Many Irish fans seem to think Mick McCarthy's squad did pretty well to reach the last 16. Paul Doyle says they should have higher standards
The Japanese World Cup organising committee voted Ireland’s fans the best of the tournament, and yes, the Green Army spread the word craic with great gusto. But were all Irish supporters a “credit to their nation”? What, for example, are we to make of the 100,000 who gathered with giddy delight in Dublin’s Phoenix Park to greet Mick McCarthy’s “heroes” on their return home? What were these strange folks saying about their country’s ambitions? Perhaps it was something like: “Anything above naked humilation will do for us.”
Yes, little ol’ Ireland battled to the last 16 in the world, emerging unbeaten from cataclysmic clashes with giants such as Holland, Portugal, Spain and even eventual finalists Germany. “And don’t forget, we should have beaten the Germans!” But we didn’t.
We nearly beat silky Spain too. But we didn’t. They were deprived of Raúl, were down to ten men in extra time, including the almost totally incapacitated Luis Enrique, and we were awarded two penalties, one after an opprobrious dive from Damien Duff. They were there for the taking! But we didn’t take them. “Yeah, but we nearly did! We took them all the way to penos!”…and then took three of the most atrocious spotkicks in the history of Irish football.
We might also have avoided Spain, of course. But we didn’t. If Ireland had topped Group E by earning actual victories, as opposed to the wildly celebrated “moral victories” against Cameroon and Germany, we would have had to beat Paraguay, the US and South Korea to claim a historic place in the World Cup final. Now that would have been something to shout about. That would have been the perfect excuse for the Football Association of Ireland to declare a free bar in their sumptuous hotel for hundreds of liggers until 6am, as they did after the draw with Germany.
But we didn’t, and we may never get a better chance. Can we really be happy to say, “Ah well, we gave it our best shot”? Do we even care? Or, as Roy Keane famously lamented, are we really only along for the party? The fiasco in the Phoenix Park would actually have been quite fun if Keane‑had been there. We might well have seen him spontaneously combust right in front of our bleary eyes – surely our fearsome captain wouldn’t have been able to contain his fury at the sight of so many of his compatriots basking so smugly in mediocrity.
“Martin Luther Keane”, as some supporters have dubbed him, was, of course, not there. In their eyes he was shot down for trying to uplift his people. It seems Keane’s commitment to what he regarded as the highest professional standards unsettled the Irish camp, perhaps even puzzled some people who revel in the popular Irish self-image of lovable oddballs, full of fighting spirit and a will to, er, do quite well but not dominate (God no, that’s for imperialists).
Any number of questions remain to be answered about the whole episode. Why did so few of the Irish players protest about conditions in the squad’s Saipan training camp as loudly as Keane did? Steve Finnan and Kenny Cunningham were unable to start against Cameroon because of “knocks” picked up on the parched Saipan surface – did either of them express their frustration to McCarthy? Who were the two players who Keane claims told him privately they agreed with everything he said, but didn’t support him because they were afraid of being sent home too? It is hard to believe that McCarthy would have sent home three players, but then perhaps Keane was treated in an exceptional way because he has had a long-running, albeit mostly latent, war of attrition with the manager.
That war was intensified by McCarthy’s failure to seek a workable resolution. Was it not negligent, for example, for the manager not to so much as telephone his captain and best player after he collapsed in Manchester United’s Champions League clash with Deportivo La Coruña? We can’t imagine Sven-Goran Eriksson refusing to speak to David Beckham, or Roger Lemerre playing hard to get with Zidane. Keane may be a difficult character to deal with, but McCarthy was inviting conflict by allowing their enmity to fester – indeed, he may even have fanned the flames with the cheap provocation of allowing his World Cup diary to be penned by the Irish journalist most critical of his captain. Some might ask why Keane, whose desire to prolong his career as long as possible led him to request playing in as few friendlies as possible, was the only one of the starting 11 not to be replaced at half-time in Ireland’s pre-tournament friendly with Russia.
Do you have to be blindly loyal to the manager to enjoy playing for Ireland? Certainly, loyalty and length of service seem to have strangely prominent places in McCarthy’s definition of a meritocracy. Steven Reid is a fine player, who made a powerful impact when he came on against Cameroon, but he was only in Japan because McCarthy’s prize pupil, Mark Kennedy, a dunce in most observers’ eyes, got injured. And why, as Ireland tried to finish off a reeling Spain, did McCarthy resort to David Connolly, who has simply never looked like an international player, instead of the comparatively swashbuckling Clinton Morrison?
Maybe McCarthy’s diary will explain all. It’s due out at the end of August, as, of course, is Keane’s autobiography, which is to be ghost-written by a very visible phantom: Eamon Dunphy, the Irish journalist most critical of McCarthy. We wait to discover whether anything we read will dispel the bizarre mood of jubilation which currently prevails in Ireland, this perverse pride in saying: “We could have – but we didn’t.”
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month