WORDS: SEAN DUFFY
Thursday’s momentous victory over Germany at Lansdowne Road was not only Ireland’s first victory over a higher-ranked team since 2007, it was also the night that Irish football rediscovered its identity after years of indecisiveness, and Roy Keane has been at the centre of events throughout…
Roy Keane roaring at McCarthy, telling him what to do. For years, the spectre of the former captain’s row with the Ireland manager at the 2002 World Cup has haunted Irish football like a dark family secret.
We are all sorry that it happened, we try not to talk about, yet it is always there, a lingering, hollow regret that we can’t shake from our consciousness.
Ireland’s victory over world champions Germany on Thursday night was notable for a number of things. Keane was again roaring at McCarthy, only this time it was James, the Everton midfielder who gave a coming of age performance in the centre of an Irish team which finally delivered a cathartic result 14 years in the making.
The victory has drawn comparisons with Ireland’s victory over Holland in 2001, when Keane was the midfield catalyst and Ireland secured an unlikely playoff spot with a 1-0 win over the Dutch. That play-off game – a 2-0 win over Iran in November 2001 – represents the last time a home crowd has truly felt a sense of unity with the players on the pitch.
After that, things went sour, with McCarthy’s row with Keane centring on the accusation that Keane had feigned injury for the return leg in Iran. Former Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner commented this week on the negative pall the whole affair had cast over Irish football. Instead of being enamoured with the notion that the country had made it to the World Cup finals, the Irish footballing public split into bitter Keane/McCarthy camps.
By the time the team returned home to begin their Euro qualifying campaign in the autumn of 2002, there was a poisonous atmosphere in the air. With Keane still in exile, the team had already lost away 4-2 away to Russia, and a limp 2-1 defeat to Switzerland spelled the end for McCarthy.
The intervening years have been fallow ones for Irish football fans. Brian Kerr’s reign as McCarthy’s successor was one which understandably lacked conviction. The players appeared rattled by what had preceded. A climate of fear and inadequacy enveloped the team, and has been there in some guise ever since.
The slapstick reign of Steve Staunton did little to reacquaint the Irish fans with The Boys in Green, and while the appointment of Giovanni Trapattonni did provide qualification for a European Championships, it was joyless fare. Many have praised Trapattoni for making use of limited tools, instilling a defensive solidity and discipline which we were told was our only hope. However in the long run, it felt like Trapattoni served only to shatter what was already brittle confidence. Telling professional footballers that they weren’t good enough to string three passes together appears to have had a lasting effect on many of them, to the point where watching the team has become something of a chore these past few years.
The team’s record of failing to win a match against a team ranked above them since 2007 has been used as proof that Irish football is indeed in the doldrums. To the players’ credit, they have fought bravely to redress the stat, and there have been some painful near misses along the way. However that sense of uncertainty, a lingering notion of inadequacy has been prevalent at every turn.
On Thursday night, something changed. It was as if the players released all the frustration pent up over the past number of years. John O’Shea wisely marshalled the defence, Jonathan Walters offered the grit and aggression which has become a trademark, McCarthy scurried and snarled around midfield while Shane Long simply blasted the roof of the stadium.
To a man, the Irish were excellent. Where previously there was timidity, there was now decisiveness. Where inadequacy had once lurked, it was replaced by pointed aggression and a reclamation of identity.
It was the type of snarling, belligerent performance that Irish fans came to expect from the team what seems like an age ago. In essence, it was vintage Keane. Those who were there witnessed one of the great Irish sporting occasions; the night Irish football rediscovered its soul.
With Keane in such proximity to events, it felt a little bit like closure. Irish football has rediscovered an identity which the Corkman once embodied. It may not be pretty, but it’s ours, and is something we can all buy into once again. The family has healed.