I’M GETTING OLD – EPISODE 94. I wasn’t looking at the TV when Marian Pahars’ name was first mentioned. But the memories were instant.Into the mind’s eye came the diminutive “Latvian Michael Owen” (which dates the reminiscence) being submerged by fans at The Dell (which dates it again) as he celebrated his first Southampton goal. “Who’s he playing for now?” I thought, as my eyes turned screen-wards to see new Ireland boss Martin O’Neill greeting a slightly crumpled little middle-aged man in a slightly crumpled little middle-aged suit. “Marian Pahars, the new Latvian coach,” the Sky TV commentator said. And I died a little inside.
Pahars was in charge of a Latvian side so poor even Sky’s Ray Houghton said so, live on-air – not how Sky co-commentators are supposed to promote their ‘product.’ As such, they were ideal opposition for the dawning of a new era in Irish international football – akin to the “cannon-fodder” opposition which, in boxing, is given to a successful amateur for his first fight as a pro. To be fair, O’Neill’s (& Roy Keane’s) Ireland could have done almost nothing more than they did against the Latvians – convincingly beat them with a bit of a swagger. If the latter stages of Ireland’s 0-0 draw in Poland could have been a straight lift from the Giovanni Trapattoni era, there was still plenty of long-missing verve about the earlier stages in Poznan. And if O’Neill/Keane never achieve anything else in their international careers, they have at least added a new phrase to football’s lexicon – “Paul Green was Ireland’s man-of-the-match tonight,” certainly not a sentence I’ve ever contemplated typing before.
Keen observers – jeez, I didn’t notice that pun until I typed it out… sorry – of the new Ireland bench at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium had one immediate question: “Who’s the white-haired fella doing all the talking?” It was a question that appeared to vex many newspaper photo caption-writers too (hello Belfast Telegraph); or else they deemed goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh (for it was he) not famous enough for a namecheck in this ‘new’ Ireland. McDonagh was probably so involved in general discussions because he had precious little Irish goalkeeping to coach. Just about every Aviva Stadium ball-boy will have had a busier night than Irish custodian Keiron Westwood. But at the other end, the team started with a zip. James McClean flitted around even more like a blue-arsed fly than usual and even got in some crosses which were dangerous to more than just the nether regions of the nearest defender. And Aiden McGeady looked like an international player at times.
The crowd was the largest 37,100 crowd I’ve ever seen (double-vision Darragh must have done a shift or two in the ticket office). And there was the potential for early confusion in the ranks when Robbie Keane opened the scoring, with “there’s only one Keano” temporarily off the songsheet; at least until Robbie calls it quits (or Roy storms off again). There was never any real danger of Ireland rueing the missed chances which followed. If Latvia have a “new Marian Pahars” in their squad he was an unused substitute, or sat at home. But in one way it was a relief that Ireland waited so long to make it 2-0, as it spared us the…Roy Keane smile.
ITV’s Euro 2012 coverage ended with the camera panning out from the TV studio as Keane turned to reveal the sort of semi-crazed smile that could serve as an enigmatic ending to a horror film (I have genuinely just shivered at the recall of it). And after McGeady fired in Ireland’s second goal, that smile appeared again, though fortunately not straight to camera, otherwise watching kids would have had nightmares. Disconcerting, nonetheless, and some price to pay for any future success. Ireland fans hoping for free-flowing football in the new era clearly never watched, or didn’t remember properly, O’Neill’s…erm…”muscular” Celtic teams. Realistic hopes should probably be limited to Ireland flowing freer than Trap’s teams.
However, their third goal against Latvia had a touch of class to it, John Walters momentarily mutating into Johnny Giles and setting Seamus Coleman free to give Shane Long a tap-in. The Poland game provided a quick and easy method of keeping feet on ground, however. A much-changed Ireland were the better side, despite a return to “difficult to beat, difficult to watch” mode, until O’Neill replaced midfielder James McCarthy with young defender Alex Pearce. The change was borne of O’Neill’s entirely proper wish to give every available outfield player a run-out (or, to use the modern vernacular, “some game time”) and it was a bit of a disaster. Indeed, the final 20 minutes could have been shoe-horned into any DVD of the Trapattoni era without detection.
Fortunately, Poland had just replaced star man Robert Lewandowski. Their subsequent dominance produced few openings. And the game was ultimately more memorable for two incidents which produced only yellow cards from a referee who clearly didn’t think the extra paperwork involved with dismissals was worth it for such a game. The first was a farcical handball by John O’Shea – who had just replaced the injured Sean St Ledger and never looked more like Paddy McGuinness off the telly… only funny. The second was a knee-high studs-up flying tackle from Poland’s Michal Pazdan, which seemed to suggest that Jonathan Walters’ patella is made of reinforced concrete.
Setanta Ireland’s pundits and commentators sounded like they were under orders to be upbeat, which was an intonation mountain to climb for someone with as thick a Dublin accent as Curtis Fleming. But even they had to admit that it was a “scrappy” affair and Ireland were a work in progress “in its early stages.” All that said, I have not entirely been put off the idea of heading for the 5th March friendly against Serbia. The “O’Neill factor” already appears to be a factor. And players such as Hull wideman Robbie Brady could well thrive under his tutelage. The Serbia game precedes Roy Keane’s trek round the League of Ireland which was promised by FAI Chief John Delaney when Keane was appointed, in search of “hidden” talent – the LOI being a summer league these days. But I suspect that might not matter greatly just yet.
By March, Ireland will know their Euro 2016 qualifying group opponents. And, presumably by a quirk of Trap’s famed difficulty to beat, Ireland appear to be on the list of second-seeds, alongside, among others…erm…Belgium. At this rate, the Henri Delaunay Trophy should be renamed the Henry Delaney Trophy and presented to Ireland forthwith. At least before Roy Keane starts smiling again…
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