Over the course of his reign as Ireland boss, Giovanni Trapattoni has arguably spent more time talking about the players not in his squad than the ones he has continued to select.
Stephen Ireland was the first cause celebre. Then Andy Reid, Steven Reid, Jonathan Walters, Marc Wilson, even Anthony Stokes, inherited that baton. Lately, James McClean, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Darron Gibson and Wes Hoolahan became the populist choice.
“The demand is always there for change,” said Trap. “That’s the nature of journalism and the nature of football.”
Last night we saw change. In a team sheet which included six players with eight caps or less, we saw Coleman, McCarthy, McClean, Ciaran Clark and Robbie Brady. The demand for Shane Long to start up front was ceded too as well. Hoolahan finally won his second cap.
And what happened?
Ireland still lost.
So having given into public demand, Trap can turn around and quite rightly say, “I told you so”.
The bottom line from last night’s game – and also the previous four games post-Euros – is that the best players available to Ireland are the old-stagers, Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff.
Given and Duff are off the stage for good now, while Dunne is injured, but there are plenty who have suggested Keane should join them. Well, last night, Trap provided Long and Kevin Doyle with their chance.
But when it comes to taking chances, Keane performs that act with greater regularity than anyone else. With 54 international goals, he should, by right, be a national hero. Instead, he is treated with indifference, and, at times, with contempt, partially because of his surly demeanour, partially because his sometimes awful decision making.
Yet he has found the net for Ireland 54 times whereas Doyle, Long, Walters and Simon Cox have a combined total of 25 international goals. Perhaps it will take his absence for people to realise how good a player he actually is.
It was the absence of so many of ‘the best fans in the world’ at the Aviva last night which provided the second talking point of the evening. Given that this was just the fourth game in Dublin in 2012, and given how the FAI slashed ticket prices to an acceptable level, €20 for adults, €10 for kids, the presence of just over 16,256 fans served as a reminder that Ireland’s football community is full of self-regard about their world-renowned status.
Yet if they really loved their football and really loved their national team then more would have turned up last night. While the Greeks may not be a terribly attractive name, the fact remains they were Euro 2012 quarter-finalists and ranked 10th in the world. And they were a joy to watch, as good technically and tactically as so many of Europe’s best sides.
That cut little ice, though, with so many of ’the best fans in the world’ who stayed at home.
Were they as loyal and as passionate as they claim to be, they would have been there. Because that’s what fans do. They turn up through thick and thin. This season, Rangers – a club despised in many parts of Ireland – have averaged 46,234 gates for home matches. Their biggest rivals are Elgin, hardly a more attractive opponent than Greece.
Yet how dare any of us suggest Rangers fans are more loyal, indeed better, than ours? Ireland, remember, has the best supporters in the world. Or so we are continually told. Who would we be to suggest that many of these incredibly passionate fans only go on away trips following the team around Europe because they like the idea of a weekend on the beer?
And how could we possibly point to the statistics available from the English Championship – never mind the Premier League – which reveals that thus far this season, THIRTEEN clubs, Brighton, Derby, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester, Wolves, Leeds United, Cardiff, Charlton, Bolton and Ipswich and Birmingham have all averaged more than 16,256 fans so far this season? They have home games every other week. Their working-class fans are also suffering from a recession. And in Ipswich’s case, they are also going through a lean spell. But our working-class fans are the best in the world. Let’s not forget that. Let’s perpetuate a myth because it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Those 16,256 fans in attendance can justifiably receive praise.
But were the absentees as loyal and as passionate as they claim to be, they would have been there.