Admittedly, we’re not that good, certainly not as battle-hardened as some of the sides that played during the 1990s, and admittedly, our beleaguered coach Steve Staunton was without several injured players, but to lose to Cyprus, in such a disgraceful manner last Saturday, is unacceptable.
A semblance of credibility might be restored in today’s game against the Czech Republic, who are vastly superior to the Cypriots; in Dublin, however, it’s just as possible that the situation could be even more grave. For this column’s money, qualification for the 2008 European Championships is now out of the question anyway.
There were two ways of looking at Staunton’s first competitive game as manager in Germany last month. Either it was a brave 1-0 defeat, against a country which had finished third in the recent World Cup, or else the scoreline was deceptive, and if it hadn’t been for the excellence of Shay Given in goal, Ireland would have been hammered.
So, it was either a performance full of promise, or one that papered over a whole series of cracks. On the evidence of the embarrassing shambles in Nicosia last weekend, the latter theory gets a unanimous vote.
No one could remember an Irish side in living memory so headless and disorganized. The best moment came early when the newcomer in midfield, Stephen Ireland, scored, but from then on it was downhill fast. It was so bad, Ireland looked like a pub team playing Brazil.
Mysteriously, after Cyprus had scored twice against a non-existent defense, it was somehow 2-2 at the interval with Richard Dunne’s headed goal giving Ireland a reprieve they didn’t deserve. You expected the half-time talk to bring stability and focus, but if anything, Ireland were worse afterwards conceding three more goals to the home team who were able to showboat for the last 10 minutes or so.
The result was an indictment of a hopelessly inexperienced coach, and of a team that should be hanging its head in shame. Staunton would later reveal, in one of his blinding asides, that as an international manager, he wasn’t able to “go out and buy players”. Someone suggested “I wasn’t able to buy players” might be his epitaph.
Staunton’s assistant, Kevin MacDonald, referred to the 5-2 disaster, as “a kick in the bollocks basically.” Presumably, the 2,000 or so Irish fans who made the trip to Cyprus were left wondering who had actually received the kick.
With the ink still wet on a four-year contract with the FAI, Staunton will no doubt be left to blunder on for a while. With his mentor, Bobby Robson, recovering from a serious illness, there have been calls for the former Liverpool and Scotland great, Kenny Dalglish, to be brought in as an advisor.
“I know in the long run, everything will be okay,” added Staunton. No one on and off the pitch shares his confidence.
look to Micko
He might have hung up his boots in the 1980s when Kerry football had reached the end of a golden cycle, but he transferred to Kildare, left and came back again, then he went to Laois, and now he has laid his hat in Wicklow. At 70, Mick O’Dwyer simply goes on, and on.
As a player and manager, he is the GAA’s living representation of longevity. For almost 55 years, he has been competing on and off the pitch. O’Dwyer never needed to be an alchemist in Kerry, and to an extent he inherited talent in both Kildare and Laois where he won provincial titles and went close to an All Ireland. But Wicklow?
If you buy into rankings, only London in 32nd and last place are below the Leinster county at present. Wicklow have failed to win a single championship game since 2000, or an All Ireland qualifier since 2002. This time, O’Dwyer will begin his work with base metals.
Not surprisingly, O’Dwyer’s appointment coincided with an announcement by the Wicklow County Board that it had secured a lucrative three-year sponsorship deal with Ballymore Properties, a company owned by the millionaire businessman Sean Mulryan.
Coming hard on the heels of GAA president Nickey Brennan’s widely held belief that the association is riddled with illegal payments to managers, O’Dwyer was asked if he was lured to Wicklow by the promise of untold riches.
“Well, I suppose the general consensus out there it that this is all about money. Like, ‘What’s he getting now by going to Wicklow?’ But the GAA should be more interested in promoting the games in the weaker counties than worrying about rumors. If you can get good men into counties to take over teams, what’s wrong with that?
“I’m in this game because I love it. I’m addicted to the game, it’s in my blood, and I can’t get away from it to be honest. I just couldn’t find myself in Waterville doing nothing. So you can talk about money, and making money from the game, but I can assure if I put the same time into any business, then I’d be an exceptionally wealthy man.”
So, the cynical view is that O’Dwyer might be feathering his nest with one last throw of the managerial dice, but in all of his sideline incarnations, he has never failed to inject enthusiasm into teams. And one thing is for certain, the player turnout for his first training session will set a new mark in the county.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win a provincial title or anything like it, but I can assure you we’ll improve the standard of football in Wicklow,” O’Dwyer said. “It’s a big challenge of course, but there are good footballers in Wicklow. They have hands and legs and a head the same as any player in Dublin and Kerry, or wherever. It’s all about commitment, and if we get the right commitment, there’s no doubt we’ll put up a good show.”
Wicklow is one of only two counties – Fermanagh is the other – which has never won a provincial football title. No title, but for the moment, Wicklow has a trophy.
Tix mania attests
to new rugby boom
Not so long ago, you couldn’t give away a ticket for a rugby game between Leinster and Munster. In fact, there was so little interest in the fixture, there wasn’t any need to print tickets in the first place.
But last Friday, a full hour and 10 minutes before kick-off, there were people queuing for tickets to watch the confrontation between the two provinces all down Lansdowne Road. Around 14,000 seats had been sold on line, and about another 2,000 supporters were expected to pay in on the night of the game. In the end, the attendance was over 27,000.
Now, that mightn’t be a big deal by U.S. standards, and the GAA frequently draws big crowds for club matches, but Ireland’s domestic rugby boom is a phenomenon.
Traditionally, there has always been a premium on international games – with tickets for Ireland-England clashes often changing hands for five or six times the market value – and of late, the European Cup has proved to be a major draw, but this match at Lansdowne Road happened to be a lowly Celtic League fixture.
If there has always been a hard-core support for Munster and Ulster, and if Connacht has experienced a growth in interest in the West, the real change has come in Leinster. Once the preserve of a genteel sheepskin-coat brigade, which exhibited little or no passion, Leinster has managed to widen its net dramatically.
And that has been achieved against a backdrop of underachievement in the European Cup, no more so than last season when they were famously humiliated in the semi-final by bitter rivals Munster.
The stakes were not as high last Friday, but there were still a few scores to be settled, and Leinster ran out deserved winners by 27-20 with the international quarter of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Denis Hickie and Shane Horgan lording it over the opposition.
O’Driscoll weighed in with two tries which augured well for next month’s series of international games against Australia, South Africa and the Pacific Islands, while Horgan scored a spectacular try during the first half which Leinster dominated.
Civil war is supposed to be the most bitter form of conflict, but as far as rugby is concerned, it is proving to be the main attraction at the moment.