Wednesday 13 December 2017

James Lawton: King's brief reign can spur exiles' pride in shirt

Anthony Stokes
Anthony Stokes

His instinct is sublime but Ireland's interim manager Noel King may well be toying with the ridiculous – especially when he seeks to return Stephen Ireland to the service of his so often rejected football nation.

Yet what more can this devoted FAI company man do on behalf of whichever more celebrated successor is given the job of building a little heart, a little credence into a demoralised national team? He can only echo the old war recruiter's cry, 'Your country needs you.'

As he does so, King is saying to the likes of Ireland and the recalled Andy Reid, Darron Gibson, Kevin Doyle and Anthony Stokes, that despite Giovanni Trapattoni's measured judgment on their talent and his sense of what constitutes a fully paid-up member of a seriously committed international squad, there is maybe still time for one last reassessment.

King plainly believes that his best legacy to Martin O'Neill or Roy Keane or whoever gets the job goes beyond the outside possibility of stirring resistance against the German juggernaut which rolled so imperiously across the Aviva. Plainly he sees his main objective as a fully restored roll-call of talent available to the new man. There is, after all, so little of it that the principle of needs must cannot be easily ignored.

It could be that Trapattoni's successor will quickly enough reach similar conclusions to the resolute old Italian.

However, the graveyard of football ambition will always be filled by the belief of certain coaches that they have the secret of successfully regulating the most erratic of football personalities.

Trapattoni had no time for such fancy of course, unlike his compatriots Roberto Mancini and Fabio Capello, who saw in Mario Balotelli and Wayne Rooney the redeeming qualities that might just make new football empires at the Etihad and Wembley.

King, of course, is indulging few illusions about his own ability to re-shape the Irish team, beyond the obligatory call for a mighty and, who knows, startling effort in Cologne tonight. Yet he plainly believes, and rightfully so, that he might just be able to re-cast the agenda of some of Ireland's most gifted players.

Trapattoni was unforgiving of the foibles of Reid. He dismissed the idea of imploring football patriotism in Stephen Ireland – it would, after all, have offended his deepest sense of what the game is owed by his best rewarded players – and he was withering on the subject of Gibson's old preference for a place in the margins of Manchester United rather than a more central role in another, less starry Premier League outfit.

When the controversy-prone Stokes of Celtic cried off Irish duty because of tiredness, Trapattoni was aghast, saying that such excuses could only come from the hospitalised or the dead. Right or wrong, Trapattoni had his own imperatives and his own creed and, given the ebbing of his selection options – and the killing sense that the tradition made by players like Giles, Brady, Keane and O'Leary had become not much more than a remnant of history as the gates of top Premier League clubs widened a little more each year to embrace the tide of continental youth – his achievements were not so negligible.

The hand of Thierry Henry was a cruel stop sign on the road to the 2010 World Cup finals and if Euro 2012 was ultimately something of a disaster, mere qualification had to be seen as striking over-achievement. Now, as Irish football waits so desperately for the impetus which might be achieved by a new man, there is no doubt King is performing a potentially valuable task in the most difficult of circumstances.

He is saying it is high time for a sense of pride in the origins and the tradition of the nation's football and, whether he intended to or not, he has certainly applied a point of focus when he reports on his overtures to coax Stoke City's Ireland back into a camp on whose behalf he has performed the derisory service of just six games, but with a haul of four goals.

After the perishing grandmother stories, Ireland's likely emergence as a national football hero was always remote and, at the age of 27, he has done little to remedy this impression with his suggestion that he will probably await the identity of the new manager before making a decision.

"I have spoken to Stephen's agent. He is a very gifted player and he has played a couple of half-games that I watched.

"He is getting his career back on track and I understand fully that he is not ready – in his head, his physique and his conditioning. I respect what he said, if you had a son in that position you would want to make sure not to rush it," said King .

Indeed there is a sense of King teetering between the sublime and the ridiculous, calling for a new level of football patriotism in one breath and in another tending a fire for the fatted calf of a serially prodigal son.

Still, the over-riding sense is of an effort to remind all of Irish football, and most pertinently those who enjoy the most generous rewards, that it is time for a show of something more than personal convenience and mere whim.

It is a time, King says, for a little personal responsibility. It is a call worthy of a serious football man, however briefly he treads the boards of his biggest stage.

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