Dundalk’s success shines unkind light on long-ball Ireland
It says much about international football that League of Ireland fans are on high ground
Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan have been called up to the Republic of Ireland squad. Photograph: Mikhail Kireev/Inpho
The run-in to the Republic Of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying game against Austria will contain familiar debates about philosophy. It is basically a lot of grandiose shaping about how watching the international side can be a giant bore in terms of football style. What’s different is how the League Of Ireland is clambering on to the aesthetic high-ground, looking down from below at their supposed betters.
Even the most fanatical League of Ireland fan must concede the international game remains above the domestic league in the pecking order. But on the back of Dundalk’s European exploits there is a new assertiveness about how a lot of the football being played at home is actually in a different league to the long-ball endurance test which watching Ireland’s matches so often is.
And if you’re Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, it says a lot about the quality of fare your team is serving up if it provokes condescension from the League of Ireland.
It has long been a playpen for that seam of football fanatic convinced of its local righteousness. These are the supposed ‘real’ fans, scornful of ‘fly by nights’ travelling cross-channel to watch Premier League sides, eager to be offended when presented with the reality that the League of Ireland is mostly a consolatory safety net for players who’ve fallen out of English football or a trampoline for youngsters desperate to ultimately make it across the water.
Evidence of that ‘bounce factor’ is ample in the ranks of those in the national squad who have played at League of Ireland level and then moved to the UK. What’s new is the stridency behind claims that players shouldn’t have to make that move in order to figure in national team considerations. It can be no coincidence that Dundalk’s Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle are included in the squad for the Austrian game.
This has long been a bugbear for League of Ireland enthusiasts. Failure to consider home-based players has fed a grudge that football here is blackguarded, a misunderstood gem undiscovered by those too lazy to appreciate it or conditioned to think proper football only occurs across the Irish Sea. What’s even more new is how it can’t automatically be dismissed as another of the League of Ireland’s assorted shoulder chips.
Dundalk’s progress in the Europa League is one reason. Literal form lines can make for shaky reasoning, especially in an era when defensive organisation is de rigueur. But it’s stupid to ignore the line which has Dundalk’s Champions League conquerors, Legia Warsaw, forcing Real Madrid into a desperate draw last week: or how the Irish champions have had a side like Zenit stretching every sinew to win their Europa League clashes.
Just as relevant though is how they’ve done so; playing a mostly passing game in which players are trusted to show wit, the opposite of what Irish football is noted for, that whole fighting spirit, long-balls-up- to-the-big-lad bit. It is notably refreshing, and it has been notably successful. And it adds even more fuel to the fire about how the national team goes about its business of World Cup qualification.
The Dundalk manager, Stephen Kenny, takes a lot of credit for implementing the courage of his convictions and he hasn’t shied from expressing them either. It’s not so long since he dismissed as “nonsense” the comments of the former international Richard Dunne about a rudimentary style being the most effective way for Irish sides to play.
This new local confidence was also noticeable in comments by the Derry manager, Kenny Shiels, who described the standard of international football as “diabolical”, undoubtedly a touch of hyperbole although hardly an outrageous example by football standards given what our own international side serves up sometimes.
It certainly reflects a general surge in proselytising fervour about the standard of League of Ireland soccer generally. But while such confidence is great, the reality is almost certainly that little is going to change in terms of the public’s generally ambivalent attitude to the game on their doorstep.
That Boyle is being linked with a move to Barnsley, and Horgan is presumed to eventually move to England’s second-tier too, underlines how nothing has changed in terms of where the big party is hosted, no matter how pretty the patterns of play here. It’s akin to the chance of a promising steeplechaser appearing at Thurles; its fine but it doesn’t stop Cheltenham continuing to be where it counts.
What’s interesting though is how a combination of cross-channel flops and cross-channel wannabes are competing and succeeding at a European level most of their supposed cross-channel betters are not even close to, and are doing so playing football that is both pretty and effective.
Where does that leave the national team and the assurance from so many quarters over the years that ‘bite-and-bollock’ rather than ‘pass-and-move’ is its best route to success? Playing attractive football for the sake of it is no use to anyone. But it’s tough to argue with when it is effective too.
Over the years the instincts of a distinguished list of football luminaries have leaned towards Irish players not being up to such a combination. O’Neill and Keane – products themselves of domestic league football – appear to agree with Charlton and Trapattoni in instinctively favouring long-ball tactics that often do succeed but at considerable aesthetic cost to those of us watching. Has there been a cost in efficacy too?
It’s hard to reconcile such assorted football pedigrees and the idea that they can all been wrong. But this is also a game which incubates credos of received wisdom that are often strong on jargon yet short on substance. So it’s hard to know what to think. After all, who’d ever have thought the League of Ireland would aspire to being the beautiful game?