Melancholic songs fitting for the end of an era


SIDELINE CUT:Within a decade, teams like Spain have clearly moved light years beyond the Irish level and the party, which started all those years ago when Gary Mackay heralded the fantasy of Euro ’88, is clearly over, writes KEITH DUGGAN

THE LAST chorus of The Fields of Athenry was still drifting over the stadium in Gdansk when Roy Keane’s comments on the whole affair began to appear on Twitter pages. As ever, the Cork man managed to split opinion and you could hear plenty of choice insults on the trams on the way home.

Keane was just being consistent with what he has always said. He has never believed Ireland should be there just to make up the numbers and it was easy to see why the melancholy ovation at the end of a 4-0 humiliation would annoy him.

On one level, there was something pitiful about the whole thing and the ghost of the competitor in Keane will rail at the idea of the Spanish applauding the innocence of the spectacle. It was definitely the most sentimental rendition of any song since the Baltimore crew sang Body of an American for McNulty in the final episode of the The Wire.

The tens of thousands of Irish fans did their best to steal the show and to make their show of undying loyalty the official stamp of the night. And they may well have succeeded.

The Spaniards were respectful, said the right things and probably found it a bit confusing. After all, the Irish players had been toyed with on the football field. Funereal silence was surely the only appropriate sound for serious football fans? The 4-0 drubbing marked Ireland’s worst night on a football field for four decades and will probably bother Giovanni Trapattoni a lot more than he will ever publicly admit.

The gulf between the rampantly optimistic fan base which follows Ireland on tournament jaunts and actual ability was cruelly exposed by Spain.

But still, what were the Irish fans supposed to do on the night? Boo a team that has ran itself ragged? Start a riot? Their gesture was fond and beery but it was genuine. And it may well serve as the curtain fall for Ireland’s wonderland relationship with international football tournaments.

Keane himself is a perfect example of the many ways in which Irish footballers emerge more through persistence than any grand plan.

Would the world have ever heard of the Mayfield man had it not been for his own ferocious determination to cut it as a football player? In retrospect, the story of how Keane wrote faithfully to England’s football clubs reads like one of those fated stories.

But imagine him as he was then, carefully writing the addresses of those fabled clubs on envelopes without anything but his inner drive to help him to believe that he would one day walk through their gates. He could so easily have been lost to the game. Even after he became the most commanding central midfielder in the European game, he never forgot the slights he had absorbed as an underage player on the fringes of the Irish youth system. Keane, like many great athletes, used the anger of those early rejections and knocks to push himself. But he was an exception: many others fold or quit or just lose interest when their potential went unnoticed.

Keane made it despite the prevailing system, not because of it. Or take Robbie Keane, one of the thousands of Irish children caught up in the fabulousness of Italia ’90.

How many youngsters kicked football on the streets of Tallaght during that fortnight?

Robbie might have been quicker and craftier and tougher than the rest but if he casts his mind back he will probably remember one or two other kids who had just as much moxie as he did – but maybe not the cold single-minded ambition and opportunism to keep on improving after the crowd had gone indoors to watch television.

And of course Keane benefited from the coaching in his clubs and later, in the Irish youths sides headed by Brian Kerr. Keane was the sharpest of the handful that made it through. They were on the field in Gdansk on Thursday night. It was the best we had against the best in the world and it was tough to see proud men like Richard Dunne and Damien Duff and Shay Given humbled like that.

How many Irish players from any era of Irish football would, in their prime, have made it on to that Spain team? Keane himself? Paul McGrath? John Giles? Just a few. That was what Ireland was up against.

And yet, and yet.

It is only a decade since Ireland played Spain in the second round of the World Cup. They lost on penalties and would have most likely won had Roy Keane played. In the ten years since then, the Irish team have descended to ordinariness, embodying the ethos of a full-hearted English club side.

And Spain have clearly moved light years beyond the Irish level.

There are obvious reasons for this – population and football’s cultural importance in Spain leaves the odds absurdly tilted in their favour when it comes to producing better teams. But for years, when it was 11 against 11, Irish teams have managed to make a fight of it against countries with superior set-ups.

Last night there was no fight. Michael Robinson’s cutting jibe – that the match would be like Muhammad Ali fighting a dwarf – seemed like a smartass line from a television man.

But after Fabregas wheeled away after scoring Spain’s fourth – declining the celebration – you had to think that Robinson was being unfair on the dwarf in question.

The talking points from the game will rumble on. Whether Trapattoni should have started Cox; whether he was too loyal to Robbie Keane; whether or not the players suffered from stage fright is so much hot air.

Maybe Trapattoni was too successful in communicating his belief that the Irish had to rely on his system to make up for their limited creativity and technique. When faced with the tornado of invention and creativity which Spain became on Thursday night, it was as if the Irish felt that they had nothing with which to respond. What are Duff and McGeady about if it is not creativity?

Perhaps Trapattoni should have spoken a bit more flatteringly about the skills of his players as well as their heart and courage. It couldn’t have hurt to have emboldened them a little more.

Thursday night was extreme. Even with the splendid youth system in Spain, they cannot guarantee that they will produce players like Iniesta or Xavi every generation. The year will probably come when Spain once more fields an ordinary team. If so, it will still be the end product of rigorous scouting and coaching and investment.

Ireland meanwhile, continues to try and field two international football teams from one small island and can point to those improbably magisterial occasions – Gerry against Espana in ’82, Ray against Italy in ’94, – as proof that when those green shirts go on, giants fall.

But it ain’t necessarily so. Spain’s aesthetically perfect lecture on where Irish football is at proved one thing. You can’t will those magic nights into being. You can’t sing and wish-believe Irish wins.

That is what Roy Keane was driving at in the television studio in Warsaw the other night.

The party which started all those years ago when Gary Mackay dropped Ireland into the fantasy of Euro ’88 is over.

Football is moving at lightning pace. The big question now is what can be done to make sure that the tomorrow’s Irish players have a fighting chance of living with the pace.

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