Preview: Carling Nations Cup
Not even a royal welcome for the Queen, our new favourite granny, can disguise the fact that Northern Ireland don’t exactly like us at the moment. It’s ironic that there’s plenty of players up there willing to line out for the southern neighbours while others named in the squad can’t do us the courtesy of coming up with a plausible excuse. The monarch of Britain and the President of the United States can turn up for the Republic. Tony Stokes and James McCarthy say “No we can’t.”
Giovanni Trapattoni could barely disguise his anger at the feeble reasons for withdrawals from this week’s Carling Nations Cup games. According to reports, James McCarthy offered no reason initially before it eventually emerged he had a ‘sprained ankle.’ McCarthy is dangerously close to massively disrespecting his international manager and not for the first time.
Tony Stokes’ statement this week was laughable. The Celtic player’s attitude was the subject of criticism under Roy Keane at Sunderland. Keane was often accused of missing Irish friendlies for the lamest of reasons but the Corkman was also raging against an inept FAI.
These days, the Republic players are under the command of a world-renowned manager and want for nothing in terms of preparation. Yet many can’t nail down first team places for their clubs and have shown such erratic form in an Irish shirt, they would be lucky to earn a recall. And yet the behaviour of some borders on contempt.
Paradoxically, this week we face Northern Ireland against the backdrop of an unseemly row between the associations over the recruitment of new players under the banner of the FAI.
The trickle of footballers from the North declaring for the Republic is threatening to become a flood with Daniel Devine and Shane Ferguson likely to be the latest defectors.
Hardly on a par with that infamous World Cup qualifier in Windsor Park, but the meeting of the island-sharing outfits was sure to be a testy affair. Reports of sporadic crowd trouble after Northern Ireland’s encounter with Scotland earlier this year looked set to give the Gardai yet another security headache this week but a boycott of this game by Norn Iron fans means a little over 200 supporters will be making the journey south.
In a bid to weed-out trouble makers, the IFA wanted to bus supporters down to Dublin and charge them 30 quid for the privilege. The Northern Irish fans revolted and the result is that they are not coming on Tuesday.
So what could have been a white-hot atmosphere that might have added an edge to the action on the pitch will likely give way to a sparsely populated Aviva Stadium and a tedium that will transmit to the players, or vice-versa as if often the case with this Republic side.
And with the crowd element subdued, Trapattoni’s men should win, regardless of the personnel the manager decides to deploy.
For Irish players not involved in play-off games, the season is over and they will be about as motivated for these games as Her Majesty was meeting Ryan Tubridy in a Dublin factory.
Yet the Republic are days away from a crucial European qualifier in Macedonia next week. The usual spin on these friendlies is that they are end of season games that nobody wants.
Yet, Ireland will fly to Skopje without Richard Dunne, with a captain firing blanks, a goalkeeper barely back from injury, no Duff, Doyle, or Clark and others equally short of match-action.
Not only is there an opportunity for players such as Seamus Coleman and Simon Cox to make their mark, but there is a necessity.
Ireland cannot afford to go to Skopje without our game-heads firmly screwed on. Time after time, Irish teams’ qualification hopes are thrown away in fixtures like this. Cagey games, against inferior but frustrating opposition in hostile away venues. If we are serious about topping the group and finally making our mark as a serious international side again, talk of a draw in Skopje is stupid.
We were awful in the second half against Macedonia in Lansdowne. Three days later, a drastically altered Irish side impressed in a friendly against Uruguay. We have two such friendlies this week against the North and Scotland. Can Ireland build on the positives of their last outing?
Traditionally we have always seen our football team as superior to Northern Ireland. Yet, results achieved in recent years might teach us that our smugness is misplaced.
The North have beaten England and Spain in recent seasons. Who have the Republic beaten of note?
Likewise, we would fancy ourselves to beat Scotland. Yet this game is a potential final of sorts depending on the outcome of other ties in the competition with a rare piece of silverware up for grabs. It may also attract thousands of the Tartan Army over to Dublin again if the first series of Carling Nations Cup games is anything to go by.
The crowd might help to raise this tie to a status higher than end of season fare.
There is nothing friendly about the task facing Ireland in Skopje. Giovanni Trapattoni may well select two make-shift sides for the games this week owing to the unavailability of a number of the Irish squad. This is a chance for those picked to make an impression and bid for a starting place in Macedonia. If they dismiss that opportunity; if they stroll around Lansdowne and bore the crowd, if they treat these matches as a chore they could do without, and then think they can simply flick a switch days later and beat Macedonia, they should re-run the video of the home-leg. This Irish team is not good enough to treat these warm-up games with disinterest. And players who have spent much of the season pulling bench splinters from their backsides have not earned the right to withdraw without just cause. We’re tired too, tired of the excuses.