Friday, September 14, 2007

Keeping us in Czech

Slow off the mark I know but various circumstances prevented me from posting on Ireland's exit from the Euro 2008 qualifiers until now (OK, they still have a mathematical chance of getting through, but I tend not to put my faith in maths at such moments). We lost 1-0 last night, a result that has provoked anew sideline judgements on the merits of Irish soccer (believe me, the shambles in the rugby - supposedly Ireland's 'new sport' - was far more significant). To be totally honest, the team played well. We gave away a bad goal in a poor opening twenty minutes and were thwarted on a number of occasions after as we tried valiantly to redress the balance. Kevin Doyle hit the post, and, at the risk of being mean, it was a poor finish - the ball was always going away from the goal and it was no surprise that it deflected the wrong side of Paul McShane. I still think that Doyle was surprised to be called onside (which he definitely was) and he instinctively fluffed his shot. His Reading teammate Steven Hunt was superb when he came on for John O'Shea in the first half and his jinking runs silenced the fairweather home support that had been booing him because of that collision with Peter Čech last year. When he got sent off, it was harsh (which both managers agreed on) and after last night's game I think it might comfortably be said that Greek official Kyros Vassaras is a fool whose future absence from international football would benefit everybody. His comic display in the Ireland v Israel game two years ago (in which he sent off Andy Reid in mysterious circumstances) was matched in Prague. And I'm not being a sore loser about that - there were many dodgy decisions that went against the Czechs too. Not to mention his Graham Poll-esque double-booking of Marek Janukoski, which UEFA have since whitewashed but which the rest of us remain sceptical about.

Ultimately a decent performance was not enough and the lost ground that the Irish had already conceded in Nicosia, at Lansdowne against the Czechs and in Bratislava the other night, will now determine out exit from the competition. I still think that Staunton is not a capable manager but I have to acknowledge that he has instilled a sense of self-belief in the team, which allowed them to attack in both games this week. The team is limited enough but they would surely grace a major tournament better than a mediocre Czech team that is a pallid shadow of the side that played the most exhilarating football at Euro 2004. But then again, we lost and they didn't. Once again for an Irish side, the loyal fan is looking two years forward, in the hope of a qualification for the South African World Cup. My own frustration at the failure cult that seems to prevail in Irish football and which has been endorsed by 'battlers' such as Niall Quinn, who has lectured fans from his Guardian column against expecting 'miracles' is sharpened because we get so close so often and fail miserably. There is no reason why we should not be competing every two years in a major tournament. Our squad might be limited but with good organisation that extends beyond the majesty of Richard Dunne's defending, a regular spot in major finals would be well within our reach. Keano was right: until the will exists in Irish football to punish failure, we're not going to do much.