Sons of Erin: Football and Expressions of Irishness

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As Ireland face USA in a friendly in Dublin, New Yorker Eugene O’Driscoll ponders questions of football and national identity.

Last Saturday was the biggest day of the year in club football, with the English Championship final, “the most expensive game in the world” serving as an appetiser for a Champions League final contested between two historical heavyweights, yet I found myself watching with my mind wandering towards what the day meant for Irish football.

In the days leading up to the Champions League showpiece, my social media feeds were flooded with cringy posts from Irish Liverpool fans, and even cringier posts from Irish Manchester United fans deriding the opposing supporters as “Scousers”, wishing luck to Real Madrid, and claiming Ronaldo as their own. Even on the day itself, a match which usually fills me with the same anticipation and excitement that I had watching finals as a kid, I couldn’t get past the absurdity of the situation.

Here I was, a person with no allegiance to either team, supporting Liverpool, an English team founded in part by an Orangeman with no Irish players against a Spanish team, simply because of all my Irish family members who support them.

I felt disappointed by this situation on two levels. First, it stung to acknowledge might be a very long time before we see an Irishman tog out on this stage again – a painful reminder when Irish goals and appearances in the Premier League continue to decrease season by season.

In the bigger picture, it struck that nerve that regularly affects a large amount of us Irish football fans, the prioritisation of the English game over our own domestic game, and even our international team at times.  While the rest of the world was cringing at Karius’ mistakes in goals, I winced recalling things like the crowd of the Aviva roaring on Manchester United against a League of Ireland XI in 2011, and that time where in an Ireland-England friendly in 2015, Raheem Sterling’s every touch was booed because he was departing Liverpool for Manchester City.

Yet, it was the earlier Championship final which upset me more as an Irish football fan, not least because of the Irish Villa contingent who missed out on the chance of Premier League football next season.  For me, the biggest takeaway from this game was the brilliance of Jack Grealish, who, a missed header aside, shone on one of the grandest of stages, manufacturing chance after chance in front of a crowd of 85,000.

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It was days like this where we all pine to have a player of his ability in an attacking unit which looks increasingly bereft of ideas, or even the wherewithal to complete a couple of consecutive passes. It made me flirt, if only for a second, with the irrational thought that maybe at the time Martin O’Neill was already out of touch with modern football (on and off the field), and didn’t do enough cajoling to a player brought up in the social media era.

It brought me back to those days where we were all decoding Grealish’s tweets with shamrock emojis in the same way a 16-year-old tries to decode the difference between a smiley face or a wider-grinned one from someone they have a crush on. Yet as I sat there on Saturday, it was only sadness and wistfulness which overtook me, and I harboured no bitterness towards him at all. His declaration for England was a complex and deeply personal decision with motives which we can’t ever fully understand from the outside.

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Within the next few days, the looming World Cup will bring the whole globe into a frenzy over the international game, but we, once again, are purgatorily stuck with a few friendlies.

A lot of people will write these off as pointless exercises, saying that some of the players are already on holidays after a taxing season, etc. In their defence, after watching 90 very bleak minutes of football against France on Monday, who can honestly blame them for that?

Yet, personally, I’ve always found a fair share of entertainment in the end-of-season fixtures that we’ve had in recent years. Who can forget 2011 when a Paul McShane-captained weakened Irish team beat Italy in a game randomly set in Belgium, with Simon Cox scoring in injury time and Stephen Hunt subsequently kicking Cox in the backside in the celebrations? I was in attendance as we played the Italians again in 2014 in London in their pre-World Cup build-up in the early days of the O’Neill era, a nil-all draw which was notable for the appealing football we actually played against a decent side – an increasingly rare sight under the current regime. Other recent years have been marked by US tours, which as I am generally based in America, allowed me to go along for the craic, the pints, and the singsongs without taking major stock in the results. (I hope Roy Keane doesn’t read this…)

I, for one, am particularly looking forward to the friendly vs. the US in the Aviva not only because it is a matchup of two countries with historical ties, with similar footballing styles and histories (as well as similar organizational dysfunctions at a national level), but more so because I was born and raised in New York.

Growing up in America in the mid-noughties meant that almost none of my friends followed professional soccer outside of the World Cup, even when they played. I was playing on an underage team which was consistently one of the best in New York, but discussing the sport was exclusively for the domain of home and within my family and other Irish circles. Following the sport was definitely a marker of being from an immigrant family, and in essence for me, perhaps the strongest expression of my Irishness as an adolescent. In turn, this meant that my leanings in international football trended overwhelmingly towards Ireland.

As I grew older, I grew more and more distant from the US national team, in part due to the realization that the United States winning a World Cup wouldn’t touch Ireland even qualifying, but also because I’ve gained what I see as political consciousness. How could I, in good faith, support a team which regularly comes up against Central American and Caribbean nations in which the US has regularly exerted imperial influence over the past few centuries?

“Football is the people’s game, the most political of sports, and I could never fully separate the American team from the international bully it represents.”

The reason I bring up my own allegiances is not simply to neurotically address and undress my own quandaries of identity, but to demonstrate that national allegiance in a footballing context is such a complicated and private issue in the grander scheme of identity. One’s footballing allegiances in any context are undoubtedly intertwined with their broader identities at large, but are no means completely bound to them. I can feel at home in New York and engage in issues regarding grassroots football here in America without being at all invested in the national team’s success. As much as the thought fills most of our throats with the greenest shades of vomit, Matt Holland could proudly sing God Save the Queen and then line up and do a good job for Ireland on the world stage.

Decisions can be simultaneously rooted in raw emotions and childhood nostalgia but also based off of logic, thought, and mature, conscious choices. When professional pragmatism and the pressure of career ambitions are added into the mix in the case of players, there are so many immeasurable factors throw into the equation that only the person choosing for themselves can almost fully rationalize a decision of such magnitude. This means that even in the most contentious and publicly aired affairs of this nature, such as the case of Jack Grealish, these things are never black-and-white and so we must reserve judgement and avoid criticism for people with split allegiances. Sure, there are 40 shades of green in Ireland but there are more shades of grey when it comes to choosing between two or more countries.

Both Ireland and the US face a unique future where many members of their potential playing pool decide between multiple international allegiances. They are two of the only countries in which they may be gaining a significant amount of players due to the grandmother rule, but losing some at the same time. The recent influx of German-raised American players due to the US military presence there has become a heated issue with whispers both inside and outside the camp regarding how they fit in with the rest of the team, if they are really American, etc.

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A country which was recently known as one of immigrants has also had its fair share of “defectors” to the motherland, most notably Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic. Several high-profile Mexican-Americans have chosen to play for America’s greatest rival, and the expectation is that this will continue to happen.

“Ireland faces a somewhat new and exciting era in terms of how immigration and emigration, and conflicting identities will shape the team in upcoming years.”

Shane Duffy and James McClean’s contributions to recent campaigns cannot be overstated, and we’ll continue to get players from the North who feel Irish. The usual trickle of players born and raised in Britain will no doubt be there, led by Declan Rice, who has the makings of a future captain. But there are also new channels.

The children of immigrants are coming of age and we are already seeing many players of African and Eastern European descent involved in the underage set-up. We’re all holding our breath to see if Michael Obafemi, the 17-year-old striker who made his debut for Southampton this season but is also eligible for Nigeria and England, stays with us. Additionally, it’s not long ago that the Irish Independent ran an article highlighting the new generation of teenagers in elite continental academies who are Irish-eligible through one of their parents.

Only time will tell if the new Irish, and a new Ireland, emerge on the world stage.

 

Eugene O’Driscoll is an Irish New Yorker who, outside of his footballing interests, is a historian. Twiter: @theresonly1geno

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