Outside the box: Can we cope with the football optimism?
ON SATURDAY night at the Aviva Stadium, it felt as though the worm had turned. At one stage in the first half, when Rob Kearney failed to hold onto the ball, the crowd vented their annoyance and one supporter turned to his friend and brought Kearney's job into the conversation.
"He's a professional rugby player getting paid plenty of money," argued the frustrated fan. "How can he make such a simple mistake?"
For years, football players have had their salary used as a stick to beat them with whenever they make a mistake on the field, off the field or, sometimes it seems, in their thoughts or in their words. Even when they produce something extraordinary, there'll still be the odd begrudger who'll mutter something like "sure they're being paid well enough for it".
What Kearney is paid had no relevance to his error but the murmurings among the supporters as they headed for the exits on Saturday sounded very familiar to the ones surrounding the Irish football team when things went wrong over the past few years.
You didn't have to go as far as the DART line before hearing phrases like "Never really looked like scoring"; "men against boys"; "no fight"; "Player X shouldn't be starting"; "didn't want it enough" – expressions that, when Giovanni Trapattoni's team faced a superior force, as Joe Schmidt's team certainly did on Saturday, were never far from the surface.
For some, it seemed cleansing for the soul to have a good moan after an Ireland defeat as, given the wave of optimism sweeping around Irish football at the moment, it's doubtful whether the Irish sporting psyche could cope with being relentlessly positive.
After a few scorching days in the summer, there's a percentage of Irish people who'll argue that we're not built for this heat and then, when it rains in August, they'll lament the fact that we got no summer at all. All the while, the GAA championship will be littered with unsatisfied managers and players who know that, no matter the quality of performance, "they'll have to do better the next day".
Trapattoni was the perfect manager for that mind-set given the number of asterisks that were attached to even his greatest of achievements with the Ireland team. France's poor showing in the World Cup proved they were rubbish anyway which contextualised our performance in the Paris play-off; Italy only had 10 men when we drew with them in Bari; we were lucky to get Estonia in the play-offs and all the other clouds that we managed to find in the middle of the silver linings.
On Friday against Latvia, it was all but impossible to find something to complain about which made for a slightly unsettling, albeit very welcome, feeling.
Having been Ireland's man of the match in the face of a German onslaught two games ago, David Forde wasn't picked but the fact he will play tomorrow against Poland means there wasn't even the chance to complain about a second-choice club player, Keiren Westwood, being chosen ahead of one who is getting regular first-team football.
The ability of Ireland's opponents was a slight caveat, although as RTE pointed out in their highlights package, there was little of Friday's desire to pass the ball and pressurise opponents, when previously faced with similarly poor opposition such as Faroe Islands or Andorra.
Perhaps Latvia's players were taking it easy ahead of tonight's friendly against a more evenly-matched outfit in Yeovil Town but, given how well they played their role of doormat guests for Ireland, it wouldn't be surprising if Paddy Madden filled his boots.
The only slight sadness of the night was watching Wes Hoolahan pull the strings and lament the fact that "the boy Hoolahan", as Roy Keane referred to him last week, turns 32 next May.
Hoolahan's first call-up to an Ireland squad came more than 11 years ago, meaning it's not just Giovanni Trapattoni who has ignored his ability for so long but the simple touches, turns and passes on Friday again underlined a football intelligence which can certainly be utilised against tougher opposition.
Hoolahan also boosted the long-battered image of players' off-the-field behaviour as he donated some shirts to auction at the testimonial dinner for former team-mate Owen Heary on Saturday night having visited his alma mater that morning.
"I practised every day as many of the skills taught to me by the managers and coaches in Belvedere and that gave me the best start I could to get where I am today," he told a group of Belvedere's U-9s in Clontarf on Saturday morning, who weren't born when Hoolahan was playing for Shelbourne against Deportivo La Coruna.
In a weekend where the mood was so positive for Irish football, it seemed a perfect lift for the stars of the future.