Wild Geese willing to answer any club's call
FIFPRO squad must now play waiting game after disappointing tournament
THIS is the edge of the football world. An indoor sports complex in the suburbs of the Norwegian capital on a grey January morning.
While the FIFPRO tournament has noble intentions of finding players employment, there are no attempts to dress it up as a glamorous event.
There are a smattering of camera crews and a handful of curious locals, but this is, essentially, a showcase for the benefit of the row of scouts sitting on a balcony overlooking the artificial pitch.
The 17-man Irish squad know they have to be exceptional to catch the eye. Primarily, the onlookers are here to recruit out-of-work professionals who are flexible to move within the Scandinavian region. Still, there's always a chance, with PFAI officials believing that one or two of their party are capable of turning heads.
Proceedings begin inauspiciously. Ahead of the 10.30 semi-final date with Finland, a PA announcer takes over the volume control. He is working under the impression that Finland and Sweden are kicking off the tournament and reads out their squads for the benefit of the observers upstairs.
On the sideline, Ireland boss Liam O'Brien turns around and angrily corrects the flustered man behind the microphone who duly apologises and lists the Irish panel, finishing up with "their coach, Liam Brady".
The beginning of the game manages to lift the former Irish international's mood. Beforehand, the travelling contingent had noted that the huge pitch would utilise the strengths of the speedy Don Cowan, who recently left English club Stevenage Borough.
On Wednesday, the player agreed, albeit with a caveat. "It could if I get the ball early," he stressed.
He gets his wish when Dean Kelly picks out his run. Cowan collects, bursts into the area and produces a cross shot that finds the net via the inrushing Kelly and a Finnish defender. So far, so good.
The Finns, who oozed confidence beforehand after arriving with a squad packed with U-21 international experience, are temporarily rattled by Cowan, but gradually assume control.
Irish goalkeeper Joe Coll, the dramatic late call-up, is kept busy. The Donegal netminder starts hesitantly before adapting to the task. He can do little about a Finnish equaliser which looks to be offside.
Peter Enckelman, the Finnish goalkeeper best remembered for his time with Aston Villa, admits to the Irish bench that the officials got it wrong.
O'Brien has strong words for his team at the break, warning them that they are allowing the fluid Finnish front-four too much room.
However, the opposition remain the slicker unit. Central midfielder Patrick Byskata, who has been recommended to Shamrock Rovers, is solid in the centre of the park and the DVD will be making its way to Hoops' boss Trevor Croly.
Up front, 22-year-old striker Roope Riski, who has Serie A experience with Cesena, is the stand-out and torments a patched-up Irish rearguard.
He thoroughly deserves his late winner, but the heartbreak for Ireland is that it came from a counter-attack after busy second-half sub Tiernan Mulvenna had struck the crossbar.
Cowan, now limping, misses a late chance to equalise. "Take him off Liamo, he's injured," bellows the ever-vocal Robert Bayly.
Afterwards, there is frustration. Keith Quinn, the younger brother of Irish internationals Alan and Stephen, bemoans the fact that the Finns could switch formation easily.
"We're the same all the way up the age groups, we don't do that," he says, animatedly, pinpointing a traditional Irish flaw.
Patrick O'Shaughnessy, the Finn with an Irish background, is a case in point.
While he is comfortable at centre-half, he is rotated between midfield and attack before winding up at left-back where he does a better job of shackling Cowan than his predecessor.
Norway dismiss Sweden in the second match, which means the latter are Ireland's opposition in the third-fourth place play-off.
After a three-hour rest, O'Brien shuffles the pack and his charges are the better side; poor finishing lets them down.
Mulvenna is twice denied and is so exasperated by one heroic Swedish block that he turns to his own bench the next time he's down that way.
"Did you see that? Who does he think he is, He-Man?"
They don't have superhuman strength in the Irish camp, though. Hamstring injuries cut down some of the more likely lads.
Cowan can barely play any part in the Swedish joust.
Mark Griffin, the ex-Dundalk and Derry striker, came on this trip with expectations of making a big impact. However, he has suffered a strain in training and is unable to show off his undoubted talent. Instead, he wears frustration on his face, slumped on the sideline as the game finished with the inevitability of a scoreless draw and a penalty shoot-out.
Gary Dunphy, whose departure from Waterford United through injury wound up in a messy court case, is the frustrated man in green as his spot-kick is palmed to safety.
Kelly, who did well in both games, converts his spot-kick and so does Quinn, but Coll cannot keep out any of Sweden's three efforts. Ireland finish last.
"Unlucky in both games," sighs O'Brien.
"The second match, we had more than enough chances to win it."
The players shower and change and sit in the canteen area upstairs where they watch Finland win the final and Riski collect the player of the tournament honours. They are uninterrupted by the scouts who have eyes trained on the Finns.
"Any moves?" one Irish voice asks, hopefully. Nobody responds.
Sami Ristila, the former Drogheda United player who now manages KTP in the Finnish second tier, is present to have a look at Conor Powell.
The rest will head back home praying that positive feedback will have filtered to League of Ireland bosses.
"If managers ask about any of the individuals, I'll give my honest opinion," says O'Brien. "They've shown great application to show up for training, without getting paid."
The 49-year-old is open to offers himself. "Unfortunately, I'm unemployed in football," he says. "It's in my blood. I'm in the middle of doing my Pro Licence, so we'll just see what happens. I'm available if somebody wants to speak to me."
Glenn Cronin, who assisted O'Brien as well as playing, should have no problem finding an Airtricity League home.
He is optimistic that the endeavour of the past month will have a happy ending for the tracksuited individuals that moved through Dublin Airport unnoticed when they returned last night.
"These are players that most people would want in their team," he stresses. "People who want to come in, work hard and have the right attitude. I hope everyone gets fixed up."
For now, they're waiting for the call.