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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Irish soccer needs more than points against Sweden and Austria

Anthony Pilkington
Anthony Pilkington is hoping to make his Ireland début against Sweden on Friday.

SEPTEMBER’S road is paved with opportunity. No other month is as definitive as this in either setting the tone for the soccer year or setting the sun on a managerial career.

Think back to the Septembers of 2000 and 2010 for away results which kickstarted campaigns that ended in qualification — the 2-2 draw with Holland in Amsterdam, the 1-0 victory in Armenia a decade later.

Then there were the backs-against-the-wall results, that famous 1-0 win over the Dutch in 2001, the Richard Dunne resurrection of the Iron Curtain in Moscow in 2011.

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It’s also been the month when jobs — Mick McCarthy’s, Steve Staunton’s and Brian Kerr’s — were effectively lost.

So, this is make-or-break time for Giovanni Trapattoni. Largely unloved, no one will shed a tear if he goes, a consequence of a man working too little and getting paid too much.

But this month isn’t about Trap. This is about Irish soccer — and its endless battle to win respectability. As the years pass, and the Premier League becomes increasingly sexier as a brand, the idea of Irish people caring deeply about the national team is becoming quainter by the day.

It hardly helps that the style of play is turgid to watch — yet this aside, the bottom line is that international football is on a slippery slope. The club game rules.

Only in the month of June on alternative years, when the World Cup or European Championship finals occur, can the international scene hold any relevance. Otherwise it is a diet of Premier League and Champions League. Ireland versus Sweden? Austria versus Ireland? The appetite has been sated.

For years, especially when Ireland reached major championship finals, the GAA was practically neurotic wondering if their games would suffer going head to head with World Cups and European Championships.

Finally, they seem to have relaxed — although hurling geeks appear obsessed with dissing on soccer to further emphasise how great their own game is, when the truth is the action speaks for itself. People wouldn’t attend if it wasn’t worth watching.

But it is. A ticket can’t be bought for neither love nor money this week for the All-Ireland. Hurling’s future is safe — and after Sunday’s Dublin-Kerry blockbuster, Gaelic football hasn’t much to worry about either.

Irish soccer, though, is at yet another crossroads. If Trap manages to work the oracle and his reshaped, younger, team pull off a couple of wins, or even a win and a draw over the next week, momentum may build and the dissenters may return to the church.

If not, well what then?

It will be September before there is another meaningful international match.

And it is not as if all eyes will turn to the League of Ireland for hope of filling the void. There, the most amazing story in years is unfolding where Dundalk, a team built on a shoestring, went top of the League last Friday.

This is a story straight out of the Brian Clough book, how a manager, supposedly washed up after a spell at a bigger club, is turning water into wine at a smaller one.

Stephen Kenny may have lasted a little longer than 44 days with Shamrock Rovers but his reign was so short-lived, so fraught with tension, that people wondered if he would come back in the game at all.

Not only has HE come back but so have Dundalk. The most successful provincial club in the Irish game have been in the doldrums since 1995, the year they last won the title.

Oriel Park, their old ground, is so antiquated that you’d half-expect it to be used as a film set for a reconstruction of Clough’s early years. And then there are a group of players — all of them rejects — who have been forged together, mostly on wages of £400-a-week, to take the League by storm.

With the run-in approaching, people are starting to believe a miracle can happen; that a club that finished second from bottom last year — and then saw its best two players poached by better paying, and that stage, better playing, sides — could, somehow, become a force.

Yet it has happened. Within Dundalk, a border town that has been as demoralised by the recession as it once was by The Troubles, people have a pep in their step again. They don’t need a title to feel like winners, although it would help.

For the Irish soccer fraternity, you have to wonder how deeply this story will help their cause. Dublin-Kerry is on people’s tongues, not Dundalk.

The resurrection of the Lilywhites may be a thrilling story but it is being told from a fringe festival.

Croke Park and the Premier League are the stages people want to see.

For Irish soccer to grab a slice of the audience, a win on Friday is vital.

 

 

 

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