Tuesday 25 September 2018

Bonds formed in Turkey should be of value long term

Integration of newcomers and arrival of Rice on international stage gives friendly rare level of significance

Ireland’s players going through their paces during last week’s training camp. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland’s players going through their paces during last week’s training camp. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Turkish television were still dissecting the finer points of their victory over Ireland in Antalya hours earlier.

A strong command of the language was required to follow the format. The forensic analysis, which appeared to run through the night with a rotating panel, mostly concentrated on the hosts. There was a brief segway that referenced 'Irlanda' where the host disparagingly looked down on the sheet of paper before him. 'Burnley' he shrugged. 'Everton.' 'Seamus Coleman.'

You didn't require expert translation to get the point. In that part of the world, the Irish team read like alien names with a handful of Premier League exceptions and, of course, the management team.

In Martin O'Neill's press conference on Friday, a local told the Irish boss he was greatly admired in Turkey and asked if he ever fancied working there. The Derryman politely replied that he had a job to do.

Turkey probably did function as an adequate escape for the process of getting the show back on the road. A nondescript Aviva friendly in front of an indifferent crowd would have brought the memories rushing back.

Prep

Of course, a trip to a country with an authoritarian leader and a dubious approach to freedom might have functioned as an adequate prep for Russia.

These are curious times in Turkey. It's just two years since the failed military coup which challenged the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Wikipedia is blocked, as part of information control.

The P24 press freedom website says there are over 150 journalists in Turkish prisons, the majority of whom were charged in the state of emergency that followed the 2016 developments. Media outlets have been closed down.

Sport is a popular distraction with propaganda value and Ireland's visit to Antalya was tied in with publicity for the country's bid for the 2024 Euros.

Huge banners were unfurled before kickoff, a further obstruction to the 200 or so Ireland fans penned in cages in the away section, a slightly incongruous but illuminating contrast.

The Ireland players had spent the build-up in luxurious surrounds. Turkey do that well. The Regnum Sports Centre is part of the home FA's network of facilities down south, located in the same complex that hosts the Turkish Open golf. Whatever state a country might be in, the touring golf circuit tends to find an affluent retreat.

It is the ideal area for travelling sports teams wanting a bit of peace and quiet to go about their work.

With a changed panel, the mood was relaxed. The ongoing real life issues in Turkey expose the utterly nonsensical nature of fretting about media relations between O'Neill and the Irish press corps, but it was noticeable that the 66-year-old offered full access to two of his training sessions.

It allowed a view of lively 11 v 11 or 12 v 11 practice games that illustrated the competition that exists in the camp. It also highlighted a changing of the guard, with Seamus Coleman now a senior member of the group in terms of age and not just rank. Shane Duffy spoke well too, and he would take the armband from the Donegal man when changes were made during the game.

The talk of a new chapter is natural yet the reality is that for most of the group, it was a natural continuation of relationships built up along the way.

There were pockets that were wholly familiar with each other from obscure Irish underage trips in younger ways. Fresh faces such as Derrick Williams and Darragh Lenihan were not daunted as they were already on first name terms with so many of the group.

A nice touch at the pre-match presser was Coleman going out of his way to mention fellow leg break victim Alan Judge.

Judge explained the origins of their relationship afterwards. "Me and Seamus go back a long way," said the Dubliner, who spoke eloquently about the pain of his two years out of the picture, "We played together underage."

Those experiences matter. That is the significance of Declan Rice, from a younger age group, coming away and getting to know the group better.

In truth, fears that the West Ham teenager might not be around for the long term have only come from persistent media questioning and O'Neill's reluctance to say something definitive in case it comes back to bite him.

The enthusiastic Rice spoke of shedding a tear during the national anthem and he tweeted a picture post-match with his father Sean who had travelled for the game to share in a 'special moment.' When asked again if he had any concerns that Rice might depart, O'Neill delivered another lengthy answer that included the line that "it would be terrible if he was lost to us."

Comparisons with Jack Grealish are drawn, but he never came this far down the road. Rice would have to perform an extraordinary about turn to change course now and analysing his language in the search for negativity in his answers is really not doing the player any favours. It must be remembered that Gareth Southgate's statement that Rice was on his radar came off the back of Irish media interest.

Rice is clearly around for the longer haul and his mundane Twitter activity with the rest of the group is the modern version of assimilation. Matt Doherty said that when Ireland's players were given an afternoon off, most didn't even leave the hotel.

A decade has passed since a Giovanni Trapattoni training camp in Portugal that was notable for one particularly raucous night out. With teetotallers Coleman and James McClean strong voices in a changed dressing room, the culture has changed somewhat.

Time can make the bonds formed on otherwise meaningless trips meaningful. The game didn't live up to much, but the confirmation of Rice's arrival and other milestones like Coleman and Judge's return should ensure that a fairly uneventful trip has a symbolic significance in the long term.

And as for 2024? Let's hope that UEFA executive committee member John Delaney votes for Germany.

Irish Independent

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