You would be hard pressed to justify the opinion that Jack Charlton’s success with the Irish team was a double-edged sword. For all the glorious years we spent near the top of world football, the relative doldrums we have experienced since 1995 have been a real come down for the fans.
Only for those brief moments under Mick McCarthy when we disposed of the Dutch in Dublin, and held them and fellow heavyweights Portugal on our travels, did it look like a new dawn was breaking.
But after the well-documented disaster in Saipan, to the home capitulation against Switzerland, things have gone from bad to worse. Out went McCarthy and under new manager Brian Kerr we rescued some pride with spirited performances against difficult sides like Albania and Georgia. But it was all for naught as just one point from our games with Russia and Switzerland condemned us to a spring of worthless friendlies.
And while the Green Army argues about the relative merits of Kevin Kilbane and David Connolly, is it maybe time for us to manage our expectations a little better? In a nation of four million people and a mainly part-time national league, should we not be happy with our lot?
Unlike England, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil and Argentina (average population 77 million), Ireland doesn’t have the capacity to produce a conveyor belt of top class talent, year after year. Like Scotland, Norway and Switzerland, our success has proven to be more cyclical than continuous.
It’s all very well groaning in despair as the team sheet for our crucial qualifier spells out the names Matty Holland and Gary Breen, but what are the alternatives? The winds of change have been lightly wafting across Lansdowne Road for years now. Those winds have brought us Robbie Keane and Damien Duff. But we need more.
We need someone to replace Gary Breen, and eventually Kenny Cunningham, at the heart of the defence. But who? John O’Shea has struggled at center back, Andy O’Brien looks short of the necessary quality and Gary Doherty has never been given a chance there.
Since the retirement of Denis Irwin, we’ve never filled that left-back position sufficiently. O’Shea has looked out of sorts there, and the only alternative has been to play Kevin Kilbane or Steve Finnan out of position.
Kevin Kilbane’s honest and hard-working performances have been admirable in the last twelve months but if the manager’s preference for the Everton winger means that Damien Duff has to fill in on the far wing or in the infamous ‘hole’, then it’s not worth it. And on the other side of the pitch, Steven Reid’s career has been stop-start due to injuries and non-descript form for Blackburn since the summer.
Roy Keane’s self-imposed international exile proved the death knell for our central midfield. The arrival of Colin Healy was seen as the turning point, but expectations were too high for the Sunderland player, and his contribution has been sporadic. And once again a sparkling debut has been heralded as the second coming – Andy Reid’s energetic and creative turn in the 3-0 win over Canada has seen a predictable array of plaudits splashed all over the media. The young man doesn’t need pressure like that.
Ireland has rarely had a collection of quality strikers. While they struggled with Niall Quinn, David Kelly, (an ageing) John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino in the mid-90s, England could not find room for Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore! If ever there was a pertinent indication of the toil that the smaller nations face, that was it.
And today is no different. Robbie Keane, over-indulgent but terminally exciting, has shared duties with a collection of pretenders – the terminally underachieving David Connolly, the mediocre Gary Doherty, the promising but stuttering Clinton Morrison, League of Ireland’s Glen Crowe, or the lower league dreamers, Alan Lee and Graham Barrett.
How good can an international team be with a motley crew such as these?
Preparing for the 2006 World Cup, a crucial competition for the FAI (they need some money in the coffers to spend on new suits and extra-large cigars), will mean a lot of changes. Brian Kerr, bar the last two qualifiers, did a brilliant job this year. But now it is time for him to shape the squad the way he would like to see it.
And if that means bringing in Nottingham Forest youngsters John Thompson and Andy Reid, Celtic starlet Liam Miller, and maybe even converting QPR striker Kevin Gallen from an England U21 international to a full Irish international, then he has to get on with it and do it his own way.
But if we fail to qualify for Germany 2006, then Irish fans will feel one of two ways. They can embrace the opinion of Mr Roy Keane and share the view that the Irish are there own worst enemy – possessors of a losing mentality, beaten before the whistle starts.
Or perhaps they will feel that the Irish nation has been spoilt by recent success and that qualification for major tournaments is a privilege not a right.
Scotland and Wales predictably crashed out of the European Championship play-offs. After encouraging first leg results, the optimism displayed by pundits and fans was enough to make you cringe.
Who really thought that a Scotland back line of Wilkie and Pressley could hold the orange tide back for 90 mins?
And after barely one attempt on goal in Moscow, who could honestly see Wales, led by the world’s most static player, John Hartson, bag a goal or two in the return leg?
But if it helped prove anything, it showed us that these smaller nations will struggle when it comes to the crunch. The next football superpower to join the ranks of the South Americans or Europe’s elite, will not be Latvia or Slovenia. It’s more likely to be Japan, China, or the United States. With an ever-growing pool of players to choose from the hundreds of millions of residents, how can they not strike it lucky?