Chance to lay ghosts of Poznan to rest
The Republic of Ireland return to the scene of last summer’s fiasco
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with John O’Shea during last night’s training session at the Municipal Stadium in Poznan. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Nine o’clock in the evening and Poznan is dark and cold and down on the pitch the Irish team are going through their warm-up drills and chasing away the last of their summer ghosts.
For Robbie Keane and the other survivors of last summer’s nightmarish experience in the European championships, this November visit to Poland must feel like revisiting the scene of a gruesome crime.
“The minute I walked through that door I remembered this room” Keane confessed with a smile, as Martin O’Neill sat by his side in a basement room of the football stadium. A 3-1 against Croatia and 2-0 against Italy are the condensed stories of Ireland’s football history in Poznan, during a fortnight when the Irish made more of an impression in the town square than on the pitch.
After a euphoric opening page of the O’Neill era, this unexpected return to the heart of Poland brought time to reflect on how much has changed how and how quickly.
“Not great memories,” Keane continued. “But that is the past. We are looking forward to playing a good Polish team and it is going to be a different test than Latvia.”
When it was suggested that a win against Poland tonight would help to erase the trauma of those prime time losses – and the rainy lesson handed out by the Spanish in Gdansk – O’Neill peered over the rim of his glasses and said quickly: “There is a fair difference, with respect. One is a friendly game. The other is a big tournament. I am hoping that he doesn’t get it out of his system for a while.”
During another chatty and charming audience with the Derry man, it was a sharp and important point. Poland and Ireland are meeting one another tonight because as football countries, they have a lot of hours to while away now. The celebratory atmosphere at Lansdowne Road the other night was replaced by the more sombre reality of an inconsequential friendly in Poland. O’Neill has the dilemma of finding himself in charge of an excited squad itching for games but with no games to play.
“And I have found the enthusiasm of the players to be really infectious,” he said. “Today was the longest day – to arrive late last night and not have a chance to do anything this morning other than a walk. So we are training this evening.”
That is what happens to teams who miss out on the big tournaments: they go for midwinter walks in pretty Polish towns. O’Neill confirmed his intention to play a different hand this evening, rightly praised the ferocious devotion which Robbie Keane treats his Irish vocation and sounded a little like a weary schoolmaster when he dealt with the minor scandal of James McClean adventures in Twitter-land.
“Yeah. Wasn’t overly pleased. James seemed to enjoy the Twitter and his performance merited one or two tweets from other people saying how well he had done rather than James getting embroiled again.
The whole thing again about the tweeting . . . even before I arrived there was maybe a two- day match ban on the tweeting. I will have a look at it. I am experiencing these things again. I don’t want to be a guru over this social media . . . I just want players to take a bit of responsibility. I sometimes think that players don’t realise – maybe they do and that is my view – that this is a public media and everything you say will be picked up. I have reminded James – but remember, it is a fairly lengthy time since I last mentioned it to him so there had been a lot of tweeting under the bridge since then.”
Out on the pitch
And more besides. Out on the pitch, Roy Keane – who will be delighted to learn he was not the main topic of the evening’s press event – banged a ball into the empty goal mouth where Sean St Ledger scored Ireland’s only goal of the European finals.
In the silence and the fog above the floodlights, it must have been difficult for the players not to remember June of 2012. That bittersweet summer rolled into a troubled qualifying campaign for next year’s World Cup in Brazil. O’Neill admitted that the thoughts of those games may have preyed on the players over the weekend. “There was no sense of low morale,” he said.
O Neill’s arrival – and the sudden return of Keane – has done much to chase away the gloom. “You could see the response,” Robbie Keane said. “The whole nation was very happy. But it is up to the players to get the results to keeping the buzz going.”
Last night, the manager remained in chipper form as he took care of housekeeping, breaking into mischief when asked to speculate on a replacement captain for Robbie Keane.
“John (O’Shea) would spring to mind immediately,” he mused. “But John might not start the game. He might not. In fact, I should have mentioned that to John before I mentioned it to you! Don’t leave this room. He will be here in 10 minutes. Or get James McClean to tweet it.”
Laughter echoed through the empty stadium in Poznan. Irish laughter! A far cry from those chastening nights of two summers ago.