The Opel Jersey’s Feargal Brennan examines the Irish fans’ connection to the current crop of international players, and the different aura around Martin O’Neill’s team today.
It could be said that the greatest legacy that EURO 2016 gave to Irish football was a re-establishment of the relationship between the public and the national team, that had been somewhat fractured over the past 10 or so years. And that a sticky French summer would lead to the creation of new legions of Irish fans with great pride in the green jersey.
Pink faced and full of optimism, thousands of Irish fans filled the streets in Paris, Bordeaux, Lille and Lyon in June 2016, winning friends across the continent along the way.
The team themselves did what Ireland teams at tournaments often do, initially raise expectations (Sweden), struggle (Belgium) and then produce backs-against-the-wall long to be remembered performances (Italy and France).
Indeed, Ireland’s performance against Italy was genuinely spine-tingling and it was as good an Irish performance in a big game as any over the past two decades.
The most pleasing aspect for many is that EURO 2016 also secured a new generation of fans for Martin O’Neill’s team, at a time when young Irish fans could be forgiven for being disillusioned.
Italia ‘90 created its own folklore and tales of Irish success, the 2002 World Cup created a new band of fans, now in their twenties and thirties, that would follow Ireland through thick and thin, thanks to the exploits of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff.
However, the current set of Ireland fans had become frustrated by a lack of qualification, burned by the Thierry Henry handball in 2009 and embarrassed by the showing at EURO 2012. The difficult truth was that Ireland were wildly under prepared and below standard in Poland, with many Ireland fans wincing at their capitulation.
The aura around the team is far different now, O’Neill’s pragmatic and affable nature, matched with an increase in squad experience and quality has lifted the mood.
Alongside this, much of the positivity around the Boys in Green both during the Euros and now in World Cup qualification is a rebirth, or at least a repackaging, of Irishness in the team.
Ireland have long been derided for a frivolous adoption of non-Irish born players into the fold, but the truth of the matter is that these assertions have been very unfair. Firstly, because most of Ireland’s key men over the past 10-15 years were born and raised in Ireland, Roy and Robbie Keane, Duff, Shay Given, Denis Irwin, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea to name a few.
And secondly the notion of an over exploitation of the ‘granny rule’ by the FAI, gobbling up the ‘unwanted’ scraps of larger nations, has been dispelled by the commitment shown by players such as Kevin Kilbane and Jonny Walters in a green shirt.
Kilbane has in fact been an advocate of players proving themselves to the national team manager before selection.
In an interview with the Irish Times in 2015, Kilbane, a player often more comfortable in his national team colours than those of the clubs who employed him, emphasised the need for passion.
“They’ve (new players) got to show desire to come in. They have to want to come and play for us. Once you’ve committed to us, there is no way further down the line that you would miss games in favour of playing for your club.”
As a perfect illustration of Kilbane’s point, he was very vocal in support of a call up for Harry Arter, a player keen to wear green. But expressed caution over the likes Mark Noble, who, alongside others, had only ever spoken about playing for Ireland in a theoretical sense and clearly using it for leverage.
However, the current squad can proudly boast a significant majority of Irish born players, with O’Neill selective of who he chooses for his squad. In fact, the EURO 2016 squad had the fewest non-Irish born players within it than at any other major tournament. O’Neill selected just six players born outside of Ireland, compared with 7 by Trapattoni in 2012, 12 by McCarthy in 2002 and 14 by Charlton in both 1990 and 1994, and 12 in 1988.
The primary issue has always been with identity, there is no issue with non-Irish-born players representing the national side, and most are as proud and patriotic to wear green as a man born within spitting distance of the Liffey.
Mick McCarthy’s famous comment, in the build up to the 2002 World Cup, about his Irishness, stands as a great example of why you should never question someone who probably spent whole summers drinking Cidona and eating Tayto.
Migration, particularly to the UK, was a reality for many Irish families in the 20th Century, and McCarthy’s comments were a reminder of that fact.
“If you left Ireland to live abroad, and you had children, and your son was good enough to represent Ireland in any sport, would you think he is Irish and able to play for them?”
It could be argued that in the past Ireland have not been selective enough, when assessing their options, hurriedly rushing into snapping players up without a rigorous investigation into the player’s background and motivation.
Too often, when faced with a lack of options, random players were called up, with wildly differing degrees of success.
Clinton Morrison is a clear example, moderately effective for a time, but without the quality or consistency to be an Ireland regular.
Andy O’Brien, Paul Butler, Don Goodman and Jon Macken are just a handful that were parachuted into a green shirt, with little known of their commitment to the Irish cause.
Now whilst these players will divide opinion on their commitment, which in itself is virtually immeasurable, the issue that has irked modern Ireland fans is players turning the national team down.
This has been an unsavoury subject, with players such as Michael Keane, Patrick Bamford and Dan Crowley representing Ireland at an underage level, but declining further call-ups, to essentially keep their options open. The most famous example of this was the case of Jack Grealish, a promising talent, who had his head turned by nothing more than the suggestion of an England call up. The reality is that all three of these players are a million miles away from an England squad, with their club careers in no man’s land.
But in the case of Grealish, Ireland should credit themselves with the dignity with which they handled the situation. O’Neill remained stoic on the Aston Villa midfielder, whilst Roy Hodgson made the cooing noises at him.
The message was clear, show pride and ability in an Ireland shirt, then you have a chance. If you do not, then the Aviva is not the place for you.
Creating and managing that culture of commitment was something we explored here previously.
Ireland no longer need to, nor will they, pass a begging bowl around the English leagues again. This is seen in O’Neill’s handling of Scott Hogan of Brentford, giving the striker time to regain fitness, before making an approach.
Much has also been made of Ireland’s usage of former League of Ireland players under O’Neill, the famous photo of eight of Ireland’s EURO 2016 in their old jerseys demonstrated the reliance Ireland now has in its home-produced talent, that is polished in England.
The Dundalk fairytale has opened the LOI to a European audience, and Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle were rewarded with call ups and moves to England.
There is now a proving ground within the Ireland squad, and the non-Irish-born players have risen to the challenge. James McCarthy has risked the wrath of his club manager to play for Ireland, Jon Walters has become a fans’ favourite with his committed displays and Harry Arter has refused to let persistent injuries deny him a place in the Irish midfield.
International football can be used as a vehicle to further aspects in a player’s career, there is no place for that with Ireland, as a mentality change has seen Ireland genuinely have the best of both worlds.
There are no tears shed over the Grealishes and the Bamfords, instead a realism of maybe things happen for a reason, but if you have passion and talent, Ireland fans will love you whether you from Buncrana or Basildon.
The Opel Jersey has covered Irish football, primarily on Twitter, for 5 years. With their recent site launch, they are now focused on extending that coverage to more long-form analysis of the international setup, games, youth/LOI development and more. Follow on @TheOpelJersey, and OpelJersey.com
Feargal is a football journalist based in Liverpool covering the Merseyside Big Two. He’s also a writer of tactical and feature pieces on Ireland and La Liga. Follow him on twitter – @feargalbren
Main image: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com