Irish football fantastists top of the world league for arrogance

World-class ambition is fine. But the expectations towards Irish football are delusional

It's no surprise Martin O'Neill may be tempted to return to club management in England. The Premier League is a playpen in many ways. But it can look like an oasis of sanity compared to the Irish football incubator. For his own sake O'Neill might be as well out of it.

Jack Charlton, one of O'Neill's predecessors as the Ireland team manager, is credited with developing national self-confidence. Precisely identifying the point when that confidence tipped into arrogance is difficult. But it's safe to say Irish football has long passed it.

Underpinning the continuing fallout from the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is this bewildering sense of entitlement. Confidence is contagious. But in Ireland so it seems is the fantasy that we are somehow better than this.

That isn’t settling for mediocrity or wallowing in self-loathing or any other variety of the cod-psychological “who we are” jargon that has peppered the country for the last fortnight.


But this latest deluge of national navel-gazing – with O’Neill firmly in the firing line – is yet more evidence of the delusional expectations within Irish football which have long since reduced perspective to rubble.

The idea of non-qualification not being good enough is a conceit usually confined to first-world powers, those countries that go to major tournaments with realistic expectations of winning them. It’s why Italian and Dutch football are very solemn environments right now.

First-world applecart

Not making finals can make for introspection too among nations in the tier just below, countries capable of persuading themselves that if everything goes perfectly they might just have a chance of upsetting the first-world applecart.

These are countries that mirror much of the rest of the world in having football as their central national sporting obsession. Even so it’s hard to believe their post-mortems plumb the same colon-scouring levels as they do here.

Soccer isn’t even Ireland’s top sporting preference in comparison to Gaelic games and the domestic league here is little more than a sideshow. That’s a context which actually makes Ireland’s record as over-achievers through the last three decades even more remarkable.

It is a record built on spirited teams, properly organised, with a light sprinkling of quality players, and a playing style to unnerve the opposition. You’d think there’d be no need for national self-flagellation when that’s not enough. But popular demand has grown far higher than that.

Instead, Ireland, a third-rate football power with a fourth rank domestic league that fields mostly second-tier players is expected to deliver first-rate results. And in style too.

World-class ambition is fine. But the one true consistently world-class element to Irish football is some of the b******t swirling around it.

Scotland has a bigger population than Ireland, and a history of football ascendancy at the top of is national priorities. Yet it’s two decades since Scotland made a finals. Welsh football has to compete with rugby and has made the finals of two tournaments – ever.

Finland has a similar population to Ireland and snowy alternatives for its sporting talent. It has never made the finals of anything. Norway, with much the same fascination and links to the British game that we have, has made just two finals, the last of which was nearly 20 years ago.

These countries can hardly be alone in enviously looking at Ireland’s “failure” and being baffled at the gaping discrepancy between reality and expectations here, the most obvious example of which remains this tired old debate about playing style.

From Charlton, through Mick McCarthy, Giovanni Trapattoni and now O’Neill, various Irish management teams have examined the resources available to them and concluded, to various degrees, their best chance is a tactical approach more scrappy than stylish.

The outcome has been prolonged periods when watching the Irish team play has been an endurance test, often exceeded in tedium only by endless speculation as to how much better our players would be if encouraged to exhibit their more aesthetic side.

So we have a specific situation where Wes Hoolahan is just the latest Irish creative talent supposedly stifled by a cautious management afraid to back ambition over fear.

Misunderstood genius

It is perfectly possible to both acknowledge Hoolahan’s passing ability and point out how he plays for Norwich. In a game where talent is a valuable commodity, and gems hidden under bushels are rare, that is the football world’s stark summation of our misunderstood genius.

However it’s just one element to a general sense of the rest of the world somehow being out of step when it comes to examination of the Irish team. It’s a sense which has persistently run through much of the public narrative in relation to management over the years.

Charlton was a one-off in many ways, including in his more agricultural football instincts. But he was hardly alone in identifying the methods which would be the most effective for Ireland.

Trapattoni coldly examined what he had to work with and came to the same conclusion. For his pains one of Italy's greatest football figures, that man who moulded Juventus into European champions, got portrayed as a throwback.

O’Neill boasts an expert football pedigree too, also concluded that route-one was their best option, and like Trapattoni has got Ireland to European finals and a World Cup play-off game. And like him, he has come under fire for being some football Neanderthal.

Parse it down and the only logical conclusion can be that they’re all wrong. Every single one. Somehow none of them could identify and properly utilise the jewels available to them. They’re flannel merchants.

Only an atmosphere airtight to proportion can arrogantly nurture a theory that it’s the whole world which is out of step and not us. But that’s the Irish football team for you.