It was enough for the FAI spin machine to hang onto as they hailed a year gone since the 5-2 defeat in Cyprus with only one loss in 11 games. But at the same time, it did nothing to take the sting out of the general public’s current feelings towards Steve Staunton. When his name was called out over the PA system at half-time as the answer to a pre-match trivia question, the response from the crowd varied between a chorus of boos and a shoulder shrug of silence from the 67,000 present.
The saddest part of it all was that the question had been in relation to Staunton’s crowning achievement in Irish football — the 100th cap he gained in playing against Germany during the 2002 World Cup. Listening to the boos on Saturday night made Japan seem a very long time ago indeed. Still, whatever about the public’s feelings for the manager, the players got a huge reception. Maybe it’s the footballing equivalent of supporting the troops but being against the war.
In the end, the match itself boiled down to not very much of anything at all. It was pretty much as uneventful as the scoreline suggests, with only the occasional flash of excitement here and there to liven it up. Robbie Keane could have scored in the first half but was closed down quickly by Jens Lehmann after a clever Andy Reid through ball. But he should have scored early in the second half when, straight through on Jens Lehmann after full-back Stephen Kelly had split the entire German defense with a header from just past halfway, he rushed his effort and lobbed it meekly into the goalkeeper’s grateful hands instead of planting it past him. It was a dithering question mark when the full force of an exclamation point was what was needed.
“I thought the first one was a pretty good save,” said Staunton afterwards of his captain’s two misses. “The ‘keeper narrowed the angle well. Second one I think he thought he was offside and didn’t play to the whistle, which is a cardinal sin. But he knows that.”
Before Staunton had come in to give his verdict to the gathered press, Germany manager Jaochim Low had been before us and when one of the German journalists described the team he had sent out as effectively their “C” team, he didn’t take an offence. This was just a quiet night’s business for them. They had no Michael Ballack, no Bernd Schneider, no Miroslav Klose and no Philippe Lahm. Bastian Schweinsteiger had to go off injured after only 18 minutes, Lucas Podolski didn’t come off the bench until well into the second half. Those six were central to everything Germany did in their run to the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup and none of them made any sort of contribution on Saturday. The Germans were there for the taking; Ireland couldn’t follow through.
“I’m bitterly disappointed,” said Staunton. “I thought we should have won the game. It was a very good performance, especially in the second half. I thought we passed the ball a hell of a lot better. We wanted to keep our record intact here in Croke Park. We know it is not going to be easy on Wednesday night. Cyprus are not a bad side. We know it is going to be difficult.”
The brightest spots were for the most part the work of Reid. Once again the Charlton midfielder was handed the burden of being Ireland’s main creative force and once again he wore it well. More than well, in fact. Twice in the first half he threaded instinctive passes through the German back four that were better than anything anyone on either team had to offer all night. The first, to Andy Keogh, brought a corner; the second, to Keane, drew the aforementioned save out of Jens Lehmann. True, he often looks for a Hollywood ball when it simply isn’t there but Lord knows there are worse crimes than ambition. He took the Man Of The Match award for his efforts.
“To be honest,” he said afterwards, “it’s not about what I do, it’s about what we do as a team, and although we gave a very good account of ourselves and performed well as a team, it’s disappointing that we didn’t win because we felt we dominated the game. I thought we were the more ambitious team. We were the team in the running and the most likely to win the game. We caused them a lot of problems, created a lot of chances; they couldn’t get the ball back off us at times.
“There has been a lot of pessimism floating about and a lot of disappointment. But I think, as a squad, we can be optimistic about the future and we can look forward to the next campaign with our heads held high and give it a good go, as Ireland teams have always done and always will. In my opinion it’s a quite exciting time. I think we’ll be better equipped next time; we have young lads coming through and they’ve got a lot more experience under their belt. We’ve got the nucleus of a good squad. Of course it’s disappointing that we’re not going to qualify, but you can’t regret anything in football. You’ve just got to live for the moment and do the best you can when the game is being played.”
In the end, it was down to Lee Carsley to give the most level-headed verdict on it all. “It’s alright performing against the better teams but we’ve got to go away to teams like Slovakia and Cyprus and beat them, that’s what it’s all about really. It’s been frustrating, but we have something to build on. A lot of players came off the pitch tonight having enjoyed the game, which is something we’ve not done in a while. I’m sure this group of players will have learnt a lot from this campaign.”