Appreciate Robbie Keane while you can, you’ll miss him when he’s gone

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Following Padraig Harrington’s recent, surprising, win at the Honda Classic, the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show on Today FM asked their listeners to pick ‘Ireland’s greatest sportsperson‘.

Debates of this nature don’t tend to achieve a whole lot, and comparing different sports isn’t an exact science, but they still provide an insight into the tastes and interests of Irish sports fans. The listening public settled on jockey A.P. McCoy in first place, ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, Harrington, Katie Taylor and former cyclist Sean Kelly.

The absence of any footballer was noticeable, if not unexpected. Though the perception of the Republic of Ireland team has improved since Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, the side are currently in a dogfight to qualify for Euro 2016 and the ‘Ole Ole’ brigade have seemingly moved on since the harsh realities of international football became apparent.

If one footballer was to make a list like the one on Ian Dempsey’s show, most would most likely opt for either Roy Keane or Paul McGrath. Any mention of Robbie Keane would probably be met with raised eyebrows and a series of ‘boyhood clubs’ jokes. Our site conducted a Sports Personality of the 2014 poll and Katie Taylor won, with 32.8% of the 2,665 votes, while Keane received five.

That’s five votes, not five per cent. The Ireland captain finished second last, with 0.19 per cent of votes.

Puyol and Robbie Keane 16/6/2002 DIGITALIt’d be wrong to single out some of twenty-nine others who finished ahead of Keane, but it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest most Irish sports fans would fail to recognise a few of them if they walked by them in the street.

In 2014, Keane won MLS, was named the league’s best player and scored the winning goal in the cup final, while also scoring goals for Ireland. A failure to recognise the player’s achievements conveys a greater malaise about Ireland’s record goalscorer, and perhaps public perception of football in general.

However, without seeking to enter a ‘my sport is better than yours’ trivial debate (can’t we all just get along?), the failure to contextualise and appreciate Robbie Keane’s commitment to the Irish national team, his ability and achievements is dumbfounding.

And it won’t be long before he’s a former Irish international.

Robbie Keane of  Ireland celebratesSince making his international debut in March 1998, Keane has scored 65 goals in 138 internationals and is currently the twelfth highest goalscorer in the history of international football. The only Europeans to have scored more are Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis.

Klose and Muller are World Cup winners, while the latter two played for one of the greatest sides ever, the Hungary team of the early 1950s. Puskás even played for Spain for a while.

Keane never had the luxury of switching to another international side, or team mates of that quality to set him up, yet he’s consistently scored goals across three decades of international football. Four months before his 35th birthday, Keane remains Ireland’s best chance to score a goal, yet he’s become something of a punch-line, for many, about ‘boyhood clubs’.

In addition to not adequately recognising the Dubliner’s achievements, it could be argued there’s never been a proper appreciation of just how good a footballer Keane was, and still remains.

Keane’s not a natural athlete, hence the trademark rolly-tumble goal celebration, but what he’s always possessed is great finishing ability, intelligence and wonderful movement. Keane’s 65 international goals are testament to his quality as a player, not some by-product of always starting for Ireland and beefing up his tally against cannon fodder. The striker has scored almost every key international Irish goal for over a decade.

From the last-minute World Cup goals against Spain and Germany to goals away to the Netherlands, France, and Italy, it’d be unfair to ever label him a flat-track bully. Anyway, if it was that easy to even score against the perceived minnows, the team wouldn’t still be reliant on Keane to score goals, and he wouldn’t be the top goalscorer to come from these islands.

Robbie Keane of the Republic of Ireland scores a dramatic penalty kickKeane’s movement alone deserves considerable merit, an aspect of his game his former manager Gordon Strachan was particularly impressed by. ‘Where did you learn your movement from?’ the then Coventry boss asked Keane, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’.

‘I dunno’ Keane replied. ‘I didn’t learn it off anyone, it must have been something that just came to me. It wasn’t like somebody came and grabbed me and said, “Do this, do that,” you know. In training you learn little things, different movements, like coming to get the ball and spinning off… It was just something I must have just had as a kid’.

Keane’s a street footballer, honing his skills playing football growing up on a housing estate Tallaght, where space is a valuable commodity.

The striker would’ve been pitted against bigger, stronger opponents, but football’s beauty lies that skill and spatial awareness make such physical qualities redundant. If we could somehow attach Shane Long’s legs to Keane’s brain, the Irish team post-Keane wouldn’t seem so bleak.

Wigan Athletic v Tottenham HotspurKeane’s best spell in club football was alongside Dimitar Berbatov, an equally cerebal player. The two struck up a wonderful partnership at Tottenham Hotspur, before departing for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively in 2008.

Keane’s record in the Premier League also deserves recognition and contextualising. The Dubliner scored 126 goals in the English top flight, the twelfth highest amount and ahead of players such as Didier Drogba, Nicholas Anelka and his soon to be LA Galaxy team-mate Steven Gerrard.

If an Irish player joining the Premier League now was to make 126 appearances in the English top flight, never mind scoring 126 goals, it would be seen as a considerable achievement.

Even Keane’s record in MLS seems strangely overlooked back home. Observers of the major European leagues may consider it a footballing backwater, but players with greater talent and significantly higher profiles, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, haven’t performed as well as ‘the unidentified fan’ in MLS.

Keane certainly hasn’t treated his time in LA as a semi-retirement gig.

460397826If one still doesn’t adequately appreciate Keane’s talent, or his considerable international achievements, then his commitment to the Irish team deserves merit.

In an era when the young Irish player of the year may end up playing for another country, and players seemingly treat international breaks as a nuisance, Keane consistently shows up when it’d be easier to stay at home, 5,000 miles away.

This isn’t an argument claiming Robbie Keane is Ireland’s greatest ever footballer or sports person, but more an examination of why he’s excluded from such debates, which lack obvious context.

Katie Taylor is the best in the world at what she does, it would be pure ignorance to dispute that and completely wrong. The Irish rugby team proved last weekend they are the best team in Europe and contenders for the World Cup, while Gaelic footballers and hurlers deserve considerable credit and admiration for their levels of dedication.

However, professional football is in a different stratosphere, in terms of competitiveness, to women’s amateur boxing, rugby and Gaelic games. 209 nations play international football, that’s more footballing nations than actual officially recognised countries, and, of those, 54 play in Europe, the most competitive and wealthiest football continent.

For Ireland to even be competitive is achievement, given that we are country with fewer playing resources and less developed infrastructure than a lot of those we come up against.

This isn’t an attempt to belittle other sports, but just a reminder to those who use Irish success in other sports as a tool to belittle the Irish team. Something that will likely happen if Ireland lose to Poland on Sunday, a week after the Irish Rugby team won the Six Nations.

Republic of Ireland v Gibraltar - EURO 2016 QualifierNo-one will ever better Robbie Keane’s goalscoring or appearance record for Ireland. As it becomes harder and harder for Irish players to break into teams across the water, it’s difficult to imagine anyone scoring more Premier League goals, let alone have a career spanning three decades.

And as football continues to be homogenised, we’re unlikely to see another street footballer like Keane again. Such players are becoming extinct, as academy clones continue to be mass produced.

Keane isn’t as polished as Brian O’Driscoll, as interesting as Roy Keane or as flawed as Paul McGrath. He’s just a footballer from Tallaght who’s had a brilliant career, and deserves suitable recognition. He should not be a punchline about having numerous boyhood clubs or for failing to be recognised by someone writing a picture caption in Los Angeles.

We’ll miss him when he’s gone, and, if Ireland don’t record a positive result against Poland on Sunday, that might not be too far away.

Ireland end of year review: O’Neill and Keane need to step up or 2015 will be damp squib

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It always seems to be the way, but Irish football has more questions than answers as the year comes to an end

No, the ever dwindling number of Irish players at the game’s elite level is not main one –  that problem is present at the end of every calendar year.

As 2014 draws to a close, there are more immediate issues to address, and they centre on the stewardship of the national team.

Martin O’Neill, the decorated manager, and Roy Keane, the most high-profile assistant manager in the history of football, face a crucial year. If 2015 in any way mirrors this year, then the national team could be steering into the abyss.

The focus on numerous off-field events dwarfed the attention afforded to Ireland’s performances this year.

O’Neill and Keane were dubbed a ‘dream team’ when appointed in October 2013. In terms of profile and column inches, the two men have lived up to their billing. Yet has the Irish team really progressed from the final days of Giovanni Trapattoni? It’s still relatively early days but missing out on Euro 2016 is now a real possibility.

Keane is such a controversial and compelling figure there will be possibly never be a time when interest in his life wanes. It certainly hasn’t been boring, but so far there are few hard facts that suggest the assistant manager’s coaching input outweighs the attention his presence generates.

The players and O’Neill say Keane is a positive presence on the training ground and he very well may be.

Yet during his time as a television analyst, the Cork man rarely seemed concerned with the tactical aspects of the game and, when manager of Sunderland and Ipswich, he frequently delegated coaching duties to his staff.

Keane undoubtedly possesses vast football experience and knowledge, but it was never apparent that he was destined to be a coach. There has been talk amongst fans, and media outlets, that Keane is perhaps more suited to international management, citing his potential ability to inspire and extract performances due to his direct nature and charismatic presence.

However, even at the Irish team’s lowest point no one could ever validly claim they lacked motivation. The players need coaches to frame and harness their enthusiasm, to wed it with a cohesive tactical plan, designed to make the side greater than the sum of their parts. It remains to be seen if Keane can contribute to this. There was little sign of such during his time as assistant coach at Aston Villa.

Roy Keane is spoken to by an official 14/11/2014

What is in no doubt whatsoever though is Keane’s position as a lightning rod for attention. O’Neill, while at times appears tetchy at being constantly asked about his deputy, evidently feels it is worth the cost, possibly because it has distracted from some of the side’s failings.

The manager would no doubt immediately dispute this. Fans would have just cause to cite Ireland’s result against Germany – the most an Irish fan has had to celebrate in years – as evidence for O’Neill’s positive influence on the side.

However, Ireland’s performance in the Scotland loss points to a number of pressing concerns. The team is essentially in a mini-group with Poland and Scotland. Without being overly presumptuous, the mighty German machine will spark into life next year and bulldoze their way to Euro 2016.

Every team will defeat Gibraltar, and, barring an upset, Georgia. This leaves three teams fighting for two spots, one of which being a play-off place. Currently Ireland are trailing and appear the weakest.

Before October’s tie against Ireland, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan said he and his counterpart were ‘old-fashioned‘. Ireland’s tactics during the game seemed archaic. O’Neill opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters up front, dropping main goal threat Robbie Keane to the bench, and leaving Ireland’s midfield outnumbered.

Charlie Mulgrew was made to look like some highland Xavi as Ireland struggled to pick up the roaming Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney.

Granted the Irish team were weakened by the absence of their first-choice central midfield pairing, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, but all the more reason to start a third player in the position. It had seemed the only reason to play such a formation was to accommodate Robbie Keane, yet the game was the first time in 13 years he had failed to start a qualifier when he was available.

Ireland’s tactical frustrations were further compounded by the stunting of Seamus Coleman’s attacking outlet and, at the times, the team were reminiscent of the worst elements of the Trapattoni years.

Hitting long-balls, yet not backing them up with pressure from midfield, cautious and overworked, Ireland fatally switched off as Scotland scored a well-executed goal. There is an argument to be made such a moment is a reflection of the work carried out by the respective management teams. If so, Ireland’s came up short.

Anyone who has followed O’Neill’s career will be familiar with his exuberant touchline antics and ability to raise the performances of his sides.

He was touted as one the game’s brightest managers and had fantastic success with Celtic and Leicester City.

After returning to England his time with Aston Villa ended acrimoniously, before his career seemed to bottom out at Sunderland. The Germany result pointed to a potential managerial renaissance for O’Neill, but the Scotland game further emphasised the evidence present before he took the Ireland job. It seems as though the modern game has surpassed him.

Martin OÕNeill reacts in the closing stages 14/11/2014

A sea change occurred in football in 2008. Spain’s team of small, technically gifted players blazed a trail through the European Championship.

For years midfield had been deemed the land of the giants, physicality ruled as Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Roy Keane became the benchmark for the position.

Being a good footballer alone was not sufficient; players had to be lung-busting athletes. Spain broke the mould. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona swept all before them in 2009, winning a historic treble of titles, it was confirmed; a new phase in football had begun.

Managers and teams were forced to adapt or perish as the dominance of both sides continued over the next five years. The current world champions are a hybrid of the two styles, combining German physicality with Spanish technique.

From Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool, Southampton and Everton in the Premier League, to the national teams of Chile, Italy and Japan, the influence of Barcelona and Spain remains omnipresent throughout world football.

Teams can be viewed as either being influenced by this change, or a reaction against it and most managers operating at the elite level, including international football, have adapted. Even if it is at a most basic level of not allowing the team’s central midfield to be outnumbered in favour of a more physical presence up front.

However, judging by his final days with Sunderland, and Ireland’s display against Scotland, O’Neill seems rooted to the past. He still seemingly favours the traditional ‘British’ style of 4-4-2, laced with physicality and effort and designed to hit a big-man up top early. O’Neill was, after all, Emile Heskey’s manager for over six years of his career.

He approached the Scotland tie as though it was a traditional ‘British’ derby game and was tactically outwitted by Strachan. One could argue Ireland do not possess the players to play any other way. But they would probably say the same about Scotland. In a game of apparent equals, the Irish team were made to look distinctly the lesser of the two.

2015 will be the most pivotal year for the Irish national team in recent memory. There are crucial qualifiers against Poland and Scotland, as well as Germany and a high-profile friendly with England. The prize at stake is qualification for Euro 2016, which has been expanded to 24 teams, almost half of the teams in Europe.

If Ireland fail to qualify, it will surely be the lowest ebb of the Irish team. Even Keane’s presence will not be able to deflect from that.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

O’NEILL AND STRACHAN: TWO CAREERS RUNNING ALONG THE SAME TRACK

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THEY WILL BE IN OPPOSING DUG-OUTS TONIGHT AT CELTIC PARK BUT THERE ARE EXTRAORDINARY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE IRISH AND SCOTTISH MANAGERS

Originally published on SportsJOE.ie

It’s March 2013 and Martin O’Neill’s distinguished managerial career has bottomed out. Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, has fallen to 17th in the Premier League, with seven games to play, and decide to sack the Derry native. O’Neill’s 25 years in the dugout had been built on possessing supreme man-management skills, a keen eye for a player and an ability to infuse his teams with his own restless energy. Once dubbed the ‘Duracell Bunny’, due to animated touchline actions, O’Neill, in his final months at Sunderland, appeared flat.

Rewind a few years earlier, to October 2010, and the current Scotland manager is in a near identical situation. Gordon Strachan has resigned from his post as Middlesbrough manager after less than a year in the role with the club 20th in the Championship. When the Scot took charge ‘Boro were fourth, three points off the top. He leaves them in their lowest league position in over 20 years. Strachan was so embarrassed by his performance he tore up his contract, refusing compensation.

England’s North-East had become a graveyard for two successful managerial careers. The promise both men had shown at Celtic, particularly O’Neill,  looked set to be unfulfilled as the modern game seemingly surpassed them. O’Neill and Strachan were banished to the purgatory of football punditry. However, tonight’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier between Scotland and Ireland, and return to the white hot atmosphere of Celtic Park, is perhaps the ultimate departure from sharing a TV studio with Adrian Chiles.

Both men return to the scene of some of their greatest feats in management having bounced back from failure in their last club position. Strachan and O’Neill have revived their careers in international management, and in the process presided over a mini-revival of the Scottish and Irish national teams. However, in such a tight group, one man’s career renaissance is likely to come at the other’s expense.

The slump and subsequent upturn of Strachan’s managerial career is mirrored by O’Neill’s resurgence. The Scotland manager was speaking about his counterpart last week, saying: ‘Martin is a happy eccentric and I enjoy his company’. Strachan also conceded they share similar outlook on football. ‘We use our eyes, rather than stats. Are we fatigued or not fatigued? We’re old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same things and it didn’t do him any harm. I’m not saying we are up there with him, I’m just saying being old-fashioned has served us OK’.

Being ‘old-fashioned’ is just one of the similarities between the men. From managing Celtic to playing at World Cups, winning European titles as players with provincial clubs to working with Roy Keane, Strachan and O’Neill have treaded similar footballing paths along the road to tonight’s game. The two men also played under two of football’s greatest managers and most influential characters, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson. O’Neill spent 10 years at Nottingham Forest, six of those under the guidance of Clough, winning a league title and two European Cups. While Strachan also played for Ferguson for six years at Aberdeen, part of the side which broke up the Old Firm duopoly and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Real Madrid in 1983.

Martin O'Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final

Martin O’Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final.

O’Neill and Strachan also had, at times, strained relationships with their autocratic managers. O’Neill has spoken about how Clough would never praise his performances and the two men differed over what the Derry native’s best position was. O’Neill saw himself as a central midfielder, while Clough used him primarily on the right wing. Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a memoir of Clough’s time at Forest, wrote: ‘Cloughie could never get the better of Martin O’Neill. When he was in the mood, Martin was as articulate as the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. That had Cloughie totally bamboozled.’

Strachan had a similarly complicated relationship with Ferguson, albeit their differences were more personal. The former Manchester United manager said in his 1999 autobiography that he ‘decided this man could not be trusted an inch’. Their troubled relationship continued when Ferguson followed his former player south. According to Strachan, his manager ‘took up from where he had left off with me at Aberdeen, I remember telling him, “Listen, you spoke to me like that nine years ago. It might have worked well then but it is not going to work now”. But the screaming and shouting did not cease, it just got worse and more personal’.

While Strachan played until he was 40, O’Neill was forced to retire from a knee injury in 1985, aged 32. The Derry native moved into management and, due to his work with Leicester City between 1995 and 2000, earned a reputation as one of the game’s most promising managers. O’Neill got Leicester promoted to the Premier League, won two League Cups, and established the club as an ever present in the top flight during his tenure. O’Neill then took charge of a beleaguered Celtic, who had finished 21 points off Rangers the season before his arrival.

However, he soon re-energised the club, winning his first Old Firm derby 6-2 and completing a domestic treble in his first season. Celtic would win three league titles, three Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup. The club also reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where they suffered a heart-breaking defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. When O’Neill stepped away from his position in 2005 he was the most successful, and perhaps most loved, Celtic manager since Jock Stein.

Strachan succeeded O’Neill at Celtic in 2005. While not as successful as O’Neill in English club management, the Scot had experienced relative success with Southampton. In his three years with the club, Strachan secured their Premier League survival and guided them to the 2003 FA Cup final, before resigning in 2004. Strachan was never as popular as his predecessor at Celtic Park, but was arguably as successful, as Celtic won three league titles, two Scottish League Cups and a Scottish Cup. Strachan also achieved a feat his much vaunted predecessor could not when leading Celtic to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

When both men returned to English club management they found the game had changed. O’Neill took charge of Aston Villa in 2006 and was optimistic he could revive the club’s fortunes. ‘I am well aware of the history of this football club’, he said. ‘Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream’. However O’Neill found there was a glass ceiling for Premier League clubs outside the Champions League.

Roy Keane's unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan

Roy Keane’s unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan.

Villa invested heavily but failed to better three successive sixth-place finishes. O’Neill resigned the day before the opening of the 2010-11 season, in dispute with Randy Lerner, the Villa owner, over allocation of transfer funds. Despite the club entering a downward spiral since O’Neill’s departure, Villa fans were left with a bitter taste towards the Derry native. O’Neill had spent over £120 million in his four years in charge, signing players on big wages, but was unable to crack the Premier League’s top four.

Strachan would also find club management difficult upon returning south. Despite an overhaul of the club’s squad, the Scot presided over Middlesbrough’s slide down the Championship table before resigning. Strachan was out of work for two years before taking the Scotland job. While O’Neill, after being replaced at Sunderland by managerial ‘charlatan’ Paolo Di Canio, was linked with Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace during his time out of the game. Long gone were the days when he was being interviewed for the England job or touted as next Manchester United manager.

The move into international management has revitalised both men’s careers. Both Strachan and O’Neill took charge of sides at their lowest point, two squads bereft of confidence following the stagnant spells of Giovanni Trapattoni and Craig Levein.

Ireland were ranked 70th in the world, while Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup were long gone when Strachan took charge in January 2013. Both sides go into tonight’s game on an upward trajectory following recent performances and fancy their respective chances of securing at least a place-off place.

However, qualification for one of Ireland or Scotland is likely to be secured at the other’s expense, meaning the career renaissance of both men could culminate this evening back at Celtic Park.

Strachan and O’Neill have taken similar paths to tonight’s game, but only one may have a happy return to Paradise.

GIGI RIVA: THE ULTIMATE ITALIAN STRIKER

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He might be reaching a major milestone today but Riva is still the standard by which all Italian strikers are judged.

Originally published on SportsJOE.ie

In Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp’s autobiography written with David Winner, the Arsenal legend speaks about his tough time in Serie A with Inter Milan. Bergkamp had graduated from Ajax’s academy, excelled in the first team under Johan Cruyff and become one of the hottest properties in European football. In the summer of 1993 the forward had his pick of clubs, but chose Inter. By the end of his two-year stay, Bergkamp was so unhappy with football he considered retirement.

The source of his discontent was essentially a culture clash. Bergkamp was a fish out of water in every sense. His introverted nature sat uneasily with his Latin teammates. While on the pitch Continue reading

THE FALL OF IRELAND’S ELITE FOOTBALLERS

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The decline in the number of Irish players in the Premier League is concerning for a nation now ranked 70th in the world.

Originally published on These Football Times 31/07/2014.

Upon arrival in cities, generations of Irish migrants’ first port of call, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

However some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. The experience of migrants encountering racism is by no means exclusive to the Irish and such discrimination is something that is largely resigned to the past.

Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, escaping unemployment rather than famine, but the majority are now greater educated, skilled and employable. In this global and largely more tolerant age, Irish migrants do not face the same level of hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

To play in the Premier League, as for millions all over the world, represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and, for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets, dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, North America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. Former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles in his autobiography recounts listening to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight-years-old, United was his favourite team, and the captain Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers have long plied their trade successfully in their Anglo neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to Belfast’s George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful and, for some, best footballers of their respective generations. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams (pictured, the Irish contingent at the Gunners in the 80s – O’Leary, Stapleton, Jennings, Nelson, Devine, Rice, Brady) of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. In 2014, the largest Irish Premier League contingent is at strugglers Hull City.

In the 2007/08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013/14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, however when you consider this development alongside other aspects, it becomes apparent that Irish football is in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain’s big leagues, is ever dwindling and the career progression paths stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, while the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull’s Shane Long.

The paths of these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent, who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means for finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as England and Scotland’s own playing pools continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long’s careers are another case of accident rather than design. Both come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary respectively. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams until moving to England as adults. Long was eighteen when Reading signed him for a nominal fee, Coleman aged twenty when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic to secure such moves, the transfers, from the English club’s perspective, would have been considered low-risk transactions.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These previously considered, more talented players, would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea. Moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak scenario for young Irish footballers, but also an unavoidable reality. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new teammates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make a top flight first team, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The export market is one of the key tenants of the Irish economy, in both boom and bust years. However the market for exporting football talent has significantly diminished. Therefore the current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home.

Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5 million – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done such in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over two hundred clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However it is strikingly obvious that, like England, there are not enough of these coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 UEFA Pro licences, 183 holders of the ‘A’ licence and 488 with the ‘B’ licence. A factor may be that these qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than Germany or Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who admirably dedicate their time and effort.

That said, there are also too many who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a team in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant and country of two hundred million people, without a creative, dynamic presence in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

It could be argued that these players would materialise through self-sufficiency involving a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight, and of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the Chief Executive, has a yearly salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing the association’s significant level of debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those atop the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings which allowed ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.

Enjoy watching Spain at the World Cup as you will miss them when they’re gone

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Originally published by The Guardian 13/06/2014.

Despite winning three international tournaments in a row, this Spain team are more respected than they are loved. We should savour their artistry and applaud their successes while we can

As TV becomes increasingly saturated by football coverage, there is a chance that fans might take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players was a rare treat for previous generations but it is now a weekly habit for many. Each weekend we can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence and then switch over to see Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain overexposure can extend to international teams, in particular world and European champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection or even adequate appreciation of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements and the road Spain took to reach such heights.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, the Telegraph conducted a poll on their website, asking: “Is watching Spain boring?” Of the 1,243 people who voted, 66% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter-attack. Games could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, Spain still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with in-from players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, but Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown.

Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying: “It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain were crushed 3-0 by the hosts. After the 7-0 aggregate pummelling Bayern Munich doled out to Barcelona in the Champions League, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki-taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated Spain’s play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil were worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team.

Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of 30. Spain enter this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, this is probably the last World Cup for Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being “boring” return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.” However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time Del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The team has boasted some of the most technically proficient players to have played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. His prime, like that of the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and managing his playing time effectively could be crucial in Brazil. He is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer with such technical ability and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them?

Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so: “Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past did not experience such exposure. Between 1951 and 1956, Hungary played 59 games and only lost once: the 1954 World Cup final, in which they were defeated by West Germany. Games at the time were more open, but this Hungary team are universally adored while Spain’s dominance in the modern era is greeted indifferently by some.

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is dominant and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now. This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

Perhaps this skews some fans’ enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. They have the mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer and keep winning.

This could be the last summer to watch some of their greatest players in action. In that 1981 interview Del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back.” Perhaps people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.

Spain: You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone

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Praised by many for their modern style of play, yet criticized by others for their perceived boring tactics, I look at why we’ll miss this generation of Spain players when they’re gone.

Originally published by These Football Times 3/6/2014.

As televised football coverage becomes increasingly saturated, there is a chance that football fans may take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players – a rare treat for previous generations – is now, for many, a weekly occurrence. Each week one can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence, before switching over to see either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain over-exposure can extend to international teams, in particular World and European Champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection, or even adequate appreciation, of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements, and the road Spain took to reach such heights playing in such a manner.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, The Daily Telegraph conducted a poll, on their website, asking: ‘Are you bored of Spain?’ Of the 1,243 people who voted, 65% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter attack. Games, as a result, could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However Spain, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with players in form such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, yet Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown. Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying:

“It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain was crushed 3-0 by the hosts. Combined with the Champions League pummelling’s of Barcelona by Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated their play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of Spanish vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team. Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline, the latter terminally so. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of thirty. Spain enters this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad, and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, for players such as Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa, this is, most likely, their final World Cup. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being ‘boring’ return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything”. However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained overt quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The recent Spanish teams have had some of the most technically proficient players to have ever played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. The Barcelona midfielder’s prime, like the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and effectively managing his playing time could be crucial in Brazil. However Xavi is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer, with such technical ability, and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them? Former Liverpool midfielder, Graeme Souness, also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so.

“Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past would not have experienced such exposure. Hungary, from 1951 to ‘56, one of the most revered sides of all time, played 59 games and only lost one, the World Cup final in ’54 to West Germany. Granted games at the time were more open, but would such dominance in the modern era be greeted with the same indifference Spain seem to encounter?

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is the dominant ethos and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now.

This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult such as the popular advent of watching television dramas, when they have ended their run, in short bulks. Consuming shows like The Wire, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, over a short period of time, is more appealing than following them week to week, month to month and year to year. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

There is an argument to suggest that this ideal skews some fans enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. The mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer, when many would have rested on their laurels, to keep winning.

However, for many, Spain’s brilliance will still pale in recognition to their perceived sterile domination. For some of their greatest players this could be the last summer to watch them in action. In that 1981 interview, del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back”. Perhaps, like The Wire or Breaking Bad, people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.