Silencing the chorus of boos
Most of the talk about Ireland's qualification for next year's European Championships seems to centre on the joys which await us in the future. Yet while it's well worth anticipating the spring which the tournament will put in our national sporting step next summer, the successful conclusion to the campaign is also significant as marking the end of an era.
And a peculiarly unlovely and dispiriting era it was too, one during which the members of our national soccer team became the butt of ridicule and abuse to an extent which had never happened previously. To judge by the joyous scenes at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night, we have fallen back in love with the team and qualification has drawn a line under the unhappy recent past. It's about time.
The process by which the team turned from national darlings to something approaching national pariahs can be traced back almost ten years to Saipan where we endured our own version of The Dreyfus Affair. Yet, oddly enough, in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 World Cup the boil seemed to have been lanced thanks to a series of spirited performances in the tournament.
Then defeats by Russia and Switzerland were followed by the resignation of Mick McCarthy. There was also the publication of Roy Keane's autobiography, a terrific read in which ghost-writer Eamon Dunphy demonstrated his enviable powers of invective and recast the Manchester United star's falling out with McCarthy as a kind of crusade against national mediocrity. That reading of the Saipan affair became a highly influential one. It seemed to strike a chord with the zeitgeist of the Celtic Tiger era, Keane's bullishness appealing to everyone who liked to see themselves as fearlessly thinking outside the box or pushing the envelope.
All of a sudden Mick McCarthy was berated for being insufficiently ambitious. Ireland, we were informed, should be going to World Cups looking to win the tournament. And, astoundingly, the Jack Charlton teams which had probably given this nation its greatest moments of collective joy suffered a kind of retrospective devaluation as they were berated for not living up to some Platonic ideal of sparkling football which no-one had ever actually seen an Irish team play. It was a bit like complaining that your wife doesn't look like Nicole Kidman without copping on that if she did look like Nicole Kidman she probably wouldn't be your wife.
It was open season on not just the national team but on the FAI in general and John Delaney in particular. Brian Kerr had been a hugely popular figure within the game before he succeeded McCarthy as manager but the general air of dissatisfaction meant no mercy was shown when he narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2006 World Cup. An apparently embittered Kerr, Keane-like, joined the army of snipers on the sidelines. The stage was set for the farce of the Staunton era.
Yet even during those disastrous years some of the criticism seemed wildly disproportionate. Both rugby and Gaelic games were used as sticks to beat soccer with. Pundits who should have known better consoled themselves for their disappointment over the GAA's Faustian pact with the FAI which let soccer on to the hallowed ground of Croke Park by yammering on interminably about the superiority of the noble breed who played Gaelic football and hurling.
The idea that someone who got paid for playing sport was somehow intrinsically inferior to someone who didn't got a regular run-out in those quarters. It was as though we were back in the era when English cricket sniffily divided participants into Gentlemen and Players. There were even suggestions that success for the soccer team might not necessarily be a good thing because it might lure GAA players away from their native games.
A perfect storm of negativity held sway. Just after Staunton finally resigned, I met John Delaney. He'd just finished reading an article which said that the only world-class coaches in Irish sport were those involved in Gaelic football and hurling. It was, he pointed out, an argument too stupid to refute. Meanwhile, we got chapter and verse in the papers about the sick culture inhabited by professional soccer players. The spectacle of Robbie Keane having a few pints and singing a song in the pub had to be inflated into a moral tale for our times, an indictment of both the player and his game.
We should have run out of negative energy by the time Giovanni Trapattoni was announced as Staunton's successor. Because to secure the services of a manager who had won the European Cup, three UEFA Cups, a Cup Winners' Cup, seven Serie A titles and the Bundesliga was a genuine coup for the FAI. Yet they received little praise for doing so and the focus instead switched to Denis O'Brien ponying up some of Trap's wages. Soon the cynics were able to focus on the omission of Andy Reid, a player whose reputation seemed to grow
every time he was left out of the squad. Some credence was even given to the giddy ramblings of Stephen Ireland.
You'd have presumed that Trapattoni's CV meant we'd have given him credit for knowing something about football. Not a bit of it. The man was a fossil who was actually holding our players back and preventing them from playing that famous sparkling brand of football which lay dormant somewhere within the team's psyche. One night on RTE Eamon Dunphy said that we had some of the best players in Europe. Poor Liam Brady nearly fell off his chair.
In reality, Trapattoni was doing well with a limited bunch of footballers yet as recently as the Slovakia game just over two months ago the team was booed by their fans at the Aviva. Sometimes the last ten years can seem like one chorus of boos after another. With these shouts of derision ringing in their ears, Ireland went to Russia and battled heroically for a point. Next up came Armenia and Estonia. The era of negativity was about to end.
There can be no arguing with the magnitude of Trap's achievement. Ireland were the lowest ranked team to qualify. At the time the draw was made we stood 25th in Europe. The next lowest ranked team to make it through were the Danes in 16th. Switzerland (13), Serbia (14) and Turkey (15) won't be there but Ireland will.
In the end the manager's big decisions were vindicated, sometimes spectacularly so. Simon Cox was a controversial choice to start as striker against Armenia. He ended as man of the match. Jon Walters seemed an odd choice to lead the line out in Estonia but he also had an outstanding game. Our best player in Tallinn was Keith Andrews, the guy whose presence in the team ahead of Andy Reid once irked so many people (I was one of them). Andrews may not have the natural talent of Reid or Ireland but he bought into the system, grew in stature and repaid Trapattoni's faith fivefold.
You know who else has been vindicated? John Delaney for his bold decision in appointing Trap. And Denis O'Brien for making sure we had the money to do so. It sticks in some people's craws to praise either but credit where credit is due.
We'll have a lot of fun next summer. The country needs this at a time when our morale has taken blow after blow, at a time which is spookily reminiscent of those dire '80s days which were enlivened by Jack Charlton's great team. Saying it doesn't matter whether we have international success because we always have the GAA is to be ludicrously parochial. And rugby, though it's grown hugely in popularity in recent years, still doesn't attract the same level of support that the national soccer team does when it reaches a major tournament, something we've only done on four previous occasions.
Perhaps the nattering nabobs of negativity will try to persuade us that the jury is out on Trapattoni until we see how the team does in Poland and the Ukraine. It would be a crafty face-saving move because we might well be the weakest team there. But I don't think anyone will fall for it at this stage. The man was hired to get us to the finals and that is what he has done. The dog days are over.
And thank God for that.
Sunday Indo Sport