The Republic of Ireland: International Football As Tragi-Comedy
Appearances can deceive greatly. On Sunday, I watched my team – who have had such a good start to the season that they are starting to becomeperennially known as “high-flying Kingstonian” – beat Ryman League strugglers Thamesmead Town by a largely expected margin of 4-1. The Thamesmead goalkeeper, the delightfully-named Bob Budd, was responsible for the score. The score not being 8-1 (EIGHT-BLOODY-ONE!!), that is. As I sub-edit the Non-League Paper’s Ryman League Premier Division page, not only am I responsible for all those crap headlines (“Bury buried,” “Rocks rocked” etc…) but I was also ready for Budd’s terrific display of shot-stopping.
His name featured heavily in Mead match reports, and not just from Mead’s own NLP reporter. So his athletic tendency to get in the way of goalbound shots and headers was less disconcerting to me than to many other Ks fans who might have clocked a scruffily-attired keeper and thought, “no wonder they’re bottom,” although, it must be added that despite the combination of terrific goalkeeper and relegation candidature, Mead looked a mid-way decent side. Budd was dressed like a Ray Clemence tribute-act, as in the yellow-shirted keeper who shared England duties with Peter Shilton throughout the mid-to-late 1970s. Budd’s yellow shirt looked faded and fractionally too big for him, giving the unfair impression of a Sunday league goalkeeper.
And I thought of Budd when I first glimpsed Kazakhstan’s goalkeeper Andrei Sidelnikov in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium (yes, I’ve got to the Ireland game at last) on Tuesday evening. He too looked a little too Sunday league for his surroundings. Unfortunately for his team-mates, this was a view only reinforced after kick-off. There are a lot of football fans on my road, not least – and definitely not quietest – my next door neighbours. I could tell exactly what was happening at Wembley by the way ‘next-door’ were shouting “f**k”, which was the extent of their audible vocabulary for the evening. And I knew England had gone one-up because there were enough cheers up and down the road to block out my neighbours’ Anglo-Saxon. In that context, I felt a bit like “The man who…” from the old Punch magazine cartoons, where a general crowd scene would be punctured by one man looking and/or doing something demonstrably out-of-context and, usually, inappropriate. Here was me, in leafy suburban Surrey – real Chelsea territory – “the man who watched Ireland v Kazakhstan.”
England fans will have had no comparative experience of watching their team in a “dead” World Cup qualifier, at least not one where the boys in white have already been knocked out since 1993, 1-0 to San Marino after seven seconds…and all that. Remarkably, Ireland fans have to go back even further – to pre-Jack Charlton days – for such an experience. It was both ghastly and ghostly. If there were 21,000 people at the Aviva on Tuesday night, about a third of them never left the bar (the high-pitch of some of the early chanting suggested the crowd contained a LOT of kids, which never suggests rampant ticket sales). I was among the 19,000 when Ireland beat the Faroe Islands 3-0 in June. And the Aviva looked a good bit fuller that night.
So, Sky co-commentator Ray Houghton’s early suggestion that the Kazakhs were “overawed” by the former Landsdowne Road seemed unlikely at best. He backed this theory up by referring to the stadium as “iconic” – which might have been true of the old place but was stretching it as a definition of its shiny but soulless replacement. Yet it appeared to be true… and not only of Sidelnikov, either. Mostly of him, though. I GENUINELY could have dealt with one early diagonal hoof into the box better than he. He fumbled the ball, dropped it on his foot, nearly did himself an awful mischief trying to atone for his first two errors and then all but threw the ball at Robbie Keane, who was almost certainly too gobsmacked to react by volleying the present into the gaping goal.
The sense of other-worldliness was only heightened by Kazakhstan’s goal, which could not have been more out of context had the ball been laid in the net by a six-foot hen. For a second-and-a-half, Dmitry Shomko thought he was Brazilian goalscoring left-back legend Roberto Carlos. And, fortunately for him, the ball was at his feet at the time. Had there been a fifth official, he’d have been flinching when Shomko’s shot left his left boot. But the ball’s trajectory was Carlos-esque, like that goal the Brazilian got against France, ulp, 15 years ago. 25 yards, quicker than I could look up from notebook-to-TV screen. It may have been set up by a Seamus Coleman air-shot on the edge of his own box (in the stands, Coleman’s club boss Roberto Martinez looked distinctly unimpressed). But footage of that will have found the RTE editing suite floor quick enough. “Great camerawork,” added pundit Niall Quinn at half-time, un-necessarily and often.
However much was right about Shomko’s strike was wrong about Ireland’s penalty equaliser. My fashion tips can be speedily filed under “yeah, right, look at the state of you.” But even I know that if you are going to punch away a back-post corner, as Aleksandr Kislitsyn did, black gloves are not de rigueur, even if it was remotely cold. Although he probably dealt with the cross better than Sidelnikov. Ireland’s second goal all-but-proved that, Richard Dunne’s far-from-bullet header being pat-a-caked away like a mistimed volleyball set, before Sidelnikov joined that elite group of goalkeepers to have let a John O’Shea shot past him. Screaming left-foot volley, too, and actually quite a good finish, even if O’Shea’s manic laughter was an appropriate reaction to the goal.
The second half was a desperate non-event. And the hapless Houghton inadvertently summed up Ireland’s troubled international future when he announced that they were bringing on a “fresh, new face” with 15 minutes left. Ireland had named about 94 substitutes and I quickly scanned the list. No Robbie Brady, alas. James McClean was hardly a fresh face, although he’s have added some ‘oomph’ to proceedings, good or ill. Paul Green… no (in general). I’d just got to Wes Hoolahan (mmm…maybe) when the camera panned to…Aiden McGeady… I wept as I changed channels to check on England (“next-door” had gone quiet, as nerves took hold at Wembley). In fairness, McGeady did well for Ireland’s third goal, providing a pacy assist for…er…Shomko’s second goal of the night. In its own way, this was as skilful as his first, as he broke the record for “keepy-uppy inside your own six-yard box in a competitive international” before volleying home. This denied Robbie Keane his SIXTY-SECOND international goal. A number of these have been penalties or against…ahem…’lesser’ nations (or, like tonight, both). But it is a remarkable record. Still, Houghton’s observation that his penalty “puts him up near Gerd Muller and Miroslav Klose” needed counter-balancing. On the top international goalscorers list, Keane is nine goals behind…Stern John.
Houghton had a miserable night on the microphone. He remains the answer to the question “who put the ball in the Englishmen’s net” thanks to his Euro ’88 looping header in Stuttgart. And his 1994 World Cup finals winner against Italy in New York gave us Terry Phelan’s vein-popping goal-celebration face. But he was a walking commentator’s curse tonight. He kept suggesting that “Kazakhstan are defending deep and seem happy with 2-1” when they were actually breaking forward in numbers, substitute Igor Yurin briefly halting the flow of “is he taking the p**s” thoughts by nearly pinging one in from 25 yards on one occasion. Time and again Houghton exhorted Ireland to “pass the ball quicker,” which was fair enough…until he moaned that “they should have taken their time there” whenever a quick pass was misplaced. Unless my football geography is completely askew, his pleas to left-back Marc Wilson to “turn out” as he struggled to keep possession by the touchline would have resulted in throw-ins every time. And his final words: “McGeady’s won a corner, maybe he’ll give the crowd something to shout about on the way home” were…well, actually quite appropriate. McGeady loused up the corner… and the crowd would certainly have been shouting something about that on the way home.
It was, indeed, an appropriate way to end Ireland’s campaign. A team that had been as difficult to beat as they were to watch under Trapattoni became simply difficult to watch in the closing stages. Had Ireland held on to their 2-1 lead in the 93rd-minute of their home match with Austria in March, they would have come away from their June win over the Faroes second in the group. Interim manager Noel King, who bore a disconcerting resemblance to former Syrian dictator Hafeez Assad (Bashir’s dad) from certain camera angles, was delighted with the win. As he told Sky Sports afterwards, it meant “at least I’m not a dud,” having presided over the comprehensive dismantling in Cologne four days previously. Some commentators punted the line that Germany’s 93rd-minute third goal was “harsh on Ireland.” But that overlooked a stellar display of shot-stopping from keeper David Forde – almost Budd-esque, they’d have said in Thamesmead. And despite King’s refreshingly innocent post-match delight (he knew this was his “fifteen minutes” and he was loving it), a performance that loose against good opposition would have been punished hideously.
The FAI made Steve Staunton manager only nine years ago, so King perhaps shouldn’t rule out keeping the job just yet. But the last experiment with a chirpy Dubliner, Brian Kerr, who’d had success with the Ireland youth set-up, ended grimly. And Kerr was last heard horribly mispronouncing German players’ names on RTE 2FM last Friday (Manuel Newer, anyone?). King selected a number of players who had been discarded by disciplinarian predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, such as Anthony Stokes and Andy Reid. And Reid was clearly man-of-the-match even though midfield colleague James McCarthy got the award. Reid’s transparent lack of pace was still evident even against Kazakhstan and games against better sides, at a less testimonial tempo, might pass him by. But his passing is good enough to build teams around. And the desperately sad injury to Darren Gibson on Tuesday makes Reid more important to his next international boss than ever.
Aside from the two favourites for that job, Mick McCarthy and Martin O’Neill, the options are, ahem, limited. You sensed disappointment in Niall Quinn’s voice when his name wasn’t on the list of bookie’s odds which appeared on-screen as he gave Sky his post-match analysis. Ten-to-one is lousy odds for Roy Keane, not least because he’s so enjoying Adrian Chiles’ company on ITV these days. But Quinn was probably more aghast at the man edging Keane into fourth-favouritism. Gerard Houllier is eight-to-one to be Ireland’s next manager. EIGHT-TO-BLOODY-ONE!!!
We’re on the long road, alright.
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