everything seems to be ticking over nicely, no Saipan-like shocks waiting in the long grass to overtake events.

There was much to admire about Trapattoni's team yesterday. The shape of the side was pleasing and how they went about their business was admirable. Not all of it was applicable to the tournament that lies immediately ahead, though. James McClean made his first start for Ireland, on the left-wing, and much of what he did spoke of the class we know he has an abundance of. But we already know the Sunderland star won't start in Poland, or even receive much game-time, and that knowledge is a little troubling.

But we also know Trapattoni too well now to expect anything different.

When McClean was hurting the Bosnian defence going forward, it was noticeable that large gaps appeared on the flank behind him and the Bosnians weren't slow in exploiting them. Such lapses would not have escaped the Italian's attention.

It was interesting that the first time Trapattoni was moved to leave his dug-out was to applaud Paul McShane after the defender made a determined and plucky run down the right. The manager is drawn to things like that.

Still, there is a future beyond Poland and Ukraine to look forward to and it was nice to get a glimpse of it. Ireland looked particularly dangerous yesterday with McClean threatening on one wing and Aiden McGeady marauding on the other and it was from the Spartak Moscow winger's pin-point cross that Long stole the winner. They began to rip Bosnia apart, playing sublime football, confident and ruthless with it.

For a moment you wondered why they couldn't play like this more often and then you remembered where exactly you were.

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