Category Archives: Ireland

Irish Fans, Disenchantment with Trap and Why Roy Keane Has A Point (Sort of)

I came back home from Poland this week after a tournament that was both an unforgettable social experience and a thoroughly miserable one from a footballing point of view for an Irish fan. Right now I am desirous only of watching the rest of the tournament from the comfort of my couch. One thing I was surprised at on returning was the extent of the impression we — the Irish fans — made on people; it was palpable in Poland all right, where the hosts and the Irish engaged in an almost embarrassing, if endearing, level of mutual admiration, but the number of YouTube videos documenting the now famous looping rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was something I was not prepared for. It also got me thinking again of something I have asked myself before — most recently after the 4-0 defeat by Spain: would I trade in this universal admiration for Irish fans for a stronger, more formidable team and footballing culture?

In a way, there need not have to be a choice. Roy Keane was pilloried for attacking the fans in the midst of the Spain game, having woefully misread the singing as placid acceptance of a terrible performance. If anything, it was a mournfully defiant plaint that marked the inevitable passing of the Ireland team out of the tournament — and I would suggest, subconsciously, the passing of Irish football into the wilderness, if the rot is not soon stopped. There was an underlying sense among the fans that this might be the last chance we get for some time for Irish football to appear on the highest stage. Keane thought we were there for the sing-song and presumably wanted us to voice more discontent at what was an insultingly abject performance. He would have a point in suggesting that Ireland fans should be more vocal in expressing their disappointment but the timing and the manner of his outburst indicates that he just doesn’t get fans. That’s hardly surprising, given the man who once criticised some Manchester United fans as there for the prawn sandwiches has probably not stood on a terrace in over two decades.

Keane’s comments are in line with his anger over squandering a two-goal lead away to the Netherlands in September 2000 to draw a 2-2 and his disgust at Ireland’s poor preparation at Saipan ahead of the World Cup two years later. His timing in all three of these cases though has been questionable. Roy doesn’t do diplomacy, it is true, but you sense that had he chosen his battles better, he might have won the war. Many Irish fans — even those that stood by Mick McCarthy ten years ago — supported Keane’s stance against the FAI, but now that he has attacked them, the bridges are irredeemably burnt. Turning on the fans was a step too far.

Before the tournament, I voiced a little scepticism over whether Ireland fans were actually the ‘best in the world’. I still hold to that, mainly because I think it’s a sterile argument. Even within the same club and the same national team’s support, there are divergences in style, attitude and intensity. Ireland’s reputation derives in the main from the fact that the fans like to party and do so in a good-humoured, friendly and often hilariously surreal way. With a few exceptions, the culture of supporting a country these days is a far gentler one than in the club game; when teams convene for a tournament like the Euros, carnival is the prevailing tone and atmosphere. In Poland at least — the geographical division meant two separate tournaments were effectively being held — Ireland fans were probably the most visible and impressive in this respect, though the hosts came a close second. That said, we had a lot to learn from the way Croatian ultras lit up the stadium in Poznan with illegally smuggled flares and the Spanish outsang us for stretches of the match in Gdansk too (though that was easily done when their team were walloping us so). Both groups of supporters — with the exception of the small minority of Croats who racially abused Mario Balotelli — were similarly good-humoured and friendly. The Italians likewise, even if their fans lacked the charisma and the verve of the other three countries in the group — you get the sense Italians who follow the national team are more genteel and more casual than those who follow the clubs.

In a piece for the Sunday Independent last week, Dion Fanning cast aspersions on the Irish fans’ ‘festival of eejitry’. While Fanning was trying to make some valid points targeting both the Irish media and FAI CEO John Delaney, he caught the fans in some muddled, pious crossfire. Not least his decrying the abundant drinking that was going on — Ireland’s binge-drinking culture is definitely a worrying phenomenon but choosing as exemplary a tournament where fans of all sixteen countries were overindulging is just weird. But his point about the self-professed best fans in the world being an embodiment of Irish self-regard was spot on. It might seem churlish to say so but this self-regard has a corrosive flipside, one which results in Irish people sacrificing necessary social friction for the sake of maintaing an amiable front. Irish people want to be loved by people — including each other — and this has resulted in generations of cosy consensus that has paralysed the country in a self-prophesying conservatism. We saw it with the re-election of Fianna Fáil to government at the 2007 election, just at the moment when it was increasingly clear Bertie Ahern and the party were mired in endemic corruption; we have since seen it with the way austerity has failed to spark any mass indignation of note. It would be a stretch to say that Roy Keane is indicative of a counter-current against this consensus but more of his dissenting is probably needed. What isn’t needed is his indelicacy of expressing it, because the Irish don’t like indelicacy much.

Like Keane, I have long thought Irish football should be held to higher standards, even at a moment like the present when we clearly don’t have the personnel we had in the past. Expecting to qualify for a major tournament is not an outlandish demand, especially as we have reached play-offs for six out the last nine, qualifying for two. If we can go so far so often, why not expect us to go just a little further? During the Italy match, the fan’s ire was directed at Keane and there were no audible murmurings of anti-Trapattoni dissent. I don’t think that will ever come either, however unhappy the fans might be. Irish fans — and people in general — would recoil from subjecting a 73-year-old man to public vilification, however increasingly Lear-like he becomes in his dismissals of all suggestions of his footballing mortality. Many Irish people were repelled by the way the hapless Stephen Staunton was pilloried by the tabloid media; Stan was probably the worst manager ever an Irish team had to labour under but he should never have been put in the position he was.

The wave of dissent against Trapattoni is instead likely to be expressed by abstention. The FAI has already had difficulty filling the Aviva Stadium for competitive and friendly matches alike, creating a few financial jitters along the way as it hopes to recoup its part of the investment in the new stadium. Admittedly, the cause wasn’t helped by a relatively unglamorous Euro 2012 qualifying group, where Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra were the visitors. But the dreariness of watching Trapattoni’s Ireland play compounds things too and you expect the crowds to thin out as the performances and the results inevitably worsen in the qualifiers for World Cup 2014. Ireland play Germany in Dublin in October and there is little in our most recent performances to suggest we will avoid a humiliation on home soil. Personally, I have resolved not to spend another penny supporting Ireland, either home or away — the fact I live in Paris means both demand travelling — while Trapattoni is in charge. There are probably many like me. It is a shame because there are some very attractive away weekends and home matches in that group — trips to Germany, Sweden and Austria among them. The prospect of abject performances and possible heavy defeats though makes you loth to go. It’s a tough group even for a team in the right frame of mind but an Ireland without Trap could give it a decent go. As it stands though Ireland look doomed. Germany look set to be their usual rampant self in qualifiers and Sweden are also shaping up to be the country’s best side in decades, having shown some fleeting glimpses of brilliance in Ukraine. Ireland have been generally comfortable against Scandinavian teams over the past two decades but Sweden also have the ineffable ability to hoover up points against medium and weak opposition — something Ireland, even under Trapattoni’s pragmatism have rarely been able to perfect.

Ireland fans reconciled themselves to Trapattoni’s unsightly, outdated football for as long as there was a possibility of some glory in return. After Poland, that possibility has now been exhausted. The argument that Ireland simply don’t have the players is one as bankrupt as Trapattoni’s tactics — he leaves more talented players like Darron Gibson, Shane Long and James McClean on the bench while refusing to call up others such as Ciarán Clarke, Séamus Coleman and Wes Holohan. Trapattoni’s lack of trust in Irish footballers has stifled any possible creativity in the team — Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy got Irish teams not much more talented playing some good football, with results into the bag too. The current crop can definitely punch above their weight in a way unimaginable to their veteran manager. Irish fans now find themselves in the invidious position familiar to fans of Blackburn and Aston Villa over the past season — saddled with a manager bringing the team up a dead-end, they nonetheless don’t want to see them lose. The prospect of a tough group and progressively low attendances will sooner or later result in Trapattoni’s departure. By then, it will probably be too late to salvage the fight for a trip to Brazil. That may have been sitting at the back of Ireland fans’ minds when they sang that rousing rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in Gdansk.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Le vert, c’est les autres…

I haven’t blogged since the Ireland-Spain game partly because I have been following Virginia Woolf’s dictum that one shouldn’t write when one is angry and partly because I’ve been laid lowish with a slight bout of summer flu. To be honest, I wouldn’t have much to add to what I wrote the morning of the Spain match. It was all too predictable, even as some of us held out hope that we could pull something out of the fire before we went out on a high.

There’s been no escaping the fact it has been a disastrous tournament for the Irish, and despite the mournful defiance of the singing at the end on Thursday night, the results have had an effect on the fans’ morale. The mood on the streets and in the campsites is a lot more subdued now though that has much to do with fatigue after almost two weeks on the road.

Ireland can salvage some pride by beating Italy tonight but it’s hard to see how César Prandelli’s side, bent on attacking and needing a win, will fail to do the job. For all its faults this Italian team is not as brittle as Donadoni’s four years ago or Lippi’s hapless one in South Africa. When Trapattoni is now shifting the blame to the players for not showing leadership in the first two matches, you sense he’s not working too hard at outwitting Prandelli this evening. My predictions for the tournament so far have not been entirely successful, and I have probably shown far too much faith in Ireland prior to their first two matches. I’m afraid that faith has deserted me today, and I expect Italy to beat us 2-0, even if that may not in itself be enough to send them through.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Spain Retrieve their Spear

For all Spain’s intricate passing, dominance of zones and aggressive defending what destroyed Irish hope was a simple spear thrust – a Fernando Torres straight through the heart. Despite the romantic image of the nation, Spain play football like the Borg would if they ever assimilated the game. There is something devastatingly robotic, and hypnotic, about their play. They keep the ball tentatively out of your reach. They rock you from side to side like a babe-in arms. They lull you into a kind of dazed weariness and then suddenly pounce with either a precision pass to the feet of a man between the lines or a through-ball of the kind Torres put such a superb finish on for the 3rd goal.

It’s telling that the Spanish nail in Ireland’s expertly-laid coffin wasn’t hammered in until the 49th minute. Spain are in no hurry to finish you off. They’d rather wear you down and let you finish yourself off. Like a boxer with the longer reach already ahead on points they’ll shield themselves from your flurries and simply wait for the opponent to force their guard down, in this case an opponent attempting to painstakingly form a small, green rectangle every time Spain stepped forward. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso all personify this approach, players who value possession like a philatelist does a penny black, artful yet full of repetition, low scoring yet absolutely devastating.

Then there’s the Spanish defence. I can already hear a generic British pundit scoffing about their ‘get-at-ability’ but the fact is that their back four isn’t intended to defend as other nations do. The Spanish philosophy is ironclad within its supposed flexibility: they will not compromise on pressing, on possession, on defending with a high-line – and why should they? They are the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, having unified all the belts. Seen in this light Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique and Alba all fit like gloves. All have recovery pace. All keep possession with monotonous reliability. Three are genuine threats in attack, Arbeloa the slouch in merely being decent, consistent and occasionally dangerous. Even then, he’s a phenomenal defender by any standards, new or old, with a solidity and level of concentration few can match. How many can claim to have kept a Messi, even if a 90% fit one, in their pockets?

Torres is the black sheep of this family. In a Borg football team, he’s a man with a spear in the final stages of a hunt for dangerous prey. When he hesitates, he fails. He must act with absolute faith in his instincts, and when he does we all know why he is such a born killer: because when he is in that zone, his instincts almost never fail him. But even instincts must be honed. In this, Torres has Rafa Benitez and Xavi Valero to thank for the intellectual honing of his finishing at Liverpool. His first goal spoke not only of the power of instinct, but also of Valero’s dossier of goalkeeping weaknesses. Given was exposed at the near post, caught flat on his feet. A static keeper of the old school outdone by the early shot.

The dilemma for Spain is that the thrust in their system usually comes from the ‘3’ in the ‘4-2-3-1’, and this tends to work better when the front man is also a player who hoards possession when it comes into feet. It sucks the defenders towards him when the ‘1’ drops off the line, creating space for the ‘3’ to run into. With Torres up front they often struggle to find their rhythm. Torres is playing his own, ancient, deadly game but the regularity with which he gives it away is a problem. Very often his best contribution comes by not touching the ball at all –moving constantly to provide the ever-present shadow of a threat in behind.

What perhaps made the key difference today was the way Spain interpreted their 4-3-3 formation, with Iniesta, Silva and Torres almost forming a diamond shape with Xavi playing more, but not quite, like a No. 10. With the solidity of Alonso and Busquets in front of the CBs Arbeloa and Alba were to all intents and purposes playing as traditional wingers but for one crucial difference – a favouring of possession over crossing, which is a very low-percentage pass.

Time after time, Ireland punted it forward vaguely towards Keane only to have a Spanish head or foot intercept it around the half-way line, and send it neatly on its way to another Spanish foot. If you’re going to play this way, and against Barҫa it’s surely as good a bet as any, then you need to go all out for it. Look at Stoke. They barely have a player who doesn’t look like a body double for a Rocky training montage, and only a handful less than six feet tall. They ignore midfield, the players there almost becoming auxiliary centre-backs.

They have pace on the wings, consistent crossing, a big tall guy who can keep it and a big tall fast guy who can smack it one. It’s brutal football, but like a club to the head it isn’t pleasant to be on the end of. Ireland never had any kind of chance by in any way trying to meet the Spanish on their terms. This Spain team, and the players at club level, face an Ireland pretty much every single time they play. They’ve gotten very, very good at opening one up, letting it twitch for a bit and then stabbing the bit that makes it all work.

Jack Charlton and Niall Quinn would most likely still have lost, but at the very least Spain would have been wary of giving away set-pieces, and on the stereotypical rainy night, with a weak, lenient and underdog-friendly ref, Charltonian tactics could have worked. Keane up front alone was never going to score without a player of surgical precision behind him. The only player I can think of for the Irish who matches that bill is Stephen Ireland, and his mentality has gone on vacation to the extent that he didn’t even make it into a very skill-deficient Irish squad.

As it was, the Irish huffed and puffed a bit, showed enough resilience in the earlier stages to retain their dignity, but ultimately went out as everyone, themselves likely included, expected. Meanwhile Spain look a dead certainty to reach the final again, quite possibly to meet Germany in a reprise of 2008 .

Meanwhile Spain still have their primitively artful enigma to consider. When they’re in synch, Torres and Spainp rovide a combination of astounding lethality, the dark magic of deadly instinct courting the hideous efficiency of a machine-mind. Today’s formation might make the relationship a wedding, and if that happens both Chelsea and Spain will remain teams to be feared.

It is heartening to see Torres back, though. As a Liverpool fan I should theoretically be feeling some sort of betrayal or hatred towards him but, seriously, he plays football like the kid inside you wants to play football. Same as Ronaldo or Messi. If the part of your soul that still loves the game like you did as a child doesn’t rejoice to see Torres’ little skip to get it onto his right foot for his sublime 2nd then it must surely have died long ago, and if that’s the case, why continue to torture yourself with a sport devoid of all joy? Spain play football like an old-grand master plays chess, and yes, they will always be more deadly, but a lot of their deadliness lies in their ability to wield those human spears. To put those kinds of players in positions where their instinct can’t help but take-over. To weld the primitive to the futuristic and create a hybrid of the kind that lives through the ages.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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“You’ll Never Beat the Irish” and Other Strange Things You Believe as an Irish Football Fan

As a football fan you swallow all manner of unpalatable truths. The first is often the fact that your team plays awful football. If the results are good, it’s easier to weather the discomfort. That said, during the Charlton years, when I was still fairly young, I found myself disenchanted with the team’s style of play even while cheering their success. The results were ground out with minimal flair and it was always embarrassing to me how we reached a World Cup quarter-final with four draws and that we scored no more than four goals in two tournaments. For that reason, the team’s “mutinies” remain dearest to my memory. These include the match against the USSR in Hanover in 1988 when a fantastically talented Irish side outplayed one of the greatest teams of that era. The 1-0 win over Italy in Giants Stadium six years later is also a particularly fond memory, mainly because it was built on attacking flair as well as excellent defending (I’ll always remember Paolo Maldini’s resounding tribute to Paul McGrath in a post-match interview). That Italy match was the apex of the Charlton era, a win against one of the best teams in the world achieved stylishly which also showcased three of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic talents of Irish football: McGrath, a young Roy Keane and John Sheridan. The only way the match could have been bettered would have been if Sheridan’s deft chip mid-way through the second half had landed a few inches further below the crossbar instead of bouncing off the top of it. When Charlton bowed out after the 2-0 play-off defeat to the Netherlands in 1995, I was hopeful for better things. And to be fair, the less pragmatic Mick McCarthy did some fine things with Ireland, even if his team had a tendency to drop points far too often against weak opposition. Under Giovanni Trapattoni’s management, Ireland fans have had to reconcile themselves to a restored confidence and results of a sort while all the time admitting we are being forced to watch some unsightly football.

Trap’s method is also far from ingenious; Ireland are still as prone as ever to mess up winnable games — even Stephen Staunton’s team could take four points off Slovakia — and a coach less beholden to antediluvian tactics and possessed of a greater confidence in the players at hand would have been able to second-guess Croatia in the opening match of this tournament.

As you can tell, I’m not really a fan of Trap, regardless of whether he has got us back into a finals tournament or not. Getting to a finals should be expected as far as I’m concerned; we have reached the play-offs so often, Ireland fans are entitled to expect tournament football more often than we enjoy. Trap has to be commended for the level of organisation he has instilled in the Irish team but that wouldn’t be hard after the calamity of the Staunton era. The worst thing about his management though is the complete lack of faith he has in his players. As the godfather of Italian football pragmatism Nereo Rocco put it, catenaccio is the right of the weakest. The problem though is that Ireland’s players, for all their limitations, aren’t that weak. You sense that Trap is approaching the Ireland set-up with all the unfounded caution of a Frenchman dining abroad. It’s not even a question of undoing his defensive system — there’s a lot to be said for good, defensive football — but you just wish it were more adaptable than it is. The fact that Trap is still unsure of how to effectively counter three-man midfields reflects far more on him than on the players at his disposal.

Despite the horror of Sunday night’s performance — and let’s not cod ourselves we were unlucky to concede a goal just before half-time — and despite my and many other Irish fans’ disillusion with Trap’s style, I’m not completely despondent before tonight’s match. Spain are a type of team Trapattoni is far more adept at stifling than Croatia were. They will pass us off the park but they do find it difficult to penetrate parsimonious defences. They are also very dodgy at the back, even more so in the absence of Carles Puyol and lack the muscularity of Croatia, who were able to effortlessly weather Ireland’s jostling. A scoreless draw is really the best we can hope for but were we to nick a 1-0 win thanks to a set-piece goal I wouldn’t be too surprised either.

In Gdańsk, as in Poznań, the Poles appear to be all supporting Ireland. Ireland fans have returned the favour in mass, and it is especially easy to get behind a country that has been such a fantastically welcoming host and whose team plays attractive attacking football. I have to admit though I’d gladly trade in the ‘most loveable fans in the world’ tag for a team and a footballing culture everyone takes seriously. In France the words ‘fighting spirit’ (in English) are used to a wearying extent to describe Irish sporting performances. It’s not a bad attribute to be renowned for but there’s a resonant condescension in the tribute. Small countries like Denmark and Croatia have shown it’s possible to be regularly successful while playing good football. I don’t think it’s beyond Ireland’s ability either.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Dead Air and Circuses: Punditry in Ireland

One of the few joys of watching the RTÉ coverage of Ireland’s Euro humbling against Croatia the other night was being able to soak up the wisdom of Eamon Dunphy, John ‘Johnny’ Giles and Liam Brady from the remoteness of an Irish pub in Paris. Perhaps, given the ‘critical’ distance I had achieved, I would be better placed to appreciate the perspectives of three men who previously to me seemed to represent the kind of self-neutralising defeatism and doomed bar-stool utopianism that also prevailed in Irish political life and public discourse.

Putting a brave face on it, I hoped to glean some insight into the critical framework brought to bear on the game by these seemingly ever-present pundits. Instead, even from a thousand kilometres away, what they had to say seemed like bollocks, but then I haven’t played football at the highest level – something at least two of the Dunphy-Giles-Brady triumvirate have achieved.

For the uninitiated, this is what happens: before a big game they sound off, structurelessly and at length, about something they don’t really seem to care for anymore: football. Often this punditry takes place before a Champions League game, when Dunphy and Giles can ‘hilariously’ – at the drop of oleaginous presenter Bill O’Herlihy’s pen – trigger an irrational hatred, best symbolised by their epic two-man efforts to convince the world that Cristiano Ronaldo is not a good player. But at other times, more memorably, it takes place around a Republic of Ireland qualifier or, less frequently, tournament game. When Ireland win, Dunphy and Giles grumble ineffectually, pointing out the shortcomings of the manager’s tactics – which are either ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ to Dunphy and Giles, who disdain all that ‘false nine’ shite. But when the national side lose, they come into their own – Dunphy pursing his lips, preening like a tit, and gleefully pushing a big red button marked ‘your own nihilism’.

Sadly, this is where Dunphy, Giles, Brady – or whoever else has wandered in – are at their best. (Graeme Souness was a brief visitor to the RTE studios on a number of occasions, and brought a rare intelligence to a place where everyone had long been telling themselves what they already know, namely: ‘not good enough, Bill’.) Dunphy’s onscreen meltdowns and childish sideswipes at his ‘fellow professionals’ are the stuff of legend, but I’d argue they’re a logical result of RTÉ’s longstanding decision to cover proximately scheduled games in epic blocs: the coverage of Euro 2012 on RTÉ2 runs from around half four in the afternoon to after ten at night, with only ad breaks to space out the banter. The result of this kind of scheduling is that exhaustion sets in under the studio lights, and occasional bright-spots of controversy are sparked and fanned by the bored pundits in order to keep themselves and their audience interested.

This often makes watching RTÉ football punditry a lot like watching a live feed from the Irish Parliament, another near-Warholian engagement for prolonged periods with the drab and uninteresting. As with politicians’ performances in the Dáil, Dunphy, Giles et al are largely unprepared and have a misplaced faith in their abilities to improvise. If you watch live footage from the Dáil for too long, you want to leave the country; if you watch too much of RTÉ’s coverage, you end up reaching for the remote control and, in a sort of metaphor for emigration, flicking to find Jake Humphrey and Alan Shearer struggle with applied notions of presence and absence.

Nevertheless, there is something vaguely sinister about the persistent presence of a group of men who have dominated the popular discourse about football in Ireland for a quarter of a century. In this, they stand as figureheads of an ageing Irish society that has failed to fully acknowledge its recent economic and cultural catastrophe and instead reverted to the same vacuous bonhomie that greased the wheels during the last twenty years or so as if nothing earth-shattering ever happened.

Additionally, Dunphy and Giles’s ‘world-class player’-based faux-utopian yearnings echo the efforts of establishment figures, most notably Fintan O’Toole, to ‘renew the [Irish] Republic’ in late 2010. In a particularly apocalyptic context – the cost of Ireland’s borrowing on the markets was soaring and a deal with the IMF was only weeks away – O’Toole’s attempts at renewal took the form of a series of articles in the Irish Times, a very middle-class march to the centre of Dublin city, and his book Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, which became a bestseller in Ireland. Everything seemed to be building towards a new political party that would better embody the interests and political imaginary of the Irish middle class, but when a general election was called in early 2011 such a party failed to emerge and an unwieldy coalition of the neoliberal Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party came to power. The new government adopted a breezy ‘business as usual’ attitude that belied Ireland’s status as a zombie nation. Public service reforms were continually mooted as Fine Gael took its cue from Cameron’s Conservatives in an attempt to pare back the corporatist ‘Partnership’ approach that had helped inflate Irish public services wages and robbed highly-complicit unions of their traditional role. RTÉ, as a publicly funded body, took symbolic steps to reduce the pay of its extremely well-imbursed stars. Nevertheless, in spite of notable journalistic missteps that would no doubt have undermined British broadcasters, the station remains relatively untouched.

The continued presence of Dunphy, Giles and Brady – all day, every day – says to Ireland: same as it ever was. Reassuring.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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The utopianism of the tactical subtext

One of the challenges of teaching literature in higher education is to shift the attention of students from subtext – the metaphorical or connoted content of a poem – to text, the words on the page in all their grammatical and syntactic interestingness. This perhaps sounds counterintuitive: from the outside, it’s assumed widely that literary criticism’s vocation is to press poetry to disclose meanings more ‘real’  and ‘deep’ than those it can bring itself to declare. But this isn’t really the case. Sniffing out connotations is very often a critical dead-end – the worst arguments about Eliot’s Waste Land are those which announce brightly that it is really about World War One and leave it there – and, in any case, can be achieved with far more ease than an analysis of etymology, rhetoric or lineation. In other words, the eagerness of students to read between the lines before reading the lines themselves is a problem in the seminar room. Occult knowledge is privileged over basic mechanical nous; the lessons of practical criticism really need to be relearned some time soon. As the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick put it in an essay on the damaging effects of this relentlessly suspicious way of reading, there’s also no small measure of narcissism to the notion that poems and novels demand heroic acts of subtextual archaeology: ‘You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You.’

What the Euros have represented so far, at least as far as the discussion around them goes, is a triumph of the subtextual. While there’s been a cult of the between-the-lines players growing for years, perhaps thanks to Championship Manager and Football Manager‘s curious glamourisation of the anchor man and support striker, the last few years have seen such critical emphasis placed on those who operate in the contested interstices of the pitch that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the traditional positions still exist. In fact, reading the swathes of online study influenced by (the undoubtedly brilliant) Jonathan Wilson, it would be easy to see the current state of affairs as one of post-revolutionary reterritorialisation as the Makaleles, trequartistas, registas, No 10s and – of course – false nines replace the central midfield and centre-forward positions in the coaching manuals. If what we’re led to believe is true really is the case, the near future might demand the development of new tactical designations to exploit the spaces left by strikers and box-to-box chargers.

While there’s something absurdist about imagining a scenario like this, it would also be fair to say that Wilson’s writing – particularly his marvellously detailed columns for the Guardian – have set off a panic amongst those determined not to be left behind the discussion. Football has never previously been subject to this dinner-party competitiveness: the need to be the first to spot that a particular striker has taken to lingering deep and is therefore a ‘false nine’ is not altogether unlike the more traditional Islingtonian pursuit of ‘discovering’ parts of rural France, and constitutes a very modern terroirism. As far as the professional journalists are concerned, however, the attitude is two-edged. While they work as a unit to describe the changing contours of the game and the innovations of the top coaches, which means that there is some level of genuine belief in the new designations, there is also clearly a scepticism towards the excitement their work sets off amongst amateur analysts. Most likely created by a British football staffer, the Duncan Jenkins blog has become a major point of reference both for some of the country’s top tactical analysts and for their somewhat eager-to-please below-the-line and Twitter followers: part of the (in-) joke of this ersatz would-be newshound revolves around an understanding that tactical developments are simultaneously of huge importance and instances of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Hinging on the unsolvable meant/not-meant dichotomy, the debate around between-the-lines tactics shows certain similarities with the increasingly-maligned notion of ‘banter’.

It’s clearly beyond dispute that, at the very top level of the game, the last ten years have been characterised by the pedantic spatial analyses of (mostly continental) coaches seeking both to harness and overcome the apparently inexorable developments in player fitness and physicality. The most obvious example of this, at Barcelona, clearly responded to a need to find a solution to the problem posed by other teams in the Champions League stratum which did not simply revolve around meeting them on their own physical terms. Guardiola’s tactics in particular are defined by an incredibly nuanced attitude towards player positioning, an attitude which justifies the coining of new definitions for on-pitch roles in the press. However, Barcelona’s intelligent answer to specific exigencies has been mistaken for utopianism, with the result that there’s a desperation – itself utopian – to find ways of both implementing and discerning the same elsewhere.

Except in the playground, or in the case of Gerd Muller, strikers have rarely loitered unmoving at the head of their formation. Whether you’re talking about Peter Beardsley to Mick Harford, centre-forwards have always had a variety of reasons to drop deep: one doesn’t need to be a ‘false nine’ to realise that falling into the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield creates difficulties for the other team. The fantasies of a utopian, subtextual football mean, though, that what was once called ‘link play’ is being disregarded, perhaps even by managers with significant experience. Ireland’s performance against Croatia the other night was defined by the static nature of Trappatoni’s three lines of players and by an utter lack of communication between each rank. It seemed as if Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews in midfield were operating as an autonomous unit, as were Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle up front: there was no linking by either Keane or Doyle to provide either the midfield or defence with an outlet.

As Karl has pointed out, there’s a tactical utopianism in the Irish media which establishes itself around a false opposition between creative and non-creative players. This means that defeat can be blamed on a certain player being left out of the travelling party or underused, and helps nourish a fantasy that a better result would have been secured had the coach let (insert name of maestro here) loose with a remit to open up the opposition via the interstices. In practice, this discourse leads to an obfuscation of the responsibilities of the selected forwards and midfielders – it’s as if, in the absence of a Stephen Ireland or Andy Reid (or, in England’s case, a Wayne Rooney, Tom Cleverley or Jack Wilshere), there’s no chance of any work being done in the gaps between rigid ranks. Given that not everyone can have a Modric or an Özil, there’s a real danger for coaches in the downplaying of the creative – in the sense of making something, regardless of how artful it is – responsibilities of ‘traditional’ forwards and midfielders. While Spain may have started against Italy at the weekend without recognised strikers, there’s still a good chance that this tournament will be won by a side and a coach who realise the advantage of looking at the words on the page while their rivals get sucked in by the promises of the subtext.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Oh Dear…

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The worst possible start for Ireland but even those of us that were mildly optimistic at the outset were not too surprised. It was something we had seen before. Croatia had their homework done and were able to shift seamlessly from attacking to a more reactive style. They also barely broke sweat in outpassing Ireland, whose distribution looked clumsy and one-dimensional in comparison. After all Trapattoni’s talk of dropping Keane back to counter Croatia’s triangular passing, he did no such thing, and, despite the best efforts of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, they were essentially struggling to contain Luka Modric, who was at the heart of most of Croatia’s better moves.

It was yet another failure on Trapattoni’s part to prepare adequately for a game against a fluid, technical, counter-attacking side. In a way it was the third installment of the two qualifying matches against Russia. Little was learned from those games, one of which was a fiasco similar to last night and the second a miraculous draw that could easily have been very different. Last night, Trap’s men were hard done by on a number of bad refereeing decisions but luck has been on their side often enough on the way to Poland to not feel too sorry for themselves.

Ireland now have a nigh-impossible task ahead of them to get out of the group. Even a miraculous four points from the next two games is unlikely to be enough, particular if we finish level with Croatia. Spain were also very impressive in the second half of their match against Italy, suggesting the fatigue everyone thought they might fall victim to has not materialised. There is a possibility Trapattoni might have a better level of organisation instilled in the players on Thursday and Richard Dunne will have regained the form that deserted him last night. It’s also very possible though that it could get very nasty for the Irish.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Dispatch from Poznań — A More Panoramic view than Panorama

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There was no sign of any trouble in Poznan on our first night here. Far from it — the town square was packed with Poles, Irish and Croatians mingling and singing long through the night. I was told that riot police moved in on Friday night, nervous at the first sign of mixing of fans but they quickly stepped back. The Poles have been great hosts, entering into the party spirit with gusto and seizing on a great opportunity to showcase their country. Most visiting fans have most likely adopted Poland as their second team and the crucial match against Russia on Tuesday should be a cracker.

The football so far has been excellent, with the hosts and the Greeks giving great battle in the opening match. The Poles will be disappointed they didn’t make more of their first-half possession but it all could have been much worse if Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t save a penalty with his first touch of the ball. The performance of the tournament so far was the Russians, a brilliantly fluid and sophisticated display with Dzagoev and Arshavin in particular excellent. How good they are is hard to gauge, as the Czechs were quite poor but it will cause Dick Advocaat some alarm that the Russians surrendered the initiative for 15 minutes early in the second half to a reshaped Czech formation. Poland and Greece will have taken comfort from that.

The group of death has just got even deathlier. The Netherlands are now in a precarious position having to beat both Germany and Portugal to be sure of going through. They actually played quite well against Denmark although their defensive shortcomings were badly exposed on several occasions, including when Michael Krohn-Delhi cut inside Gregory van der Viel far too easily for the goal. The Dutch will also be aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty at the end for handball but you have to doff your cap to the Danes, who turned in a superb defensive performance. Going forward, they were much less confident and the final ball was often found wanting. Three points on the board is more than anyone expected of them after the first game but getting out of the group will still be a huge task, as four points will quite likely not be enough.

Germany were as we have come to expect — solid in attack, much less so in defence where Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng bailing out Badstuber and Hummels more than once. The winner was courtesy of a splendid Mario Gomez header, the first time he’s ever looked the part in a tournament match. It’s a bad start for the Portuguese but they’ll probably be thankful the second game is against the Danes and not the Dutch, even if Denmark did defeat them 2-1 in qualifying in Copenhagen last October.

Today is Ireland’s big day and the green army are feeling confident. I don’t expect to see a very expansive game even though Slaven Bilić is threatening an attacking approach to get points in the bag first off. It could well be the tournament’s first scoreless draw but I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Irish win by the narrowest of margins. The other match could be the one that gives an insight into Spain’s chances of completing that elusive three tournaments in a row. I don’t think they’ll beat Italy and they may even be on the back foot by eight o’clock local time tonight.

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Football as Drama – Mad Men and Euro 2012

With the great Alan Latchley’s inspirational Dare to Fail philosophy ringing in my ears, I spent part of this week considering the similarities between top-level international football and television dramas. We are constantly being told that we are living through the latter’s golden age, and, if the quality of today’s opening games is anything to go by, the former is also in pretty fine fettle. In order to progress my deliberations, I began to imagine the main contenders for Euro 2012 as characters in one of the shows that illustrates television’s current cultural hegemony, AMC’s Mad Men. The show is feted for many things, including its style, the quality and diversity of its characters, and its general ability to arouse in the viewer an empathy for people they might possibly dislike (or even despise) in real life. In many ways, these are qualities we seek from an international football tournament. To bravely, and stupidly, contradict Latchley, football is nothing unless it is about something, and what it is about is ensemble drama.

Watching Russia last night, I was reminded of Roger Sterling, the WASP-ish co-founder of Sterling Cooper, the company where the bulk of the action in the show takes place. Sterling, like the Russia of recent vintage, is characterised by a sense of swashbuckling adventure that borders on self-destruction. Russia were brilliant last night, but it’s hard to imagine any other Euro 2012 contender continuing to play in such an attacking manner while two goals to the good.  They were lucky that their Czech opponents could not convert potential opportunities into goals, just as Roger is so fortuitous to have been born with such wealth and affable charm. Also, based on the bizarre – and occasionally hilarious – posts on his website, it’s not hard to imagine Andrey Arshavin enjoying an LSD trip with his wife.

For many, the star of Mad Men is Peggy Olson, whose rise through the ranks of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reflected the changing nature of American society in the early sixties. Her transformation is not unlike that of Joachim Low’s Germany. Despite sustained success at the highest level, (West) Germany were always respected rather than loved. Like Peggy, they initially got by on their organisational skills and sheer determination. In recent times, however (arguably since their successful hosting of the 2006 World Cup), the functional nature of their national team began to give way, as a new generation of technically brilliant young players emerged. Mesut Ozil’s eminent displays at the heart of the German team mirror Peggy’s development into a uniquely imaginative, more rounded contributor to the firm’s creative output. Like Germany, she now thrives on ingenuity as well as mental strength.

Pete Campbell, on the other hand, sees a different route to the top of the advertising world. While he is not lacking in creativity or technique, he prefers to rely on craft, guile and an almost ruthless will to win. In this, he resembles Italy. Euro 2008 is now remembered for the technical brilliance of the ultimate victors, Spain. However, if their semi-final penalty shoot-out had gone differently, we might have found ourselves speaking of champions who seemed almost as content to prevent others having fun as to have it themselves. Five minutes watching Campbell in action, and the similarities are impossible to escape.

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‘We are playin’ Four, Four, F**kin’ Two!’

And what of Don Draper? One of modern television’s behemoths, the magnitude of his creative genius is often overwhelming. His character overpowers even the most self-assured of his colleagues and opponents. So he’s Spain, obviously. However, Don has a past littered with mistakes and personal disappointments, which often come back to haunt him at the worst possible junctures. Only six years ago, Spain started their World Cup campaign so brightly and brilliantly that a friend from Granada refused to listen to any counsel that did not foresee ultimate victory. Alas, their efforts were sabotaged by flaws that were all too recognisable. Will they continue to dominate the international scene, or will the mistakes of their past come back to haunt them?

There are many other parallels. Dutch football has had more than its fair share of creative yet outspoken individuals who have clashed, often publicly, with their colleagues. Stan Rizzo has a lot of that about him.  Harry Crane must see himself in Ireland’s performances under Trapattoni; uninspired, lacking in imagination or genuine quality, but cute and organised enough to make a little go a long way. The decline of Portugal and Czech Republic, great teams from the past often more likely to embarrass themselves as they are to regain the love of the neutral with their swashbuckling performances, calls to mind the lowest point in Freddy Rumsen’s professional career.

However, beyond the teams and characters, there is another important connection to be made. Mad Men is known for the slick exteriors and  stylish presentation. It is so fashionable that Don Draper’s silhouetted pose during the opening credits has inspired a pop-culture movement. However, the show is not great because of its style. It is great in spite of it. Beneath all the sharp suits, sexy skirts and uber-cool offices and apartments are the real strengths of the show; the great characters, the brilliant dialogue, and the constant surprises. On the surface, football has become so slick, so packaged and so bloated. Its commercialisation is not without its unpleasant aspects. However, no matter how many seats are sacrificed for bigger pitchside hoardings selling us stuff we don’t even really want, the hidden depths will never go away. Ultimately, football will continue to be all about people doing things you never expected them to do.

Posted by Flann MacGowan

Towards a Real Darron Gibson

In debates about the merits of players, one often stumbles across a broad streak of essentialism in the opinions of fans and, especially, ex-professionals that can be summarised in this way: ‘[name of supposedly sub-standard footballer] is not a [prestigious football team] player’.

Thus, a proposed call up for someone like Grant Holt will be shot down by the bags of sawdust sitting on the Match of the Day couch under the assumption that Holt is simply ‘not an England player’. Implicit in this is the belief in an elect of players whose ‘world class’ status inarguably shines through. In England’s case, these ‘world-class’ players include James Milner, Glen Johnson and Stewart Downing.

In Ireland’s case the situation is reversed: virtually none of the starting eleven is considered good enough to play, whereas fans and ex-professionals frequently fixate on such unlikely utopian figures as Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland. Trapattoni’s reluctance to be swayed by public opinion has allowed the mythology of both these players to grow during his tenure; rarely has a draw or defeat come and gone without the absence of one or other of these players being mentioned. Again: what might have been. Instead, Reid and Ireland exiled like Trotsky awaiting a drawn-out ice-pick death: in the afterlife, perhaps, lower-league pundits for Sky Sports News – a circle of hell known informally as ‘the Beagrie’.

Far from the gulag, the inclusion of James McClean in the squad for Euro 2012 has been a sop to those who bemoaned the lack of ‘genuine creativity’ in the Irish team. Aside from McClean’s lively performance in the recent friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Landsdowne Road, there are other strengths to the current Irish team which give cause for hope, not least of which is greater consistency from the hitherto talented-but-flaky Aiden McGeady, and the improved performances of Darron Gibson.

Gibson is a prime example of a ‘not a’ player. At Manchester United, especially during his last months there, he was thought of as ‘not a United player’ – too keen to get up the pitch, too error-prone and fond of woeful shots from thirty yards that only occasionally hit the target in a spectacular fashion – and suffered the twin ignominies of being replaced by Paul Scholes and being transferred to a struggling and threadbare Everton side for around half a millon pounds.

Jokes immediately circulated about Gibson being ‘the new Phil Neville’, a similarly limited player who made the same move from Old Trafford to Merseyside several years earlier. Perhaps coincidentally, Everton’s fortunes changed when Gibson arrived. He scored the winner at home against eventual champions Manchester City, and Everton didn’t lose a game he played in. Others will point towards David Moyes’s signing of Nikica Jelavic as the pivotal one for Everton, but on viewing Everton’s 4-4 draw with Manchester United one can see that the key battles were won in midfield by Gibson and Neville, with Gibson in particular hugely effective from kick off to final whistle. Their work in midfield allowed Marouane Fellaini to roam forward, with spectacular results. Scholes, by contrast, was ineffectual.

I had heard reports from Everton fans about Gibson ‘pinging the ball around’, but didn’t believe it until I actually saw it: the Derry-born player showed aggression in breaking down opposition play and precision in distribution that made him Everton’s most accurate passer during the 2011/12 season. (An analysis of his passing, compiled in February 2012, is here.)

Does Gibson offer a solution to one of the Republic of Ireland’s most glaring problems? The inability of the central midfielders, typically Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, to profitably link defence with the forwards has led to both an increasing reliance on long-balls out of defence and an emphasis on wing play as the team’s primary mode of attack. This has made Trapattoni’s Ireland extremely predictable, and is in constant danger of turning almost every game – including those against low-ranking opposition – into a drawn-out, nail-chewing war of attrition.

Gibson played the whole 90 minutes against Bosnia, and, in spite of a couple of shaky moments, looked in control and capable – even fizzing passes across the pristine Aviva turf. Away against Hungary, he came on late and, along with much of the Irish team, looked uncomfortable and error-prone. Which is the real Darron Gibson? Based on his performances in the latter half of this season, I’d argue the former.

Recently, Trapattoni justified the addition of the defensively-minded and unspectacular Paul Green to the squad, calling him “a particular type of player.” Addressing the gathered media, Trapattoni, combining accusation with mime, said: “I know you [the media] don’t like him because you only like the players who [gestures playing the violin to suggest more creative types] but in every team there is an example of this type: Italy have Gattuso. Teams need players with mentality, not just play-makers. Green can do this – stop others playing – and that is important for us.”

While undoubtedly true, Trapattoni’s statement has the unfortunate effect of ratifying the somewhat false opposition between ‘creative’ (Stephen Ireland, Andy Reid, et al) and ‘uncreative’ players (pretty much everyone else). No doubt this opposition is a ruse that allows Trapattoni to reject less effective, if more spectacular, players in favour of those who better fit a squad in which a work ethic, and a willingness to adhere to the manager’s tactics, is prized above all. Nevertheless, a strong midfield is not merely based on neutralising the opposition – something Gibson’s experience with Everton showed in the latter half of the season. It remains to be seen whether that experience can be harnessed by Ireland in the coming weeks.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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