Sport Soccer

Sunday 21 July 2019

Victim or Villain?

Chris McCann is the latest player to leave an international set-up in controversial circumstances but is it simply another example of the impetuousness of youth or a symptom of a deeper problem within the Irish soccer scene?

Burnley’s Chris McCann has received plenty of criticism having decided to walk out on the Under 21s on Tuesday
Burnley’s Chris McCann has received plenty of criticism having decided to walk out on the Under 21s on Tuesday
David Kelly

David Kelly

A wise old man, at his stage of history not yet acquainted with the magnificent trivialities of international sport, once opined on the nature of patriotism thus. "Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it."

One would like to think that modern-day patriotism in the sporting sphere is not completely driven by selfish needs, but events intervene with such startling frequency that one is repeatedly compelled to re-examine the very notion of fidelity to one's flag.

Yesterday morning, our radio airwaves were filled with the moral discordance of the Irish U21 manager Don Givens, returning to his normal beat after once more filling in at senior level in caretaker capacity.

Suddenly, the name of Chris McCann, a promising yet thoroughly anonymous member of a less than promising old football institution, was being held up as the latest example of a treasonous Irish footballer.

Before one could mutter from beneath crumpled bedclothes "Chris Who?", his remarkable outburst was generating outrage and, to those of us wearied by "Search for an Irish Manager", some blessed diversion.

McCann is routinely touted as "one of Burnley's brightest young players", as if such a status bequeaths the eponymous starlet a pathway decorated with sparkling gold, and he pitched up in Athlone this week with certain ideas about his status within Irish football.

Swiftly disabused by such a notion by manager Givens, who has previous in his dismissal of juveniles acting with lofty ideals inconsistent with their immaturity, McCann reacted with such temerity to being awarded merely a substitute's berth that he suddenly found himself on the next bus out of Lissywoolen (if such a mode of transport exists).

Despite the fact that Sean McCaffrey had minded the U21 house while Givens was on senior duty last weekend, therefore precluding Givens from a swift promotion of McCann without seeing him train, the 20-year-old will probably detail all the traumas of the incident to comforting family, friends and loyal club officials.

Dinosaur

Meanwhile, Givens will be portrayed as an anachronistic dinosaur figure who thinks an i-pod is a character from Dr Who. Some will praise his strict manner in dealing with a scarcely deserving upstart.

However, there are others who will scoff at a man frozen in time, one left to poignantly recall a more innocent era each time he is confronted by the recurring realities of the 21st century's remorselessly selfish generation of footballer.

Both opinions retain some validity. McCann may or may not return to international duty. He may prosper at senior level, like Andy Reid, another player to feel the wrath of Givens' laudably censorious code.

Or, like Keith Foy, whose career could disappear into the mists time, forever tainted with the ineradicable tinge of under-achievement. The choice, however, remains his.

Stephen Ireland has been confronted with a similar crossroads already; few in this country, including Givens and his predecessor Steve Staunton, seemingly portray the emotional intelligence necessary to deal with his predicament.

The suspicion is that few in this country can hope to aspire to deal with the current psychological problems afflicting the talented Manchester City player but, once again, Givens was forced to place his continuing absence in the context of baffling bewilderment at the choices of this new generation.

Givens was also forced to explain, in the aftermath of Stephen Carr's second retirement, his bewilderment with the manner in which players treat of their international careers with such alacrity.

At his best, Carr was one of Europe's most impressive full-backs. Latterly, with his club career on a slippery slope, he was accused of a deficit of passion in a green shirt.

Perhaps Carr's trivial dismissal of the rest of his international career aptly reflects the fans' damning indictment. As a validation of the current mutual disaffection between fan and player, Carr's retirement is symbolic.

Yet there are glaring inconsistencies with the way Roy Keane's international career can be analysed; those who still believe he walked out on Ireland in 2002 and treated Ireland disdainfully throughout still rage in philosophical battles with those who stridently believe that he was the one player who truly validated all the credentials for true Irish patriotism.

Then there is the example of Ryan Giggs, venerated despite missing 18 successive friendlies; always professing "his love for his country" must have done the trick. Or Paul Scholes, sitting on a beach while England wheeze through World Cup 2006 and witnessing his fidelity to the Old Trafford pay cheque being questioned, but not his loyalty to his family.

Every situation is different and it would be lazy and presumptuous to draw conclusive assumptions from McCann's contribution to the debate.

Question

But, within a week when Givens has seen fit to question the commitments of international players on three different occasions, there is clearly some sort of pattern.

The Irish senior team's current state of dishevelment must in some way contribute to the malaise.

Yet even this assessment can be contradicted by the continuing commitments of Kevin Kilbane and Lee Carsley to the senior side, stances which, regardless of any opinion about their continuing suitability for international football, utterly undermine the attitudes of messrs McCann, Ireland or Carr.

But then, as Carsley showed, like Keane and Carr before him, one can opt out of national service and, just as easily, indicate one's desire to return. Unfortunately, many Irish footballers don't share some of their heroes' a la carte attitude to representing their country.

To them, "Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion," as elucidated by another wizened man of letters, "but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." Few 20-year-olds, let alone 20-year-old footballers, will ever ruminate upon such concerns but we should be glad that some men still hold such values dear.

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

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