Front line with no forward thinking


Credit, first of all, where credit is due. In Lisbon on Saturday night we weren't just jammy, we were jam itself and it was journalism not football which emerged as the real winner. This past week the courageous war reporting of the Evening Herald has been an inspiration to us all and will remain so long after Matt Holland's flukey tap-in is forgotten.

Viva la fourth estate comrades! Viva!

What a strange game. We sat in the dazzling fishbowl that is the press box high in the otherwise crumbling Stadium of Light, and inside we were deprived of all atmosphere save that emanating the over-caffeinated local radio commentators. We watched as the Portuguese pawed us and turned us over and then sniffed us to see if we were dead. By the time Conceicao set the radio man in front of us alight ("Sergio Sergio SERGIO!!!! CONC-SAY-SOW!!! OOOOOOOOOOooooooooooolllllllllll!!!), it seemed as official as a coroner's report. We were deceased and ready for consumption. Dead meat.

Our resurrection was an unlikely end to a bizarre football week. Did we deserve it? On the night? Maybe. In the context of the last few years? Definitely. One of the truths of Mick McCarthy's reign has been that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Late in the second half usually.

Truth, as the Herald would remind us, is the first casualty in war and I would be quick to admit that last Tuesday when Niall Quinn annexed Stephen Carr at training and then partitioned him into two separate statelets run by puppet governments, well, I said nothing. That's Quinny for ya I thought, hoping that it was an isolated incident. "All quiet on the western front?" asked the sports editor in a message brought to the front by pigeon. "Nope" I said in a return by chicken.

Luck has had us on hold for quite some time while it's been dealing with other customers. Even last month in Holland Mick McCarthy made three rational substitutions only for each of them to go off like landmines.

We went into Lisbon with a subs bench which looked as weak as any we can have fielded in history. How many of them would we have picked out of a police line-up? How many would we have wanted to pick out? Swapping hope for height when we introduced Matt Holland for Niall Quinn seemed like a sensible option given the pressure the central defence had been coming under. At first.

Holland, the fall guy in a previous late cameo role, sat back patiently until such time as the ball was swept across that area and then back into our net.

Luck told us to stop licking out those pots in sorrow's kitchen just then. Holland announced unilaterally that all bets were off. Damien Duff's strangely sprightly slouch bought us some breathing space. Enough indeed for the mesmerised Portuguese to stand off uncharacteristically when Holland was fed the ball for the wonder goal. We went from the cold first feel of the filleting knife to being thrown back in the water.

Tensions in the region had been high all week of course. Alan Kelly put himself on a war footing at 0700 hours on Thursday after Richard Dunne declared himself to be a military junta. By then Dunne had already imposed martial law and a curfew on Gary Breen. Breen, who describes himself as a sunny island paradise with a long tradition of neutrality, had previously seen that neutrality violated when Curtis Fleming published an open letter in the Herald warning that anyone caught in the Breen region was subject to arrest and imprisonment.

At the airport yesterday, Mick McCarthy stressed again that two points squeezed somehow out of two hideously unattractive away fixtures means nothing unless his team tramples on Estonia, Andorra and Cyprus in both their home and away fixtures. There is a hideous amount of work to be done before we get to the endgame stages entertaining the Dutch and then the Cypriots at Lansdowne Road next Autumn. The team which looks settled these past two games is an organic thing which can only get stronger when Kenny Cunningham returns from injury and Stephen McPhail's fragile body and developing skill render him unignorable. The World Cup seems a long way off, but in terms of journeys of 1,000 miles, these were two worthwhile first steps.

There were ugly skirmishes last night on the border area between Mark Kinsella's hotel room and Kevin Kilbane's hotel room, and a peacekeeping force from the UN has to be installed.

Mick Byrne made an unlikely speech vis a vis the midfield to the effect that he would fight them on the beaches and he would fight them on the trenches. Those sentiments were later criticised by Boutros Boutros Ghali.

As for Roy and Mick? Who knows what Roy Keane's private thoughts on Mick McCarthy are or vice versa. The point is that Keane turns up and plays hard and takes his responsibilities as captain seriously. As a player he is better than anything we have and has experienced more than anyone else while working with one of the world's great managers. If he has thoughts on the way things should be done (and as one of the brightest players in the Premiership he undoubtedly has) Mick McCarthy has given him the forum from which to express those ideas.

On big international weekends the treatment rooms of football clubs and the first class lounges of airports are filled with superstars who have spat the dummy from the pram and decided they weren't going to play for their country anymore thanks very much. Roy Keane comes and he works and he inspires and he plays within the system which Mick McCarthy lays out.

Pretty much everything else is mischievous surmise.

Meanwhile, in one of the most moving scenes of this war-stained week, Damien Duff went among the warring factions distributing flowers, urging the recipients to make love not war. A powerful message. Who could have been unmoved by the scenes as the world stood still and watched the brave flower child from Ballyboden approach Roy Keane and lay an attractive and colourful sunflower behind Keano's ear.

From great horrors are such moments of beauty snatched.

"War? War? What is it good for?" we asked Mick McCarthy at yesterday's press conference.

"Absolutely nothin," he replied gruffly, adjusting his bulletproofs in the heat.