Friday, February 4, 2011

Home Nations? We Are The Home Nations!

The original delay in getting the Carling Nations Cup going still confuses many in Ireland – we just don’t know what the problem was all about. Not called the Home Nations due to certain attendees and non-attendees, soon the forgotten four of the British Isles (geographical lads, let us not go down that messy road) will get together to compete for the only silverware each genuinely have a chance of winning. 

A series of competitive friendlies, if you will, this offers national bosses Giovanni Trapattoni, Nigel Worthington, Craig Levein and Gary Speed each the chance to get some games with their players, gain some interest from their fans, and earn some money for their Associations. It suits all involved, no? 

Every couple of months, meaningless friendlies interrupt a perfectly enjoyable football calendar for soccer fans. And unless it is against a Brazil or Spain side, no one really cares – unless those youngsters, who we all know are going to change our fortunes, finally get a chance…am I right? 

But this series, although unfortunately formatted months apart, is a genuine glimmer of hope. The standard between the four nations cannot be too far apart and it is likely that the best organised team will probably win out (although we here are punting on all draws). There is genuine optimism among fans, in Ireland at least, as we finally get something to cheer about, something we have been lacking since Thierry Henry as good as murdered our pets – I can’t remember the details, but that is how it felt and still feels…

But although we Irish have been ignoring and ignored by the Associations we come up against for what seems like eternity, we should be more than used to such parameters when we kick off against Wales in Dublin on Tuesday, before our brothers up north host our cousins from Scotland on Wednesday. 

Abolished in 1984, the tournament is a memory of only our elder gentry now but, in Ireland at least, we have been flying the flag of the Home Nations for decades. Different accents from the United Kingdom heard coming down the tunnel, out onto the pitch…we have had our own little collection of players from the British Isles all knocking it about in one arena, in one jersey! 

While we were absent from the Home Nations tournament, from 1921 until a few days from now, we went on our own little nostalgic walk down memory lane. No player was too English for our boys, as Tony Cascarino admitted, no player too Scottish, as Gordon Strachan once bemoaned during the Aiden McGeady coup and no player too Northern Irish, as countless legal debacles showed in the recent past. We, under the blind ideology of desire, passion and pride, scoured the known world – at least the known English-speaking world that Ryanair could fly to in under 20 minutes, in search of our sons. Hell, under Steve Staunton we even went to America on a recruitment drive more suited to colleges or grovelling politicians of late. 

For every Damien Duff, there was Ray Houghton. For every Kenny Cunningham, there was Phil Babb. For every Roy Keane, there was Mick McCarthy. Kevin Doyle? Give us Clinton Morrison! We Irish, ignored by the tournament, took the competitors and it seemed no one was safe. 

One of the greatest media campaigns I ever witnessed in Ireland was the Carlsberg billboards ahead of the 2002 World Cup – that’s right, after Roy left there was actually a World Cup on. Carlsberg put up a series of billboards with superstar players’ grandmothers on an Irish passport saying ‘Carlsberg don’t make passports…’ Roberto Carlos to replace Ian Harte? Euphoria in the streets! 

No embarrassment is taken, ‘the grand mother rule’ we yell. These players are seen as heroes, revisiting their homeland, thirsty for success in the green shirt! No one dares think that a certain number of the players would have gladly taken the call from their respective homelands if it came early enough. No one dares think of the easy opportunity we have for a decent player to make it to a World Cup, therefore attracting the type of players we would hate to join our club sides, nomadic mercenaries I believe they are often referred to as. No one dares think that it was just a drinking team not too long ago, but then again it was because they drank with us. No. We accept all who join. 

While other countries struggle with the threat of multiculturalism, we allow the only remaining discriminatory allowance under EU law, that of the home-grown national football side, to be cast aside in the pursuit of international unity. 

Take note Angela Merkel. You may indeed now finance us, but we, the boys in green, break the international mould. What you see before you now will only be best understood in 2022 when, I suspect, a distinctly South-American looking Qatar side embark on one of the most bizarre World Cups ever imagined…

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The January Sales

The January transfer window represented interesting viewing for several sections of football fans, primarily due to Monday’s insanity. Chelsea spent their hidden roubles, Liverpool lost their mind, Newcastle won the lottery, Tottenham Hotspur threw so much defecation against the wall that only Stephen Pienaar would enter their living room and Manchester City signed a giant but, hidden in the background, underneath a small pile of journalists recently incapacitated due to psychological burn-out, several Irish players made moves which can only help in some cases their own early careers and, in other cases, Giovanni Trapattoni’s national squad. 

Behind Monday’s Sky Sports hyperbole, Twitter rampage, extortionate price-rises in helicopter based travel opportunities and broken f5 buttons on everybody’s keyboard, players including Robbie Keane, Kevin Kilbane, Conor Sammon, Andy Keogh, Paddy Madden, James Chambers, Stephen Ireland, Andy Reid, Jay O’Shea and Jamie O’Hara (we can dream) all made moves, while Alan Judge, Liam Lawrence and Andy O’Brien cemented their deals at clubs where they had already been on loan. 

This has been quite the month for Ireland-eligible players, actually. Not long ago you could pick a team of eleven Irish players who were out of their club sides respectively and come close to the starting eleven you would see turn out for the boys in green. Now, however, game time will be the minimum factor acquired by players up and down the spectrum of our exports – encompassing all but one starting spot for Ireland. 

All eyes were on Robbie Keane since August and he finally got the move we all expected. Two years to the day since leaving second in the table Liverpool for Spurs in an about turn, Ireland’s leading scorer signed for the Premiership’s bottom club. However this is not to be greeted in a gloomy manner, for at West Ham at least he will be playing football, regularly, in the top division in England…until May at least. West Ham signed the injured but talented Demba Ba along with sensible signings like Gary O’Neill and Wayne Bridge during January so it is important to realise the West Ham Keane turns out for in February will not be the West Ham Keane was linked with in August. 

Irish society’s greatest point of contention, Stephen Ireland, has ended his time as a Villan, in club spelling at least, by moving to a side more suited to his public persona. There are enough mad men at Newcastle to push Ireland into the background – which is exactly where he prospered from when wearing sky-blue not so long ago. Whether he is accepted by Irish fans, accepted by Irish teammates, accepted by Irish management or even bothered returning to the Irish squad himself, we all still keep an eye on the midfielder, remembering the great hopes we had – be they real life club hopes, real life international hopes, or marginally less than real life fantasy football hopes. 

Kevin Kilbane – the closest thing to both a current and former-playing legend one could ever get – took the step down to League One, where his spell at Huddersfield will see him return to a more settled environment to maintain his incredible career, having lost heart at Hull. Still in the Irish squad, Kilbane has admitted he will probably not finish this international campaign. Yet his attendance is still breathtaking when you consider the consistent votes of confidence he has receive from successive national managers. 

Conor Sammon, who has a scoring rate in Scotland that can do nothing but impress, won his personal gamble of January. Having mulled over and eventually rejected a move to Championship strugglers Scunthorpe, Sammon was rewarded with a move to Wigan – who themselves shipped out a striker in Mauro Boselli – and the chances there were simply too good to turn down for the ex-Kilmarnock man. For those who see an international 29-man-squad for a friendly as an opportunity to both source youngsters and reward form players, Sammon was shockingly left out of the current Irish set-up. For those unsure as to the scoring exploits of all but the great Swede in the Scottish Premier League, now is the time to test out the former UCD and Derry City striker in a real division. 

Andy Keogh’s loan move to Portsmouth in August was eyed as a good idea for the Irishman to gain yet more experience, having already achieved international recognition under Trapattoni. However it didn’t work out and he has now joined Bristol City for similar reasons. It is not clear just what level the Wolves-owned player is best suited to, but regular playing is all that is required at this stage. 

Paddy Madden has left the begging Gypsies in Phibsboro for a stint at Carlisle. A lower profile move than the Celtic rumours we were all hearing, but a decent opportunity for a player who is only going to improve in England. Bohemians fans know just how good the Dubliner has been, but more-so know the potential he shows for the future. Another League of Ireland export is James Chambers, who left title-winning Shamrock Rovers to sign for Hamilton Academicals – a team now widely known in Ireland ever since the emergence of James McCarthy not too long ago. Chambers was one the league’s best players last year and the ex-Shelbourne player will be monitored by many now that he has headed to Scotland. 

Andy Reid’s loan-move into Charlie Adam’s space at Blackpool was more sensible than many of January’s panic-decisions, scuppered only by the Adam shaped body still holding down a position which he has more than made his own this season. How Reid will fit in is a mystery, but let us hope he gets a look in at a side he really should be starting in, long-term. Reid is never higher regarded than when not playing, but a good run in the side should get him back to the form which encouraged idiocy around these shores – idiocy encapsulated by vitriolic complaints that Trapattoni was leaving out Ireland’s answer to Michel Platini. 

Under the radar, Jamie O’Hara – still undecided on his international status – has gone to Wolves in a rather sensible move. Mick McCarthy has been crying out for a centre-midfielder of the standard of Steve Sidwell, O’Hara is better than Steve Sidwell, so all is well there. Now if we could just get him to make his mind up and usurp either of our centre midfielders we would be all happy. Elsewhere Jay O’Shea returned to Birmingham from his loan deal at Stevenage just long enough to sign the dotted line for a spell at Port Vale. 

Alan Judge has signed permanently for Notts County following a successful six-month loan deal, Liam Lawrence signed permanently for the somehow-still-functioning Portsmouth, and, perhaps the most consistent of Irishmen in England this season, Andy O’Brien, made his stellar move to Leeds permanent – half of an all Irish partnership with Alex Bruce at the centre of defence. 

Of course this would not be a description of the January transfer window without reference to dusty handed Manchester City dweller Shay Given. Given is rumoured to have turned down an approach from Sven Goran Eriksson’s Championship side Leicester a couple of weeks into the window, before head Citizen Roberto Mancini encouraged such a loan-move to the lower divisions for Ireland’s No 1. No such move was forthcoming though, which is quite the worry for Trapattoni, despite the relative positives listed above. However, looking at the Italian’s recent squad, it is clear he and Shay share the same view of disdain for goalkeepers in the division one below the greatest in the world (so we are told). Kieran Westwood – behind Paddy Kenny in both form and performance standards in the Championship this season – is the only challenger to Given, so he’s more than safe for the time being.