Sport Soccer

Wednesday 24 January 2018

No punch in Irish sparring session

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

June 17, 1994 was supposed to be the day that the United States started falling in love with football but, although they are often confused, it once again proved the difference between bad luck and bad judgment.

At the opening ceremony of the World Cup, Diana Ross managed to miss an open goal from three yards before champions Germany played Bolivia. However, even with such a dull game to kick off the World Cup, this was also the same day that the New York Rangers held a victory parade after winning ice hockey's Stanley Cup, Arnold Palmer played his last US Open round and the NBA finals went into game five. Against such opposition, the World Cup never stood a chance.

Where the bad luck comes in, as brilliantly told in an ESPN documentary, is that this was also the same day that OJ Simpson decided to get over the murder of his wife and her lover by taking a drive and bringing dozens of police cars, a few helicopters and millions of viewers along for the ride. The documentary details the struggles of TV stations to keep up and the dilemma facing newspapers about what to lead with on the back pages (although if something similar occurred in Ireland in June, the answer would still be GAA).

Last week, Portuguese supporters arriving in Dublin simply experienced bad luck that the Queen's visit happened to coincide with the Europa League final, meaning that instead of céad míle bem-vindos, they met an amount of gardaí not seen since Copper Face Jacks on the night before the blue flu.

At least they made the best of it with 40-odd thousand fans giving the sort of atmosphere to the Aviva Stadium that has been all too rare since its return from Clonliffe Road.

This week, however, any thoughts that the fare on show will simply be down to bad luck are hard to stomach as the Carling Nations Cup returns to town and a nation doesn't quite hold its breath so much as let off a collective shrug.

Advertisements for sporting events are fraught with danger with the risk of injuries, but somebody might just have noticed that a campaign for the competition which says that "the stars are coming" might just be pushing its luck. Fresh from a season in which they've started seven Premier League games between them, Robbie Keane and Shay Given at least get the word star into a plural, but after that there's the need for a speed-dating type introduction to the majority of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland squads. And that's before the inevitable withdrawals.

The competition could consider itself unlucky that Manchester United are in the Champions League final and therefore not obliged to release their players, but trying to get people to stump up cash for the privilege of seeing Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher is asking a bit much. If that was the best they had on offer in the first place, what must the rest of them be like?

The FAI announced last week that anybody who bought tickets for the Ireland v Northern Ireland game tomorrow night would gain free entry to the Wales v Scotland and Northern Ireland v Wales matches, but, while it's a laudable attempt to get some bums on seats, the reality is that the horse has probably bolted for its summer holidays.

Tomorrow night, Ireland play Northern Ireland in one of the most under-hyped games between the countries and while it's unrealistic to expect anything approaching a full house, such fare feeds into the negative perception surrounding a bunch of players whose image has fallen dramatically since Thierry Henry's handball in Paris united a nation behind them.

Since then, starting with the debacle of the 10-year tickets and then attempting to dress mutton up as lamb in terms friendly opposition, there's been an increasing disconnect to the players from supporters that are more intelligent than they seem to be given credit for.

Pointless friendlies have always been a bugbear and adding a few fireworks and a cup that could mean a spin of "the first trophy under Trapattoni" will only add to the growing levels of cynicism surrounding the team.

There will always be some who will pay to watch the team regardless of the opposition, but such loyalty should be rewarded rather than abused by asking them to spend €75 or €30 to watch Northern Ireland, and then perhaps hope they'll go to Liege for a friendly against Italy that might have stoked interest were it being played in either of the countries involved.

The Nations Cup will at least give Keane and Given the chance to hear an opening whistle for a change but, as regards preparing them to face Macedonia (which is presumably the whole point of friendlies in May), it's like preparing for a karate match by stepping into a boxing ring.

Depending on their opponent, boxers will choose sparring partners of similar style, height or technique to give themselves the best chance in the main event. In Ireland's case, they are preparing for Skopje against a technically proficient Macedonia by facing two teams where, if 10 consecutive passes equalled a goal, there would still be a strong chance of a 0-0 draw. Maybe if Evans, Fletcher and Gareth Bale (the other absentee star) had been available, crowds would have turned up and Ireland would have got the sort of preparation needed to take three points in Skopje.

It's debatable whether it's bad luck that these players are not available, but if Ireland end up caught in a Macedonian whirl because they've spent their previous two games playing against teams hoofing the ball all over the pitch, it'll only be bad planning that can be to blame.

Irish Independent

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