As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “A week is a long time in politics.” So too in sport. With a double Six Nations victory barely in the bag, we quickly turn our attention to a massive weekend for the Republic of Ireland soccer team. Martin O’ Neill’s men entertain Poland on Sunday night in what, despite what the Irish management might say, is a must-win game. Or, in the alternative, look at it like this. If Sunday’s game ends in a draw then the likelihood is that the Republic will need to pick up three points either at home to World Champions Germany or away to Sunday’s opponents in the group’s finale on the 11th October next. Incidentally, those games take place just three days apart so best bank the points now.
The general feeling is that the superb draw in Gelsenkirchen in October was more or less negated by the comprehensive defeat the following month in Glasgow, by a very impressive and reinvigorated Scottish side. Either way it’s quite clear at this moment in time that Ireland is the fourth best side, both in standings and quality of performance to date, in Group D and there is quite simply no room for error if qualification is to be obtained. And how dearly we would love to be there.
Whether you are a soccer fan or not you cannot deny that the country takes on an amazing, giddy atmosphere whenever the national side qualifies for a major tournament. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell you what they did last Monday night but for anyone over the age of thirty we’re pretty sure you can recall where you were when Ray Houghton lobbed Gianluca Pagliuca and roly-poly heaven ensued; The Duiske Inn, Graignamanagh, incidentally. Or when Robbie Keane smashed the equaliser, deep into injury time into the roof of Oliver Kahn’s net. In those moments, the entire length and breadth of the nation shook in absolute ecstasy. Similarly, when Kevin Sheedy equalised against Italy in Italia 90. We weren’t sure what was going on that night but what can only be described as a primal roar from our father made us realise something special had happened. Incidentally, if we had a time machine our first stop would be….. not Ancient Rome or 60s San Francisco… but the south of Italy for those two almost mythical sounding weeks, almost twenty-five years ago. Our vague memory of the time was that the country was almost uncontrollably excited, off on an adventure we had yet to be invited on.
Roll on a couple of decades and the picture isn’t quite so rosy. Jack Charlton managed, what will most likely go down, as the most talented collective of players this country will ever see. Players from Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa – believe us they were once a serious side- adorned the team during, arguably, Irish soccer’s golden age. Various factors have seen a decline in the national side, not least British clubs willingness to look to Africa and Eastern Europe in lieu of an abundance of talent on these shores. Still Martin O’ Neill, unlike us, is no sentimentalist. He knows who is available and won’t bemoan the dearth of current Irish players plying their trade in the Barclays Premiership. At least not publicly.
The Irish Independent’s Dion Fanning alluded to the fact that we need that first truly magic moment at the Aviva Stadium under O’ Neill and he is right. Someone needs to step up and emulate Jason McAteer’s match-winning strike over the Dutch in 2001 when it genuinely felt as if the stadium was about to launch off into the heavens. The new ground, while fantastic to look at, possesses none of the raucousness of old. Still with big performances and, namely, victories come more vocal support. That’s the way of the world. The Irish rugby team may appear to have undying loyalty these days but cast your mind back to the hammering the team suffered in November 2013 to Australia, Joe Schmidt’s second official game in charge. You could have shouted your order to your friend in the opposite stand without much difficulty.
The Irish national team enjoy remarkably loyal support. The Aviva is not El Bernabeu or Yankee Stadium, the homes of the ‘what have you done for me lately’ types. On Sunday though Martin O’ Neill’s side must give the local support something to really shout about. Poland is a very impressive side, showing as much in their excellent victory over Germany last October. And, while they will be very well supported by their burgeoning Irish based community, we must remember that it is the Republic of Ireland who is defending its castle on Sunday night. On a decisive night in March 2015, McCarthy, McGeady or Coleman can create their very own ‘McAteer’ moment to lay their claim to the hearts and imaginations of the Irish public. As much as we hate to say it, failure on Sunday will most likely send this qualifying campaign into the realm of obscurity.
This country is on the crest of a ‘fifty-year storm’ sized wave at the moment. In the words of the late, great Tupac Shakur, it’s time to “Ride or die…..”