Germany v Ireland
IT IS the week when the rebels — Darron Gibson, Andy Reid, Kevin Doyle and Anthony Stokes — return from exile. The danger, though, is that too much will be expected from them.
Can midfielders from Everton and Nottingham Forest and strikers who earn a living in League One and Scotland restore a nation’s morale and beat Germany on their own patch?
It’s almost impossible to see that happening because this is the same German side who knocked the stuffing out of Giovanni Trapattoni last year, beating Ireland 6-1 at the Aviva; the same German side who have reached the semi-finals, or better, of the last four major tournaments.
Then again, that’s Ireland for you, a nation of great expectations.
“The public expect too much,” said Noel King, the interim Irish manager. “I live in Dublin. I am out and about. I meet people, talk football and hear things. They are saying, ‘We should have won that game, should have taken that scalp, should have qualified for those finals’.
They forget that the teams who beat us in Poland last year — Croatia, Italy and Spain — have a much longer football tradition than us and have a fully professional league. In Italy and Spain’s case, you have populations of 45 million-plus. That is the reality we have to compete with.”
King isn’t prone to hyperbole. More often than not he keeps his counsel but some things irk football people in Ireland and a lack of perspective is the biggest issue.
Tomorrow, Ireland play a country whose football history is bettered only by Brazil’s and Italy’s. We shouldn’t stand a chance yet the lazy analysts will point to the fact that Germany reinvented themselves after Euro 2000 by investing in youth and they reckon Ireland should do the same thing.
It isn’t so easy.
Ireland do not have 70 million people, a league like the Bundesliga or a war chest to fund the revolution. Irish football lives from hand to mouth. That is the reality. So the fact we have been to five major tournaments since 1988 is a reasonable return and better than most other countries — Croatia aside — who have a similarly sized population.
The trouble is that when a reality like this is pointed out, it smacks of a defeatist mentality. And once a side is given an excuse for failure, then sure enough, a self-fulfilling prophecy will play out.
Finding a happy medium is King’s task and one of Martin O’Neill, Mick McCarthy, Chris Hughton, Hector Cuper or, if we’re lucky, Guus Hiddink’s job for down the line.
What will make the task easier for Giovanni Trapattoni’s long-term successor is the fact that King has acted as peacemaker and got Gibson, Reid and company back on board.
He may not get the middle ground he seeks in terms of expectations and reality but the middle part of the ground in Cologne will be packed with better players.
An all-singing, all-dancing midfield of Gibson, Reid, Wes Hoolahan, James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady, is on the cards.
“We can accommodate all those guys, yes,” said King. “We have other options too as well. But in the case of Andy, for example, we have someone who protects the ball. That’s key for me in international football.”
For the last five years all Reid could protect was his reputation — after Trapattoni trampled all over it. He’s a proud Irishman, a decent player, a decent man and deserves this recall.
Gibson and Stokes weren’t quite as wronged. Yet there are signs they’ve done a little growing up recently and King is a fan of both players.
“I had Anthony when he was with the Under 21s and he’s a good fella,” said King.
Could he be trusted to start?
With Reid almost sure to get the nod, the intriguing question will be whether the change in philosophy from graft to craft will work, whether the issue of mobility will come into focus against one of the fittest teams on the planet.
For years, Trapattoni rallied against the little men. He selected guys who could handle themselves physically. Technical ability was secondary.
King’s thoughts on the game come from the opposite side of the chamber. He’s a purist rather than a pragmatist and fancies going into war with a couple of creators. You hope it works out tomorrow in Cologne. But no matter what Irish side you picked to play the Germans, positive or negative, the fear of a slaughter would always be there.