Ireland über alles: great time to play good side in a futile fixture

‘Stokes, Gibson and Reid, the wild geese who turned ever more swanlike the longer they didn’t play, will bring spirit with them in spades’

Republic of Ireland interm manager Noel King

Republic of Ireland interm manager Noel King


With evidence of my predictive shortcomings vividly illustrated elsewhere, it would be foolish to place much store in any forecast I might make. But that doesn’t stop the Met Office voodoo-merchants so, for what it’s worth, expect Irish football’s feel-good factor to get jump-started back to life when we take on Germany this Friday.

When you think about it, the circumstances are ideal. The game is mostly meaningless. Germany are already home and hosed in the group, so blase they’ve only got a single forward in their squad. They’re a world superpower, just the kind of opposition to gee-up a plucky underdog supposedly free from restrictive Italian shackles – or a meaningful target – and with a variety of potential new bosses to impress.

In fact it must be short odds about headlines on Saturday morning proclaiming “Noel King for Ireland Job”, despite John Delaney’s declaration that he ain’t in the running. Football is wonderfully myopic like that. A doughty performance in Cologne will have everyone forgetting that in circumstances like these, BB King could stand in the Irish dressingroom, let Lucille do the screaming and everyone would still run out like dervishes.

And the word that will trip off lips easiest of all will be spirit. Irish football will have got its spirit back. No more metronomic Trap dullness. Our players will be spirited again. The ball will get passed around a bit more, obeying the spirit of the game, and how it’s meant to be played.

FAI prevarication

Germany are still a shoo-in to win, but there are few things we relish more in this country than a laudable defeat, especially if a few supposedly wronged heroes show plenty of the right-stuff.

Even if we ignore the fact that team morale never appeared to be an issue under Trapattoni’s tenure – at least for those that turned up – the new-spirit drum will still reverberate, and probably provoke regrets at what might have been if the FAI had grasped the nettle sooner and bulleted Il Capo.

Once more the call will be that with the right spirit, and correct system of play, who knows what might have happened. Maybe Brazil next year, and once there, you never know, you never know. Once you’re in the knockout stages, anything can happen, and remember how far we might have gone in Japan except for the penalty shoot-out with Spain and Keane buggering off – hell, we could have won the damn thing!

And it’s stupid to underestimate the importance of the right spirit within a team. For the duration of both the recent All-Ireland hurling final and its replay, only the most dyed-in-the-wool Rebel couldn’t acknowledge that Clare were much the superior side. If they’d won the first match by 10 points, nobody could have quibbled. In the replay they even upped their performance.

But Cork stuck with them. Through sheer cussedness, an ordinary Cork side managed to keep pace with a much superior Clare team. In fact if it wasn’t for a referee’s inability to tell the time, they would have won it, which would have been daylight robbery, but still showed what can happen if a team’s backbone is in the right place.

However, such cussedness can go only so far, as Cork found out, but a point football’s pundit class often forget when totting up the Irish team’s capabilities. Spirit is important, tactical systems the same, but factoring such attributes into expectations still cannot conceal a fundamental deficit of talent.

How many of the Irish players would make the German team? Would the blessed Wes Hoolahan? Wes isn’t getting his game at Norwich. Arsenal spent €50 million on Mesut Özil. If spirit and tactics could overcome raw skill, then that money would be wasted.

Bargain at €50m

It’s the game’s good fortune that even in this system-obsessed, macrobiotic, endlessly analysed age, it’s starting to look like a bargain.

Expecting players weaned on the bif-bam-get-stuck-into-’em game, to consistently combat superior skill and technique with spirit is really a none-too-subtle variant of the old Jonesy “they-don’t-like-it-up-’em” attitude. That used to work – decades ago.

In case anyone’s missed it, those pesky continentals have toughened up, got stuck into the weights and don’t wet themselves at the sight of a tattoo anymore. And let’s face it, even when everyone else was falling down a lack of resolution was never exactly a German character flaw.

Football’s glory always includes the possibility of the plucky underdog getting the better of more skilled opponents. If it didn’t, it would be a dilettante sideshow. And it’s an admirable trait of most Irish teams that a lack of effort is rarely an issue.

But that should always be a given, in any team. If it isn’t, then it’s a symptom of a deeper problem, like the French during that Hand of God game which is already turning mythical in Irish football tradition but which time increasingly shows was really a reflection of a home team that barely tried a yard.

It’s a good time to be meeting Germany. They might be a bit blase. Maybe spirit will be a factor against them. It can always overcome deficiencies if the other side doesn’t want to know. And Stokes, Gibson and Reid, the wild geese who turned ever more swanlike the longer they didn’t play, will bring spirit with them in spades.

The real question will come beyond Friday and whether or not they also bring the required quality to substantiate inflated expectations.