Conor Hourihane was one of a number of Irish players to underperform against England in Wembley.

FAI must ignore the tweets of London

Gerry Buckley

Oh, last Thursday evening to have been walking down Wembley way, a tub of hot curry chips in hand, going ‘ooh aah’ as they burned my fingers!

It is hard to watch the new ad on television and not get nostalgic when Paul McGrath, a true national treasure as the ad implies, ends his piece with a trademark impish smile. Almost 30 years ago (March 1991), the incomparable Dubliner (OK, Pedantic Pat, he spent a short while in London before moving to Ireland) had excelled in the home of English football when Big Jack’s ‘boys in green’ had ‘hammered’ England 1-1 in a European Championship qualifier which I attended with pride. McGrath’s excellence prompted one English newspaper in its player ratings out of ten the following day to judge the Aston Villa man succinctly thus: “This magnificent athlete would grace any international team in the world. Easily the best player on the pitch. 10”.

How times have changed. With the possible exception of Matt Doherty (and perhaps our unfortunate ageing skipper Seamus Coleman) the side which togged out in white and green last Thursday had, in truth, nobody fit to grace the hallowed turf in this prestigious friendly, never mind have the potential to be the best player on it. The players named are both full backs, but it is not being disrespectful to the Full Backs Union to opine that midfielders and attackers really dictate results in soccer.

Throw in the worrying fact that hitherto-rock solid centre half (and stand-in captain) Shane Duffy looks more likely to score an own goal these days than a rare one at the other end, and it surely justifies my pre-match prediction that we were likely to lose 5-0 (not a five-goal margin, as the nil was an important part of the prediction). A friend of mine once bemoaned the performance of a team he managed which had lost 4-0, and duly added: “We were lucky to get the nil!” With the limited, but still-worth-his-place, David McGoldrick having surprisingly retired, and both Aaron Connolly and Callum Robinson unavailable, the dream of an away goal in Wembley seemed far-fetched.

And so it proved, as England (who could be real contenders for the Henri Delaunay Cup next summer when the likes of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are included – and perhaps Jordan Pickford excluded) coasted to a 3-0 win which could have been twice the margin. A measure of their dominance can be gauged by the stat that the hosts had ten corners on the board by the 38th minute.

One of these led to Harry Maguire’s goal which opened the scoring, the Manchester United man out-jumping an out-of-sorts Duffy, our only scorer in the Stephen Kenny regime (up to and including last Sunday evening’s 1-0 loss in Cardiff). Those of us of a certain vintage will recall that the team with more corners were often awarded a match after a draw, before the lottery of a penalty shootout was devised. It is almost always a very accurate barometer of who had been the better team.

The Republic’s slide down the rankings has been dramatic since the days of Big Jack RIP and Big Mick mark one. One of the former’s colleagues from the 1966 World Cup victory, Nobby Stiles, had been buried earlier in the day and this nine-year-old sports lover at the time will always remember his toothless post-match jig in Wembley.

Ten years and 39 days later a major item on my sporting bucket list was ticked off with a starry-eyed walk through the (sadly-bulldozed in recent years) twin towers to watch Johnny Giles and co earn a comfortable 1-1 draw with the ‘old enemy’. It was a wonderful memory from my last day as a teenager, with ten native Irishmen and goalkeeper Mick Kearns looking a very decent international side. (The latter’s opposite number on that memorable evening, Ray Clemence, sadly passed away last Sunday.) Fast forward 44 years and two months, and it was hard to disagree with a pal who suggested to me that the current Irish team would struggle to get promoted from the Championship.

The polished performances of former ‘Oirish’ underage players, Jack Grealish (in particular) and Michael Keane, brought home how much such players would have improved their adopted (for a while) country. Grealish was withdrawn at the same time that James McClean entered the fray. It was probably timely as I feared the Derry man would spend an inordinate amount of time chasing the Aston Villa captain to exact his own form of retribution for perceived treachery!

A couple of years ago, at one of a number of U21 internationals I have attended in Tallaght, I was struck by the fervour with which an entire family in front of me was cheering the home team’s efforts. Their English accents were undisguised and a half-time query got the response I expected i.e. that a debutant in green was their boy and they had travelled to cheer him on. The relevance of the term ‘Granny Rule’ was never more apt as granny was there herself roaring and shouting as loud as mammy and daddy.

I made a note of the player, who was one of our best players on the night, and intend to monitor whether he, let’s just say, remains ‘Oirish’! Kenny has made it clear that he won’t chase ‘Granny Rule’ players – and most of us totally concur with that line of thinking – and he is also to be admired for not wallowing in self-pity despite the unlucky hand of cards dealt to him by Covid-19 and injuries.

The ‘brave’ social media ‘scribes’ are increasing in numbers opining that he is not up to the job. However, while qualification for Qatar 2022 looks a bridge too far, there appears to be a hard core of quality footballers coming on stream who could make a serious bid to reach the Euro finals in 2024 (especially with 24 qualifiers).

In my opinion, it would be madness on the FAI’s part to prematurely fire Kenny – not that the queue would be a long or prestigious one from potential successors.

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