While it’s true that attendances of just over 4,000 at the Limerick-Cork game at the Gaelic Grounds, and of 7,500 in Killarney where Kerry defeated Tipperary were significantly lower than normal, and while it’s true that Munster Council bean counters will be none too pleased when they pore over the books, there was a reason for the tumbleweed feeling at both fixtures.
In case you missed it, the soccer World Cup has started, and although Ireland are sitting out this tournament after a dismal end to their qualifying campaign, interest here is still extraordinarily high.
That essential appeal has existed since neighbors England triumphed back in 1966, but it could be that FIFA’s four-yearly showcase now has a greater hold than ever on Ireland’s sporting community.
Given that a large number of the players earn a crust in the English Premier League, and that many leading South Americans and Africans are on the books of European clubs in the Champions League, the faces are familiar. The likes of Brazil and the Ivory Coast bring an exotic flavor to the event, but the majority of their players are readily identifiable.
Then there’s the Irish pastime of pretending to loathe England, and to pour scorn both on their prospects and their ineffectual coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, yet we spend an inordinate part of the winter, following the fortunes of English clubs and English players.
There are thousands of Irish kids, and their dads, and their mothers, who hold candles for Steven Gerrard of Liverpool, for Newcastle’s Michael Owen, for John Terry of the champions Chelsea and for Arsenal’s Ashley Cole. And while we have scoffed at the media frenzy over whether Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal will have healed in time, will we be watching if and when Rooney plays? Will we what.
The GAA shouldn’t necessarily be wringing its hands either, not when it has agreed – for what will be a large fee it shouldn’t be forgotten – to open Croke Park’s doors to soccer during the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road. The desertion is only temporary; the power base has not been weakened because Trinidad and Tobago somehow contrived to draw with Sweden.
Last Sunday when the association was hoping that most roads would lead to the Gaelic Grounds and to Killarney, Holland were playing Serbia and Montenegro in Leipzig. The Dutch represented the glamour streak of the World Cup in the 1970s, and played Ireland twice in the 1988 European Championships and two years later at the World Cup finals.
Holland are a drawing card, obviously more so at the moment than the combined talents of Kerry, Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. GAA president Nickey Brennan recognized that there would be competition for hearts and minds in June just last week. “We know the World Cup is a major attraction. We’re all going to be looking at it, so we have to push our own games hard during that period,” Brennan said.
That push has come in the form of an advertising campaign dubbed “Unrivalled” in which action shots of footballers and hurlers are used to promote awareness of championship games. But laudable and all as this marketing drive might be, “Unrivalled” didn’t exactly have the desired effect last weekend.
In fact, Brennan and the GAA might have been better off saving their few bob, and counting their lucky stars that England weren’t playing on a Sunday.
More relevant is Brennan’s review of the championship and league structures. It is possible that with Kerry and Cork’s current dominance, the predictability of the Munster football championship, in comparison with the fierce rivalry in Ulster, might not have had the turnstiles rattling anyway. And hurling, as Brennan suggested recently, has “gone stale.”
So while Brennan undeniably made the right noises about the GAA not falling asleep on the job during the World Cup, the battle for attendances is a phony war. Spectators will return to the association’s grounds from the sanctuary of their TV sets, but what the GAA must do is to ensure that what people pay to see on a regular basis has a greater fascination than a soccer tournament that comes around once every four years.
Irish let it slip
against All Blacks
Last Saturday’s defeat made it 19 games and a total of 101 years. The rugby link between Ireland and New Zealand clearly goes back a long way, but the more it endures, the more it remains the same. The Irish had yet another opportunity to beat the All Blacks for the first time ever last weekend, and they blew it.
That is a harsh reaction because for the most part, Brian O’Driscoll and his team performed heroically. At the end of a long, hard season, they somehow dredged up the necessary reserves to push New Zealand to the limit at Hamilton, in the province of Waikato.
With 20 minutes to go, the Irish led by 23-15 and appeared to be heading for an historic victory, when once again, New Zealand found an extra gear to win by 34-23.
The inquiry should not reflect on the brilliance of O’Driscoll, who was returning to New Zealand for the first time since he was controversially spear-tackled at the start of last year’s Lions tour, on the physicality of Paul O’Connell and Denis Leamy, and on Ireland’s resilience against the most intimidating team in the world. No the inquiry, has to wonder why Ireland seem unable to beat New Zealand.
Even though nearly half the players have now won the European Cup with Munster, and nearly all have shared in Triple Crown triumphs as well as experiencing the feel good of beating Australia, South Africa, France and England, there appears to be a mental block when it comes to New Zealand.
That doesn’t mean that when New Zealand play to their optimum, Ireland should have a chance of winning. That’s simply not comparing like to like, but when New Zealand are off color as they were in Hamilton last weekend, there is no reason now why the Irish can’t capitalize.
It could be possible that not enough of the team truly believe they are capable of beating the All Blacks. They perform with conviction for an hour or so, and then suddenly freeze with the finishing line in sight. “We put together a 62-minute performance, but against the All Blacks that’s not good enough,” said O’Driscoll, “you’ve got to play for the full 80.”
As for O’Driscoll’s midfield partner, Gordon D’Arcy, the summation was more blunt. “We lost it.”
Following tries by O’Driscoll and Andrew Trimble, Ireland conceded the initiative in the final 10 minutes when there were crucial errors by Peter Stringer and more surprisingly, O’Connell. “The fact of the matter was that they worse us down,” said coach Eddie O’Sullivan. Physically and mentally.
The Irish now go to Auckland for the second test on Saturday with the realization that New Zealand have had a wake-up call, and that the chance to make history has gone. Again.
Soccer fans await
Keane’s next move
And on the subject of history, this time about someone who has made it. Roy Keane’s decision to retire from soccer might have been about a year too late, and if his contribution to Celtic last season was modest by his own high standards, the memories of the glory days are fresh.
At the height of his powers with Manchester United, he was simply one of the best players in the world. So inspiring, so intelligent, so competitive. There were few with such a will to win, and few so driven.
There were brawls and disputes off the pitch, and at least one self-confessed act of thuggery on it, but there was an honesty about Keane that was matched by few of his peers.
Alex Ferguson, his manager at Manchester United, rated him as his by far his most influential player. Yet, like Keane had done with Ireland coach Mick McCarthy before his controversial expulsion from the World Cup finals four years ago, he pushed Ferguson too far and their seemingly unshakeable relationship also came to an end.
The 34-year-old is now contemplating a career in coaching and management. Great players don’t always make great managers, and Keane will have to be wary of setting the ball too high for his charges.
As for man-management, there also have to be question marks over whether he will be able to inspire by words when during an outstanding 17-year career, he inspired by deeds.
Keane, love him or loathe him, remains box office. He was a great, great player for Ireland and for United, and his next move will be tracked with just as much interest as a glorious career.