Comment - Our pundits demand poetry in motion, but the reality of our football teams is all too prosaic
Martin O’Neill’s lower lip trembled with the raw emotion of the moment – realising perhaps the humiliation of our national team by Denmark marks the end of an age of innocence.
Post-match TV interrogation of football managers has its rituals. But this time it was too much for O’Neill. Suddenly, all he could do was walk away from his inquisitor.
And now we wonder have we been living in a kind of fool’s paradise – even from as far back as the Jack Charlton era, and those heady days of Italia ‘90? Have we kept on deluding ourselves as to what we can achieve in international football? Back then, players and supporters could be part of the drama in some of the world’s great theatres of sport; the exhilaration of it all made us lose the run of ourselves in various ways.
Some psychologists even suggested the feel-good factor from the exploits of our national soccer team may have galvanised the country into a madcap spending spree. Shopping trips to New York and buying apartments in Bulgaria fuelled a borrowing craze as the Celtic Tiger began to roar. There are many memories of whirlwind days both on and off the pitch.
One of the British newspapers dismissed Charlton’s team as a collection of “mercenaries and misfits”. But no matter. This plain-speaking, quintessential Englishman stirred something dormant in us – an ongoing and fierce desire for success and recognition in the international sporting arena.
As is the case in such scenarios, Charlton was more or less hounded from the job at the end of his tenure.
That is what happens to international football managers of almost every hue. He was never the kind of man to quote expansively from the works of, say, WB Yeats. But whatever about his literary acumen, critics had been baying for his blood for a long time.
His perceived sin was that his tactics were, in a sense, not poetic enough.
The soothsayers on the sideline argued Jack favoured “hoofers” over “stylists” when it came to team selection.
For his part, the manager was unapologetic. He had a collection of players of certain ability at his disposal. So he was going to play a percentage game.
They would stop their opponents scoring at all costs. Then they would indeed keep hoofing the ball into their opponents’ goalmouth.
After that, it was a case of hoping for the best; there was always a chance we might nick a goal or two that could be enough to see us through.
And so the wheel came full circle this week.
Martin O’Neill is in the dock countering similar charges levelled against his predecessors – Charlton, Mick McCarthy, Giovanni Trapattoni.
Like the current manager, all were men of proven pedigree in the beautiful game. But for the naysayers, it seems many of their actions and tactics while overseeing our national team were just plain stupid.
How could these icons of the sport not see the obvious? – or so the argument went. Our players are capable of playing swashbuckling, exciting football, if only they are allowed.
And so the refrain continued from some predictable quarters after our drubbing by the Danes. Martin O’Neill was charged with making a mess of things once again. His pedigree as a player and manager of international repute counted for nought.
All the usual shibboleths were on the table. Why didn’t he play Wes Hoolahan? Well, he did put him on for the entire second half and he was no game changer.
Why didn’t O’Neill get his team to play with more abandon when Denmark had gone ahead? He did, in fact, put more firepower up front – but then he was accused of leaving the team too vulnerable in defence.
And so the merry-go-round of retrospective certainty, masquerading as analysis, continued. The suggestion now is that we need yet another new manager who will give full rein to the perceived footballing talents at his disposal. He must, of course, also win games and qualify for major tournaments.
Yet there is a growing tedium in the whole premise around such post-match analysis. The era for such predictable musings surely ended this week. The result against Denmark, in such a do-or-die encounter, was a stomach-churning reality check like no other.
We now know where we really are, and likely to remain, in the world football pecking order.
Plaintively calling for the head of whoever happens to be the latest Republic of Ireland manager is avoiding a real crisis affecting Irish soccer. For example, the absence of underage coaching skills of the very highest standard is obviously a huge problem throughout the country.
Our best young players understandably seek their fortune in the most monied league in the world across the Irish Sea. And yet these clubs are failing to convert the most talented we can produce into footballers who can hold their own in the top Premier League sides.
The reality is that we are producing an assembly line of too many journeymen.
They are to be commended for making the best of the limited talents they possess. And as has been so often said, they do ‘give their all’ when wearing the green jersey. But they are not capable of playing the poetic free-flowing kind of game demanded by some pundits, regardless of who is managing them.
This is especially the case when the team is confronted with top international opposition.
There are many layers to the current conundrum affecting Irish soccer. An endless stream of super skilled talent from across the globe, to the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, is making it more and more difficult for young Irish players to join the elite.
Meanwhile, the FAI remains bedevilled by money problems. It’s unlikely any major, imaginative initiatives will be announced soon.
As early winter gloom surrounded the Aviva, the resounding nature of the defeat only added to a feeling of desolation about our future prospects. But one thing is clear.
Hounding the manager of the international team, whoever he happens to be, for failing to orchestrate a kind of ‘poetry in motion’ playing style, is a self-indulgent blood sport long past its sell-by date.
It only obscures more profound problems not given to glib solutions. The lingering reality is that we seem incapable of organising a supply chain which will ensure a reasonable quota of classy footballers.
In those minutes after the Danish reality check, a visibly drained Martin O’Neill tried to cling to threads of hope. But they were as bleak as the sombre realism of his words. We search in vain for players who might once again bring us some really sweet times.