England v Ireland
ANYONE who needed to know the difference in priorities for Ireland and England ahead of tonight’s friendly simply had to speak to Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane.
Both have gone through hell and high water in their attempts to play; Keane arguing with the executives of LA Galaxy, Dunne with Giovanni Trapattoni.
Keane eventually convinced Galaxy to release him for the fixture, while Dunne made headway with Trap.
Although he has been left out of Trap’s 28-man panel, the defender has been allowed to train with the squad, which effectively is a gateway to the team.
That Trap chose to ignore him was understandable — after all, Dunne hasn’t kicked a ball in anger since the Italian game in Euro 2012 — but when you have one of your few star players texting you continually, insisting he is fit and raring to go, you have to pay attention.
And Trap has, as well as paying attention to the fact that eight members of England’s 22- man squad have been away last week on club tours to the Americas — hardly the best preparation for a couple of dates with Ireland and Brazil.
By now, the Italian has found out enough about our national psyche and history to know that this game matters — a hell of a lot more than most friendlies, and arguably, more than the World Cup qualifier against the Faroes a week later.
“Irish people are proud people,” says Trap. “To them the England game isn’t just a football match. It is a cause.” For Trap, the emphasis is
slightly different. He has short and medium-term plans to consider — getting through this quartet of fixtures with three points and a major scalp, England’s or Spain’s, being his priority, continuing his surgical makeover of this squad ranking second on his list.
Since the Euros, the change has been quite dramatic, with Shay Given and Damien Duff retiring, Dunne and Keith Andrews being unavailable and Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward and Sean St Ledger losing their spots.
The upshot is a better balanced, younger and more energetic side — Seamus Coleman giving everyone a lift with his industrious bursts down the right, James McCarthy providing some much-needed creativity in the centre with Shane Long and James McClean’s overdue promotions adding pace to an attack that was blunt in Poland.
“I’ve done a good job,” says the ever immodest Trap. “I wouldn’t blow my own trumpet and suggest it has been a great job but we’ve got results since we came in here in 2008.We’ve got to a playoff, then to the finals and now we are in the mix for another playoff spot. I’d like to continue for another campaign. That, of course, depends on the FAI.”
Actually, it depends on his results. Should England be beaten, then the share price of Trap’s stock will rise. And if a playoff is somehow reached then the FAI may very well look around the managerial job-market, ask Martin O’Neill if he is interested, be told no, and then decide they are better off with the devil they know.
All of which tees things up nicely for tonight’s meeting, the first between the countries since 1995, when the English hate-mob did their best to dismantle Lansdowne Road and a promising fixture was abandoned.
It is a different kind of trouble Ireland will have to cope with this time, though. Back in the ’90s, Ireland had England’s number but now the difference in class is evident, England’s squad costing €300million, Ireland’s €100million.
England have 16 players on the books of the Premier League’s top five clubs, Ireland have none. England have a great chance of automatically qualifying for Brazil, Ireland have none.
“But we have a passion, we have character, we have determination,” says Trap, “and in football, that counts for a lot.” So too does history. For Frank Lampard et al, this is just game number 56 in a long season. For Keane, Dunne, McCarthy, Long, John O’Shea, this is the oldest of enemies.
Nothing motivates the soul quite like a tribal cause. It isn’t just a friendly, isn’t even just a football match. It’s England. Enough said.