The message was obvious. These are elite athletes and what had happened that afternoon in Croke Park was simply the second leg in a sought-after three in a row. No point getting carried away.
Of course, Sean Og O’hAilpin had shocked onlookers on the morning after the 2004 final by being spotted heading out for a lengthy training run.
These are two anecdotes that illustrate the attitude most serious amateur athletes in Ireland have towards drink these days. What is written about the Cork hurlers in this regard could be equally applied to the footballers of Tyrone and Armagh. Drink has its place, but cannot be allowed to get in the way of the individual’s preparation. How funny then that of all the changes wrought by Steve Staunton in his first week in charge of the Irish team, allowing the players to have a few pints on the Sunday night was deemed so significant.
“We all just need to stick together for once — players, staff, fans and the media — and hopefully we can go in the right direction,” said Damien Duff. “It certainly felt that way on Sunday night. There was more of a relaxed atmosphere. We were allowed to have a pint, and that is kind of relaxing in itself!”
Brian Kerr may have introduced incredibly detailed preparations to the squad but Staunton giving them permission to have a few beers at the Eircom Awards, followed by a nightcap back at the team hotel, appears to have worked far better as a morale booster.
A few people may be a tad uncomfortable with some of the stuff coming out of the new international set-up. When asked if he’d have a problem were Robbie Keane out having a few pints five nights before a big match, the new manager replied: “I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t.”
Perhaps his tongue was in his cheek when he said that but it goes without saying that the manager of any serious All-Ireland contender would drop a hurler or footballer caught out pinting the week of a championship match.
Not to mention that Staunton’s personal choice for man of the match against Sweden — only the most overhyped friendly performance in the history of the Irish team — was Richard Dunne.
Less than four years ago, Dunne was the man who drunkenly walked up to a group of Irish journalists in Saipan, drink in one hand, cigarettes in the other, and lambasted them for questioning his lifestyle and attitude.
Shortly after that, his professional career was almost ended by the fact that his drinking commitments were hampering his ability to train with Manchester City on a daily basis.
It took the intervention of the extremely tolerant Kevin Keegan to save Dunne from alcohol and himself. To the player’s credit, he took the second chance given him, cleaned up his act and should be the defensive bulwark of the Irish side for the next decade. Isn’t it kind of odd though that with such an important member of the squad having already battled a drink problem, the freedom to have a few pints has been deemed so essential to the well-being of his fellow pros?
“I suppose the more you get in the first team, the more free time you get,” said Dunne of his problems. “You finish at 12:30 every day and where do you go? You may go for a game of pool or something, and so you end up having a pint and then you end up having five or six. I would happily go out on a Tuesday night, knowing that I had training on Wednesday. I remember talking to Roy Keane on an international trip ages ago. He was saying that when he got to 31 and beyond he would struggle because of what he had done off the field before he was 25. It took him that long to realize. I tried to take that on board, but it’s hard to change your whole lifestyle overnight.”
With Keane gone from the international picture, it appears the good times are back, at least off the field at the team hotel. Whether Staunton’s laxity towards drink contributes to his players enjoying their time in Ireland squads more and transferring that feel-good factor to the field remains to be seen. What can be said for certain though is that the recent history of Irish soccer is littered with cases where alcohol has been the root of problems and indeed the downfall of gifted individuals. A bright young thing for a few years now, six-times capped Alan Quinn’s most recent headline was typical of the genre.
“We are trying to win promotion to the Premiership and any repeat of the sort of situation Quinn was caught up in would be a step too far from my point of view,” said Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock of the 26 year old Dubliner’s recent arrest for his part in a pub brawl. “So if I can prove the player concerned was out drinking, then I will fine him a fortnight’s wages. No messing, no excuses. We have to take the greatest care of ourselves.”
There is a larger issue at stake here too. The same day the Irish team took on Sweden at Lansdowne Road, the Oireachtas Committee on Community Affairs heard testimony that there are now 200,000 alcoholics in Ireland, the disease now costing the state