The Corkman was blunt: “We’re a small country, we’re up against it, but let’s not just go along for the sing-song every now and again.” Translated, this roughly means: “this is sport, not entertainment”.
I’m sure my old Da, who never even saw Keane the elder play but who loved seriously competitive players in any kind of sport, would have agreed wholeheartedly.
What has marked Ireland (by which I mean the whole island, not just one big bit of it) has been the ambition of its sportsmen in proportion to its size of population.
That has been much more pronounced in recent years as codes have professionalised, and Irish sport has embraced the opportunities that’s brought. The Holywood Golf club I played as a junior tolerated kids, now they put huge efforts into bringing them on.
Now to last night’s match. Here’s the starting line up:
Given (Villa) O’Shea (Sunderland), Dunne (Aston Villa), St Leger (Leicester City), Ward (Wolves), Duff (Fulham), Keith Andrews (West Brom), Whelan (Stoke), Cox (West Brom), Keane (Los Angeles).
James McClean of Sunderland (late of Derry City, of course) is a young player with a great club future, whom Trap only brought out when it was far too late to shut the door. It’s also notable that English born players like Cox defecting to the Republic are rare these days.
Out of interest, I looked at the Northern Ireland squad from the 1986 World Cup in Mexico:
Pat Jennings (Spurs), Jimmy Nicholl (West Brom), Mal Donaghy (Luton), John O’Neill (Leicester City), Alan McDonald (QPR), David McCreery (Newcastle), Steve Penney (Brighton), Sammy McIlroy (Manchester City), Jim Quinn (Blackburn Rovers), Norman Whiteside (Man United), Ian Stewart (Newcastle), Jim Platt (Coleraine), Philip Hughes (Bury), Gerry Armstrong (West Brom); Nigel Worthington (Sheffield Wednesday)
Despite appearances, most of those clubs were in what qualified as top flight football at the time. And there were no super clubs. They were not that far short of the relative quality of the Republic team who took the field last night against Spain.
The truth is that world soccer has moved on a pace, even in the last ten years since Saipan. Great Irish teams only come along intermittently. It puts in some perspective the real damage Keane’s hissy fit may have done to his country’s World Cup record.
Irish Rugby responded to the the opportunity of the professionalisation of the Union code. It hardened the representative provincial teams into professional clubs. The benefits have been obvious not just from the haul of club silverware but probably the most sustained period of quality rugby at international level.
So the question occurs: how long can Irish soccer continue as a split house and expect to seriously compete at international level?
Of course it is not the first time it’s been asked. But there is something in the step change of quality in the international game that requires something of either ‘Ireland’ that it may not be able to supply from purely domestic reforms.
It surely cannot be done in the kind of backward way the FAI has started fishing (‘poaching’, if you prefer) northern players. It would require some will on the parts of two organisations to extend the kind of co-operation we’ve already seen in the Setanta Sports Cup for instance.
Yet given the deep attachments each following has to their own separate identities and the long cultural bifurcation that goes along with that, it is hard to see that there is much of an appetite for such a move.
But the greater question is surely, what are the limits to Irish and Northern Irish sporting ambition?