THE European Championships of 1988 and the World Cup two years later get a lot of credit for dragging the Irish nation out of the economic mire and giving us a shove down the road to prosperity.
It requires more than a couple of football tournaments to reverse decades of darkness, but their effect should not be underestimated. When you take a country that’s used to failure and hard-luck stories then make the majority of its people happy and proud at the same time, the benefits are far-reaching.
1990 and 88 gave Ireland a sense of nationhood; announced to the world that we were here and we’d stand toe-to-toe with anyone.
We remember that feeling. And since regressing to 1980’s-style unemployment and emigration levels we have craved another shot at the redemption a major tournament can bring. In the lead up to Euro 2012, how many times have we heard that ‘the country needs this’?
Well, we needed it to go at least mildly well. What now that the campaign has panned out just about as badly as it could have done?
If you accept that Germany 88 and Italy 90 put winds in our sails, and Poland 2012 could do likewise, you have to accept that it also has the power to capsize our leaky ship.
Where lies the Irish self-esteem today? Mine is not thriving. Sitting in a bar in central London, among friends and countrymen, as the horror show played out last night, I couldn’t get away from the thought that this whole debacle was fairly true to the bigger picture.
From over here, Ireland seems a demoralised land, fearfully voting through European treaties that guarantee more austerity and even less sovereignty. We’re an outlying province of the German empire. Nowadays we write ‘Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work’ on tricolours. Witty fans, with an unintentionally chilling message: hey, we’re the cheeky colonials and we’re on the beer. Don’t tell our Germanic masters.
The view others have of us now is: good-humoured losers, lots of craic on the beer, nobody can celebrate failure more gusto … Give the Irish a pat on the head and a high-interest bailout so they can get another round in.
It’s almost like the fight has gone out of Ireland. If we were anything before, we were defiant. Irish soccer teams never got turned over. Okay, Spain are the best and they’ve humiliated lots of others (few quite as soundly though) but Croatia shouldn’t be able to lord it over us.
Apart from the freak 5-2 loss to Cyprus under Steve Staunton, you’d have to go back a long way for a similar humiliation in a competitive game … the 4-1 defeat at home to Denmark in 1985 probably.
This week, though, we really plunged the depths.
The Fields of Athenry is a beautiful song that I have grown to hate. It’s the soundtrack to every stupid event-junkie-jumping Irish piss-up. More particularly, the chorus is; nobody really sings the whole song. If they did, they might ponder on the line ‘Nothing matters Mary when you’re free’. Ireland has lost its nationhood, and now we have a football team that’s a symbol of the malaise.
Ireland needs to be free. That means getting out of the Euro and rebuilding our own economy brick by brick. It’ll be hard, but at least the challenge comes with hope. Iceland were in a worse place and they showed that, with courage and sense, you can recover.
These past four years, the country has been dropping deeper and deeper into a stupor, in denial, the national equivalent of a man on the meds. We need to wake up to reality, feel the pain and fight it.
On the football field, we need to stop paying past-it managers ridiculous salaries to teach us all about the 4-4-2 system. Listen, any Irish team playing any formation would have lost to Spain last night. But if Trap did a few basic things, we would have been far more competitive.
Robbie Keane plays in America. He is therefore not sharp. So don’t pick him. Pick Shane Long or Jonathan Walters instead. Replace Aiden McGeady with James McClean. Put five across the middle, including Darron Gibson. Don’t pick injured players like Shay Given or John O’Shea. Pretty much everyone knew this before the match, but Trapattoni persisted with his ludicrous ‘system’ which turned a tall order into abject humiliation.
Roy Keane was vilified, again, for speaking the truth, again. He said the team and a lot of the supporters need to change their mentality … don’t give away daft goals … let’s not just go along for the sing-song.
When people slag off Keane, they forget that he speaks with authority. He was a youngster from the outskirts of a provincial city, not over-burdened with talent, passed-over by all major football clubs as a teenager.
Armed with his little bit of talent, he fought inch-by-inch, every day until the day he retired with seven Premier League medals, four FA Cup and a Champions League medal.
He knows what it is to defy the odds. He knows you don’t do that by celebrating your failures.
We need to be about more than just dreams and songs to sing.