THE BOYS IN GREEN Republic of Ireland supporters during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off second leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile
IT’S been a long week. Just as the earth is scorched, so too our plans of another epic summer of road-trips following Mayo. Suddenly, the so-called Super 8’s – which I just realised are actually just called the Super 8’s – are upon everybody else but us. We are the uninvited. It seems like the summer has only started, and it’s already over. Sad face.
And so, to the World Cup. Watching countries somewhat smaller than Ireland progress - and in Croatia’s case possibly win – the competition to end all competitions has been sobering in the context of our national football team and especially the brand of ball we play. Comparisons to similar sized countries such as Croatia may be flawed as there are no competing priorities of hurling and Gaelic football on the Adriatic, but even so, every single one of us grew up kicking ball.
There is a scene in the movie Tropic Thunder that sees Matthew McConaughey’s character lament the inadequacies of his offspring in a conversation with Ben Stiller’s faltering movie star, Tug Speedman. Discussing Tug’s upcoming foray into adoption, McConaughey wistfully says of his stage son : ‘At least you get to choose yours. I’m stuck with mine’. You can imagine Martin O’Neill uttering the same sentiment of his Irish squad over a pint of bitter with, say, Pep Guardiola.
Now, I am far less experienced a father than Martin is a manager, but even I know that if you repeat a negative often enough to a child - or a group of footballers - there’s a good chance they just might start believing it.
Even O’Neill’s compliments fall into the ‘Well, a mongrel can make a good dog’ category of back-handedness. In so many ways his management style perfectly complements our national footballing philosophy as the Anti-Icarus: guilty of anything, it is flying too close to the ground.
Last November against Denmark the biggest mistake Ireland made was scoring a goal. Think about that. The opening few minutes up to that disastrous event had been perfect – leave the Danes have the offensive article that is the football and chaperone them around the field like demented sheep dogs. The longer neither team scored the better. We were looking for the international football equivalent of pitching baseball’s perfect game. Alas, the Danes called our bluff.
Shane Duffy’s goal obliterated the script, removing Ireland from their comfort zone. What followed was a car crash. Danish league players looking like artisans. The greatest fans in the world had enough and sports editors, with heavy hearts, looked long at all the ‘Putin Under Pressure’ headlines they had banked for this Summer before hitting hard delete.
Speaking of Russia, I believe there is a rather soviet solution to our identity crisis. It will probably see me blacklisted and potentially never work in Hollywood again, but I am willing to sacrifice myself if it means we can change for the better.
Brace yourselves, comrades, because you won’t like it; We should nationalize the Republic of Ireland football team. Adopt the IRFU model of selecting only home-based players, for two two-year cycles. Centrally contract 26 of the best League of Ireland footballers. Have them together 45 weeks of the year. Allow job security and pay a decent wage. Tax exempt them. Grant access to the best training facilities and medical support. Enable and invigorate our coaches. Involve Stephen Kenny or John Caulfield or Jimmy McGuinness. Examine the possibility of having this selection compete in the League of Ireland and assuming they win it, expose them to European club football and watch their feathers turn from ugly brown to brilliant white.
When they are not playing one-touch in the National Sports Campus, assign each player one of the 26 counties to cover with school visits and have those same county colours sewn into that player’s socks when they line out against Ronaldo in a crucial qualifier.
In one fell swoop you are eliminating the argument of it not mattering to the players. The excuse of not having enough exposure with the talent is rendered obsolete. There would be no burn-out or fatigue. The FAI would have ample time and space to develop a philosophy and promote it.
What we could have is a united professional bunch of home based players who are more than the sum of their parts. We may get beaten by everybody, but if we do, it’s not being executed correctly. Identify struggling prospects who fled the nest to England and offer them an alternative to the Hunger Games scenario that is the English leagues at present.
How to fund it? A quick review of salaries within senior management of the FAI along with those of our current coaching ticket would provide a starting point.
This should not be viewed as a slight on the current players. Imagining an Irish team without Seamus Coleman may be hard to stomach, but it might be a compromise worth making if it invigorates domestic football and allows kids to realise their dreams without having to sacrifice a fair chunk of their childhood.
Still reading? Well, before you report me to the Committee for Un-Irish Activities, consider where we will be in two years under the current system: probably seven months on from a playoff loss to Greece which was so devastatingly boring the UN will appoint a special envoy to investigate the horror of it all.
Every article written since Denmark could be re-published, as new, with a quick search and replace of names and dates. Nothing else will have changed. I’m reminded of the cover of John Healy’s great lament on emigration; NO ONE SHOUTED STOP! Same thing applies here. We are all saying it. But who is shouting?
There’s only one letter in the alphabet between Ireland and Iceland, but this World Cup month, we are galaxies apart. Call me crazy, but we need to get creative.