Sunday 22 April 2018

Teetering on brink of abyss

'If we don't at least finish above Scotland, there will be no point in trying to spin it as anything other an a monumental cataclysm'
'If we don't at least finish above Scotland, there will be no point in trying to spin it as anything other an a monumental cataclysm'

Eamonn Sweeney

Never mind that hoary conundrum about whether a glass of water is half-full or half-empty, reaction to Ireland's draw with Poland last Sunday should serve as a pretty good way of weeding out the optimists from the pessimists.

The optimists will be inclined to focus on the great fight shown by Ireland in the second half and the fact that even after two efforts came back off the woodwork and suggested this was going to be one of those nights, the team still managed to get something from the game. They might note that a side which twice rescues a point in injury-time has few deficiencies in the spirit department and that these are the kind of results which get teams through to major tournaments. Perhaps they'll take solace from the notion that the underwhelming nature of the Polish second-half performance suggests Ireland are capable of getting a result from our final match in Warsaw.

The pessimists will point out that this latest draw means that the September 2001 win over Holland remains our last competitive home victory against significant opposition, that we have now taken just two points from the three games against our main rivals in the group and that for all the talk about Poland not being great, they still look a bit better than we do.

Plunging further into despair, they will observe that Germany and Poland are odds-on to bag the two automatic qualification slots and that we are now fighting it out for a play-off place with Scotland, who currently look better placed to secure it. And if they want to get really Beckettian about things, they may argue that last week's revival owed much to Poland's decision to fall back and defend their lead, thus handing us an initiative we wouldn't have been able to gain off our own bat.

I'd normally tend to err on the side of cock-eyed optimism but it can't be denied that Ireland are teetering on the brink of an abyss. Should we fail to make the top three in this group and at least make it to the play-offs this would end up being the most disastrous qualifying campaign since Johnny Giles brought the country back to international respectability in the mid-1970s.

Since the 1976 European Championships qualifying campaign, when Giles took charge for the first time, Ireland have attempted to qualify for the Euros or World Cup on 21 occasions. Only five of those campaigns ended in success but in only three qualifying tournaments - for the 1986, 2006 and 2014 World Cup finals - have we finished outside the top three in a group. And, in fairness to Brian Kerr, in 2006 we were just one point away from second and three from topping the group.

Even Steve Staunton, whose reign was lampooned as an absolute nadir for Irish football, was able to steer his team into third place, ahead of Slovakia and Wales, during the 2008 European Championships qualifying campaign.

So if we don't at least finish above Scotland, something which looks a big ask at the moment, there will be no point in trying to spin it as anything other than a monumental cataclysm. Which would be a pity because the fans deserve so much more. For all the talk of empty seats and FAI-induced ticketing crises, the 50,500 which watched last Sunday's match was the fourth highest crowd of the night in Europe. The attendance may have been swelled by the number of Polish fans present but even for the home match against Gibraltar, about as unattractive an international fixture as can be imagined, Ireland managed to muster over 35,000 bodies, more than watched, for example, not just Spain's home tie against Ukraine but the Croatia-Norway and Bulgaria-Italy games put together seven days ago.

By international standards we remain absurdly well supported, even before taking into consideration the size of the country and the lean spell our fans have endured. We have played our part in setting Group D atop the average attendances list, but you wonder how long the patience of those supporters will last.

The result in the Aviva wasn't the only significant one for Irish football last weekend. Northern Ireland's 2-1 win over Finland and the downright superb 3-0 victory by Wales in Israel should also have a bearing on how we view the performances of our international team. The fortunes of both of these teams at the moment make nonsense of the two big excuses normally trotted out for our underachievement at international level. The first is that we don't have the players, but the Welsh squad is no stronger than ours and the Northern Irish one considerably weaker. And the second is that we're suffering because of the shortcomings of the British model of the game to which we subscribe, a theory which will take something of a knock when Wales and Northern Ireland join England in the finals.

And it's not just our neighbours who are punching above their weight. Iceland occupy second place in Group A, five points ahead of Holland, who they have already beaten 2-0. Slovakia have five wins from five in Group C, including the 2-1 victory over Spain which puts them on top. Slovenia are second in England's group, while Albania, Israel, Hungary and Norway all occupy play-off places. The best third-placed team of all are Scotland, who are currently in an automatic qualifying position. This all-round overachievement by the minnows makes talk of the positives which can be gleaned from our draw against Poland sound pretty hollow.

That's not to say there weren't positives on an individual level. Seamus Coleman finally reproduced his best club form and emerged as a leader, John O'Shea continued a solid and honourable campaign, James McClean and Shane Long improved things immeasurably when they were belatedly introduced. Wes Hoolahan's display was most cheering of all, his willingness to give everything for the cause epitomised by the unlikely header he won at the far post to set up Long's equaliser.

Yet there were frustrations too. Robbie Brady could be forgiven his mistake for the goal were it not followed by a succession of dead-ball deliveries which seemed almost inconceivable from a player of his talent. Marc Wilson's watery challenge on Slawomir Peszko made him just as culpable for the Polish goal and was sadly par for the course for him at this level. Martin O'Neill's idea that James McCarthy answered his critics seems utterly deluded. Another uninterested display seemed, if anything, to prove Liam Brady right: the Everton man's slapping of an opponent's face was the act of a player who didn't care whether he stayed on the pitch or not. The purpose of Jon Walters is like the meaning of Finnegans Wake, utterly mysterious to most people, though apparently understood by a handful of experts.

We are staring down the barrel of a gun right now. Because if anything was ever designed to knock the stuffing out of soccer in this country, it's the prospect of the nation's supporters having to sit at home next summer and watch England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland strut their stuff at the European Championship finals in our absence.

If that happens, Northern Ireland will be entitled to a good laugh at our expense given the condescension we've aimed their way while poaching their players.

And there is a certain irony that their current key men are manager Michael O'Neill, who has revived their fortunes in remarkable fashion, and striker Kyle Lafferty, who got their two goals against Finland. It's ironic because the IFA took a chance on O'Neill on the basis of his fine record with Shamrock Rovers. The FAI, on the other hand, would never in a million years regard success in our own domestic league with anything other than disdain. And as for a journeyman like Lafferty, chances are we'd have judged him inferior to requirements and searched for some tenuously qualified Englishman to take his place. We'd have done the same with David Healy before him. Against Finland, O'Neill started a team with 10 players born in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile we continue the if-you're-English-or-Scottish-come-into-the-parlour-there's-a-welcome-there-for-you policy.

Maybe treating our national team like just another English club side won't turn out to have been the best idea after all. Because if national pride doesn't matter at international level, how come Iceland are able to beat Holland and Slovakia turn over Spain? I'm asking you Martin, where's ours?


McGregor should take on Clarkson

The great American poet John Berryman once wrote, "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so." I'm inclined to feel the same way about Conor McGregor's press conferences, and perhaps to add in the words childish and tacky.

This isn't meant as a criticism of McGregor, who I hope defeats Jose Aldo and becomes UFC featherweight champion. The loudmouth role is the one he's been scripted to play and the elan with which he carries off the charade has made him an eminently marketable commodity. Fair play to him. This is how the game works and he plays it well.

Yet I couldn't help feeling that the MMA-loving nine-year-old who featured at the event was perhaps the perfect age to appreciate what was going on. Because while McGregor has to pretend to take all the pre-fight huffing and puffing seriously, there's no need for any grown up to do so.

MMA devotees get cross if you question the sport's athletic bona fides. And rightly so. McGregor has proved himself inside the octagon and deserves to be judged on his performances there rather than on his theatrical excesses elsewhere. Yet the sport does itself few favours by its mode of promotion. The Croke Park event was right out of the WWE playbook and would only have reinforced the prejudices of those who think of MMA as some kind of hyperbole-driven American freak show.

That said, there was something extremely amusing about the Irish media's attempts to extract some significance from it. We're not used to this kind of hoopla over here so most of the fawning coverage came off a bit like a middle-aged man pretending to like hip-hop because he fancies his chances with some young one. The breathless revelation that UFC head honcho Dana White had said, "I've never seen any shit like Dublin," was somewhat spoiled by the decision to stick a few prissy asterisks over the excremental noun, rendering it as s***. The on-line commenter who suggested that this stood for 'slum' is obviously only a blackguard. There is nothing funny about that comment at all. I'm not laughing, I'm sneezing.

For the moment McGregor seems to straddle the line between sport and showbiz. Hence the attitude of RTE, who didn't consider him worth a place on the shortlist for their sports personality of the year award yet judged him worthy of a fly on the wall TV series. That's why I think it might be a good idea to capitalise on McGregor's showbiz side and set him up with a celebrity warm-up bout before he meets Aldo. His opponent? Jeremy Clarkson. The bout would begin with the snobby English dickhead coming into the ring and calling McGregor a "lazy Irish c**t." It would finish with . . . well, we can use our imaginations.

I wouldn't just pay for a ticket for that one, I'd put up part of the purse.


Anything goes if it is all about results

It's the ever-ready excuse of the inter-county manager and it covers a multitude. "At the end of the day it's all about the results and we're the ones who'll get the stick if the team is losing," or words to that effect. Negative tactics, foul play, burning out players, exorbitant expenditure which lands the county board in the red, getting players off suspensions on a technicality and pressuring the referee can all be justified.

It's a neat trick because it enables offending managers not just to refuse responsibility for what they're doing to Gaelic football but to engage in a bit of self-pity while doing so. A picture is painted of a rabid public out there who will subject the manager and his players to shocking levels of abuse if every means necessary is not employed to win games. The manager, it's implied, isn't acting like this because he's a glory hunter, a bad sport or a bully, he's being made to do so by the unreasonable demands of the fans.

Yet this argument that there is no alternative to a win at all costs approach doesn't hold much water. For one thing, Gaelic football is an amateur game and the fact that no-one's livelihood is imperilled by defeat should surely give managers a certain amount of leeway. It may be an unfashionable notion but they do have a duty to the game to play it in the best spirit possible. They also have a duty to the fans to make the 70 minutes something more than an ordeal which must be endured before the result is decided. Because if all that matters is the result, why bother going to the game? Why not just look up the score afterwards?

The 'it's all about the results' attitude is an infinitely flexible argument. It could be invoked to justify giving performance-enhancing drugs to players, bribing a ref or deliberately injuring the opposition's star player. There are perhaps managers who'd see such expedients, if they could get away with them, as merely proving their willingness to 'go the extra mile.'

The problem with arguing that the end justifies the means is that often the means become an end in themselves. And right now that's where the GAA is heading thanks to managers who think cynicism and realism are the same thing.

Last week's Dublin-Derry match was pretty much the last word in shit. And that's because the shit was where Derry wanted to drag the game. They succeeded but it's not Gaelic football which is to blame, it's teams which play it in the worst possible manner.

And as long as managers blame someone else, the fans, the rules, the media, ISIS, global warming, whatever, for their own negativity, things are only going to get worse. A lot worse.

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