Divided loyalties, but one thing is certain, emotions will run high

Ireland should register a comfortable win over the Faroe Islands a proud and lovely nation

Giovanni Trapattoni ahead of the game against the Faroe Islands. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Giovanni Trapattoni ahead of the game against the Faroe Islands. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


Tonight’s game is a strange one for me. A friend described it as my first ever personal derby. Two teams playing each other that I never dreamed of managing when I started out. One I followed and loved all my life, the other from a big heap of volcanic rock scattered in the northern Atlantic ocean, but one I learned to love just as much in my few years there.

Emotions, then, will run high.

I only ever managed one team in the League of Ireland, so I never had any divided loyalties. But, tonight, I surely will.

One story I must share with you about football in the Faroes. On a typical breezy, bright summer Saturday in 2009 I watched a second division fixture between Hoyvik and visitors Suduroy, who made the two-hour boat journey to Torshavn.

A tall, strong central midfielder from Suduroy impressed me, I noted his number for checking out in the association office later.

With our assistant coach Abraham Lokin, I attended a youth cup semi-final between two Torshavn rivals, HB and B36, on the following Tuesday night. A real derby, this one.

Lo and behold, my man from Saturday, Heini Vatnsdal, is now playing in the red and black vertical stripes of HB. Not quite AC Milan, but a skilful team nonetheless.

I’m confused. How can a young player play for two different clubs in four days, outside the transfer window? Abraham had the answer. Young players at clubs with no youth teams can play for a different club in youth competitions.

Sensible that, I thought.

Impressed again, I’m flabbergasted when Heini, HB’s best player, is substituted with 20 minutes to go in a tight 0-0 cup game.

Abraham has the answer again. Heini has school in the morning and must catch the 9pm boat tonight to make it home in time!

Catch the boat
It was the first time ever, or since, I’d seen a player substituted so he could catch the boat home for school.

Later, I discovered Heini made that two-hour boat journey, each way, three times a week, to train and play for HB. I frequently used his story as an example of dedication when talking sport.

He progressed to the under-19s, under-21s and, now, the senior squad. He is a likely starter tonight in the absence of captain Frodi Benjaminsen and Hallur Hansson, both suspended.

Every player in the squad has a story almost as remarkable as Heini’s route to the national team. It’s easy for an outsider like me to feel a special bond with such dedication and perseverance.

But I fear for them tonight. Away games against anyone in Europe’s top 30 are usually torrid, damage limitation affairs.

In my own spell we almost pulled off an away result, but for two injury-time goals in Estonia. On other nights we were battered by France, Italy and Slovenia. It was utter dejection, soul destroying. So much preparation, so little return.

So, from an Irish perspective, we should win this game handily. The advantages include playing on a grass pitch, of which there are none now in the Faroes, and the size of the pitch itself, much bigger than any the visitors play on at home.

At least tonight they won’t have to deal with a passionate packed stadium or an atmosphere that will choke their endeavour. That little comfort and their massive spirit gives the Faroes some hope.

Typically, the plan for the Faroes is always to try to adapt to the pace of the opposition and the tempo of the game without conceding a goal in the first 20 minutes. This they managed to do against Germany, and eventually went down with respect, just 3-0 there. Gunnar Nielsen was outstanding – have a look at some of his saves on YouTube for a treat.

Open up Faroes
In Austria, though, they were 2-0 down early on and lost 6-0 by the end. And if the Republic of Ireland play with the pace they’re capable of, using the full width of the pitch, and switching the play consistently, I expect them to open up the Faroes’ resistance regularly and win comfortably too.

While Simon Cox always looks out of place to me playing wide, his floating inside to support Jon Walters and Robbie Keane will allow Séamus Coleman to attack the space and width provided to him.

On the other side, Marc Wilson, who scored a crucial goal in Torshavn, will have lots of freedom and his link with Aiden McGeady should provide a supply for Walters, Keane and Cox to score the goals expected.

The Faroes midfield is unlikely to provide a true test of Wes Hoolahan’s ability to control the game, but we know he’s still very much on trial with Giovanni Trapattoni, the coach’s reluctance to praise him after Sunday’s easy win confirming that.

So, he needs to play well and find more of those beautiful passes that set up James McClean’s cross for Cox’s goal against Georgia. But when it comes to Sweden and Austria, I doubt the manager will trust him to start. Sadly.

A last story. After the October game in Torshavn, I returned to my hotel and the girl at the reception desk handed me a beautifully wrapped gift.

When I opened it up I discovered a gorgeous woollen Faroes scarf had been left by the parents of Pol Johannus Justinussen, with a note thanking me for my contribution to their son’s development and the opportunities I gave him.

Sadly, Pol scored an own goal that night, but for the lingering generosity of his parents and the many others who allowed me to be part of their wonderful and special world for a while, I sincerely hope they emerge from tonight’s game with honour.

The dedication of Heini and all the rest deserve that at least.

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