Saturday, 8 June 2013

As Keane as Mustard

The old English idiom 'as keen as mustard' is defined in online dictionaries as meaning that someone is exceptionally enthusiastic or something 'having a fine, sharp cutting edge or point'.  How apt it is then that last night was all about the man who broke Shay Given's all time Ireland caps record by lining out for the 126th time and who's enthusiasm for representing his country is as bright now as it was way back in 1998 when he made his first appearance in a little remembered friendly away to the Czech Republic as Mick McCarthy began the process of rebuilding the Irish team after the retirements of most of the stalwarts of the Jack Charlton era.  And how apt that the sharp cutting edge that has led him to obliterate the Irish goalscoring record was evident once again as he moved into the top 5 European goalscorers in the history of the game by bagging the second hat trick of his Ireland career.  Okay, it was only the Faroe's, but let's not forget this man has scored vital goals in competitive games against Holland, Germany, Spain, France and Italy not to mention teams from every ranking of the game.  It'll be a long time before we see his like again.

The evening itself had started in very pleasant fashion with the usual walk down the canal from Charlemont to our regular matchday watering hole, The Beggars Bush on Haddington Road, a stones throw from the ground.  A number of the usual crowd were already in with plenty of the faces from the London trip settling into their pints by the time I arrived.  And there was a steady flow of new arrivals as the glorious sunshine brought everyone out into the beer garden to soak up some rays and indulge in some pre match refreshment.  By the time my Dad and his crowd arrived, everyone was in high spirits with the prospect of as close as you can get to a guaranteed 3 points ensuring that there was more debate about what the best result would be from the Austria v. Sweden game for our chances rather than the prospect of us dropping points.  In fact, it was more about how much we should be looking to increase our goal difference by, given how tight the table is.  People were generally happy enough with the team, bar the picking of Simon Cox out of position on the right wing, and my feeling was that I'd be satisfied with a 4 goal victory at the least.

As kick off approached we made our way into the ground and slipped into our spot in the Singing Section on the South stand just as the anthems were playing.  A nice tribute to Robbie Keane had been arranged by the posters on the YBIG site on the 10 minute mark as that's the number synonymous with his Ireland career and a minutes' chanting planned when the above image was to be flashed up on the big screen.  We'd joked beforehand that it would be something else if he were to score on the 10th minute! It'd be something else but, in the event it took Robbie less than half that to put us ahead.  The goal was well worked with Wes Hoolahan, who impressed on his first start, playing in Aiden McGeady who played a good square ball in for Keane to slide home.  A perfect start and should have put us in prime position to push on and bump up that goal difference.  Unfortunately, that wasn't what came to pass.  Although we had all the possession and were camped in their half, the end product was non existent with only one other attempt from Keane causing their keeper any difficulty which ended up being tipped over for a corner.  I felt that a second goal would open the floodgates but the final delivery was very poor with McGeady in particular wasting a number of chances with poor passes and underhit shots.  I find him a very frustrating player to watch, he has plenty of skill and is well able to beat a player but there's a massive lack of consistency with his end product and I find it hard to believe that a professional footballer can have such a weak shot, there were numerous occasions where he seemed to snatch at his opportunities and either give the keeper an easy save or drag it wide.  Add the fact that both full backs were having poor games and Cox looked what he was, a striker playing out of position, and there was a palpable air of frustration in the ground as the first half came to a close.

In contrast to the players mentioned above, a large degree of praise has to go to Wes Hoolahan who was instrumental in practically everything that was positive in the game.  In addition to his hand in the first goal, he showed a willingness to show for the ball and wasn't afraid to harry the opposition and chase the ball down rather than just wait for it to come to him.  And he was involved again when we finally doubled our lead in what was nearly a carbon copy of the first goal.  This time it was Coleman (who'd improved in the second half) who showed wide right and ran onto Hoolahan's perfectly weighted pass to square the ball for Robbie to slide in and take the score to 2-0.  Again I hoped that this would be the spark for us to push on and score another couple but the lack of urgency that had been prevalent was still visible and too many players seemed to be already thinking about their holidays with Marc Wilson particularly culpable.  Things got freshened up with  Jon Walters, McGeady and the aforementioned Wilson making way for Conor Sammon, James McClean and Stephen Kelly.  This immediately paid dividends with McClean getting onto another weighted Hoolahan pass and squaring it to Sammon who controlled and turned beautifully to lay the ball on a plate for Robbie to complete his hat trick.  This belatedly seemed to spark us into life and we spent the last 10 minutes pushing on for the 4th goal that I'd hoped for but the closest we came was when a superb piece of control and finish from Keane was denied by a harsh linesman's flag for offside.  So 3-0 it finished and much as 3 points are 3 points, the performance had to be considered disappointing although Austria's 2-1 win away to Sweden leaves the group wide open. And it should be said that Germany only managed a 3-0 victory as well in their Faroe's game.  If only we'd managed to hold out at home against Austria the group would be looking very healthy but it's still all to play for going into the autumn fixtures.

Much as I was slightly unhappy with the manner of the performance, I've just watched the RTE panel's analysis and I have to say that the lack of factual knowledge and amount of guff spouted on there from Eamon Dunphy is particular was embarrassing.  I know that Wes Hoolahan is the latest cause celebre and it can be argued that this is justifiably so.  However, in his desperation to try and claim the moral high ground and proclaim his undying love for Wes there was some blatant bullshit spoken.  Having first claimed that Hoolahan was first capped by Mick McCarthy in some 'mickey mouse' tournament in the USA he then added that he didn't think the management team knew who he was 3 years ago and that everyone was crying out for him to be in the team for the last several years that he's been playing in the Premier League and Championship. Fact is, that Wes Hoolahan was in the first squad that Trapattoni picked and made his debut under the current manager 5 years ago against Colombia in London.  I've followed Hoolahan's career closely since watching him many times when Shels played Bohs and since initially being included in a squad under caretaker boss Don Given when still at Shels he was ignored by Brain Kerr (a man with an intricate knowledge of League of Ireland players) and Steve Staunton after he moved to Scotland.  Much as it can be argued that he could have been utilised more the last couple of years the only permanent manager that has picked him at all is Trapattoni.  Let's not forget that only 3 years ago Wes was playing in the third tier of English football and was 29 before he belatedly made it to the Premier League after a single season in the Championship.  I've always thought that he was a classy player but to suggest that everyone has been crying out for him to be included in the squad for several years is laughable, I don't recall Dunphy even making a case for his inclusion until he started producing in the Premier League about 18 months ago and even then there were no eyebrows raised when he wasn't involved in the last qualifying campaign. By all means be critical but at least get the facts rights.  It's hard to believe that there's less than 2 years of an age gap between himself and Keane but given his style of play I think that he can still offer us something for a number of years and hope that his recent performances go some way to convincing the manager that this is the case.

So on we go to the autumn internationals and the business end of the campaign.  We're still up against it and really need to produce a rare away victory against a qualification rival in September versus Austria but stranger things have happened.  The reverse fixture between Sweden and Austria is still to come which will lead to dropped points somewhere and with all teams currently locked on 11 points (allowing for the predicted victory for Sweden in their Faroe's fixture on Tuesday) it looks like it'll be tight to the finish.  I think we'll miss out if it goes to goal difference but given that none of our groups have come to that since the ill fated 1982 campaign I'm hopeful that it won't.  A home win against Sweden in September and we can travel to Austria with hope, a defeat and it's curtains.  Here's hoping.....

Saturday, 1 June 2013

28 Years Later

Time can be a strange thing.  It certainly doesn't seem like 28 years ago, before the bulk of this young Irish team were born, since I, as a young teenager and in the absence of live coverage, studiously avoided the score of the last Ireland friendly at Wembley so I could watch the highlights on Sports night as live.  A fresh faced Gary Lineker scored his first goal for England that night to put them 2-0 up and basically seal the game for England before Liam Brady pulled back a late consolation for the Boys in Green but the game still finished in a 2-1 English victory.  28 years later and a slightly greyer Lineker was sticking the boot into Roy Hodgson via the medium of Twitter and calling England's tactics on the night a 'step back to the dark ages'.  I'm sure if the younger Lineker had been told back in 1985 that 28 years later his goal would be the last to result in a victory for his home nation against their neighbours from across the Irish sea he'd have laughed in your face but so it has come to pass.  Over 6 games since then there have been 2 Irish wins (including the abandoned 'victory' in 1995) and 4 draws but not a single figure in the 'W' column for England.

My day started early and ended late, a 7.15 flight to Southend necessitated a 5.45 alarm call and so after the usual broken sleep before an early flight I stumbled out of the house into the morning light for a 6am taxi to the airport.  Southend had been the cheapest option for flights and with the train journey to Liverpool St station only 55 minutes it was as close as any of the other London airports so, despite the slight trepidation of getting a plane that looked like something from the 1950's, I boarded in good spirits and took my seat overlooking the propeller on the left hand wing.  Travelling on my own I was spared the peer pressure and temptation to have a drink en route so by the time I got to London to meet up with the rest of the gang I was ready for action and having dropped my luggage at our gracious host Tommy Feeley's house myself, himself and Terry the Tash headed towards Kilburn around noon for some breakfast and some liquid refreshment.  Having spent the World Cup in 1990 living in London and watched the games in Kilburn it was a strange feeling to be back there for the first time in 20 years or so and see how much the place had changed.  Some my old haunts like McGovern's pub and the Kilburn National were gone and the Irish influence that used to make the place the unofficial 33rd county had waned somewhat, but there was still a familiar feel to it as we moved on after a full Irish breakfast and a couple of Guinness to The Crown in Cricklewood where the gliterrati of the London Irish supporters club were gathering.  By the time we got there around 2 there was already a good presence and some familiar faces holding court as they waited for check in to open at 2.30.  We settled in and enjoyed a good reminisce of  previous trips and the games against the old enemy that had been played in those 28 years since.  All the while old faces arrived in with Brummie Al flying the flag for the Birmingham contingent, the Quinn Towers arriving in with their Dad and Uncle representing the Newry crew, joining ourselves, Syl, Pat and the rest of the London boys.  A TV crew arrived then so the 69ers flag was unfurled and the atmosphere was building nicely.  Before we knew it it was 6.30 and the call went out to head on to Wembley.

As Wembley Park is on the same tube line as Kilburn it was an easy journey and it was great to disembark at Wembley Way and not get a hint of the bitter atmosphere I've experienced at previous England games.  We strolled up Wembley Way to the ground, made our way through the queue and found our way to the Irish section in plenty of time for the anthems.  The atmosphere was good in our end but there was a notable difference in intensity to previous meetings, even allowing for the fact that the game was a friendly.  Small price to pay to not have scenes similar to our last meeting I guess.  I'm sure the intensity would return if there was a competitive edge present but I hope that the respect shown to both anthems is a taster of things to come.  There was a huge Irish support present with somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 in a crowd of 80,000 wearing green and it wasn't long before the chants of 'You're supposed to be at home!' were reverberating around the ground with very little response other than the ubiquitous English brass band coming from the rest of the ground.

That atmosphere was ratcheted up another notch when, slightly against the run of play, Ireland took the lead with an absolutely superb Shane Long header following some good interplay between Seamus Coleman and Jon Walters!  It really was a top class cross from the Everton man who, having suffered somewhat from the dreaded 'second season syndrome' this time last year, has come on in leaps and bounds this season and really is blossoming into an excellent player.  While the celebrations were definitely a small bit more muted than they would have been for a competitive game it was still something special as every goal against England is something to be savoured!  The pall of green smoke that swept across our section from a flare that someone had thrown onto the pitch added to the sense of the occasion as we started to dream of a famous victory while simultaneously cursing the fact that there was still 77 minutes to go!  The momentum of the game swung with the goal and we started to play with a great deal of composure and England's efforts became a bit more ragged.  Unfortunately our worst fears were realised within ten minutes as, from a position where we were under little pressure, the ball was funnelled back to David Forde who cleared upfield but probably didn't get as much distance on the ball as he'd have liked.  Possession went straight to England and the ball came out to Sturridge who poked over a cross that Sean St Ledger really should have cleared.  Unfortunately Sledge mishit his clearance and after it flicked off Glen Whelan it fell perfectly for Frank Lampard who slotted home in scruffy fashion.  It was a real shame as we had started looking comfortable at that stage and I was a bit worried that it could lead to a collapse.

To their credit, my fears were unfounded, Ireland regrouped impressively and actually ended the half on the front foot with a couple of corners in quick succession and a shout for a penalty as Robbie Keane was manhandled by Wayne Rooney in the box.  But one all was how we went in at half time and it was probably a fair enough reflection of the play.  The second half started with a couple of substitutions for England but more of the same from us as our fans continued to make all the noise in the ground and the team showed enough discipline to frustrate the English and we seemed content to play on the counter.  Things began to fizzle out early enough with Forde dealing very competently with anything thrown at him and as Robbie Keane began to drift out of the game I started to hope that Wes Hoolahan might get his opportunity to slot in behind Long for the last 25 minutes.  But no, in typical Trap fashion, Keane's number came up on the board but it was Simon Cox who jogged on rather than Hoolahan.  I really think that Hoolahan is suffering from the media pushing to get him into the team.  I'm not blaming any journalist for this, they're perfectly entitled to express that view and it's shared by a good proportion of the support.  I just think that one of Trap's biggest faults is his stubbornness and he has a childish way of reacting when people question his selections.  Hoolahan is the latest player to fall victim to this.  Ironically, with the end of Keane's international days getting closer and closer, it's probably Wes who would slot in easiest as a replacement if Long deservedly holds onto his position as the fulcrum of the attack.  It wouldn't even necessitate a move from his favored 4-4-2 per se, as the shape wouldn't radically change with Long slightly further forward and Hoolahan slightly further back then Keane was playing.  It was nearly a 4-4-1-1 at times on Wednesday anyway.

The flow of the game was further broken up by the rest of the subs with Ireland's only chance coming from a Foster fumble which was touched goalward by Walters but struck Cox before reaching the net. As Cox was offside he couldn't finish anyway and the chance was gone.  A real shame as I think it was going in but it probably would have flattered us to go ahead at that stage.  At the other end Forde was manfully dealing with everything that came his way. He excelled himself in the last couple of minutes when Oxlade-Chamberlain burst through but Forde stood big and deflected the ball over for a corner which came to nothing.  While we may not have deserved to be ahead we were good value to be level, so to concede at that stage would have been very harsh.  The general reaction was relief when only 2 minutes went up on the board as England certainly looked the more likely to score by then and while I wasn't prepared to join in with that chant of 'You'll never beat the Irish!' that started about a minute into stoppage time, I was happy to belt it out as soon as the ref put his whistle to his lips for the last time!

So we left the stadium happy with a decent nights work and a deserved 1 all draw.  The difference between now and the last time we played was summed up by the amount of half and half Ireland and England scarves on display and the sight of two lads peacefully walking out amongst the Irish fans with a Union Jack and Ulster banner tied around their necks which would have been unthinkable back in 1995.  After struggling back through the masses to the tube station, we reconvened back at The Crown for the usual post game analysis, banter and pints before finally making our way home a mere 22 hours after I'd got up!  Sleep certainly came easy as soon as my head hit the pillow.

In summary, there were certainly some positives for Ireland to be taken from the game.  The aforementioned Coleman is getting better and better and, despite the presence of Ashley Cole, Glen Johnson and Leighton Baines, looked the best full back on display.  James McCarthy continues to grow, although I still believe he has the potential to impose himself on a game a bit more than he does at present but it's easy to forget that he's still only 22.  Long led the line superbly and Forde is looking more and more assured every game, his handling of crosses and corners is a joy to behold.  It was great to see 3 of our best 4 players coming from a League of Ireland background as well and just shows that a move to the UK at a young age isn't the be all and end all, and may not even be the best thing for every player.  The manager's record in away games is incredible as well, discounting the 3 Euro '12 games and the defeat by Brazil in neutral venues, it's in the region of 20 games without loss on the oppositions patch which augers well for the vital fixture v. Austria to come.  On the negative side, the defence is still looking a bit shaky with another avoidable goal conceded.  Trap's preference for certain players such as Cox and Sammon while Hoolahan sits unused on  the bench is baffling and frustrating although as I type I've just seen that Wes will start the Georgia game so may get his chance to impress.  Robbie Keane's days as a starter should be numbered but it will be fitting to see him break Shay Given's caps record before he finishes altogether.  His experience is still valuable in the squad and I'd still back him to sniff out the odd goal here and there, but at this stage I think it would be better for both himself and the team if he does this from the bench.  I feel that it's unlikely the manager sees it that way right now but I feel it's inevitable and should be sooner rather than later.

Even though this was only a friendly, extending that unbeaten record to 28 years was nice and it'll be interesting to see if the mooted return fixture at Lansdowne comes to pass and if so, can we extend it further.  The serious business starts again on Friday with the visit of the Faroe Islanders in what really should be a comfortable 3 points.  Hopefully the confidence of some of the fringe players will get a boost against Georgia this weekend and the season will finish off with the New York game v Spain.  I'm not sure how much of a good thing it is to play the best side in the world in our final game of the season, but hopefully the Spaniards will have a more relaxed attitude to the game than they did 12 months ago.  In the meantime, I'll use the time between now and then to bask in that 28 year unbeaten run again and have another little laugh at the incredulity of Gary Lineker's twitter account and try to work out exactly which England team he's been watching over the last 28 years that actually managed to get out of the dark ages!