Wednesday, 10 September 2014

What Gives Ireland Fans Such Unrealistic Expectations?

The Irish players may not be too familiar with the enormous level of expectation at the big English clubs. Of the current squad only John O'Shea,  Robbie Keane (briefly) and to a lesser extent Darron Gibson have experienced life at one of England's grandeur teams. The fans are a different story. The geographical proximity of England, combined with the lower standard of the Irish Premier League leads to the vast majority of fans in this country choosing to support the bigger Premier League teams, rather than their local, much lesser-funded, less-glamorous and far less-successful local Irish League club.

Week in and week out the majority of Irish football fans are fortunate that they get to watch their supported team winning. The team you support, you normally get to choose yourself or you simply follow whoever your Dad or the rest of your family supports. This is usually governed by who is successful at the time. Leeds had a decent following here back in the 1970s, today the most supported clubs in Ireland are Manchester United (the team of the 1990s and 2000s), Liverpool (1980s) and Arsenal (generally pretty solid in every decade). I'll bet anything that in 20-30 years Chelsea and Manchester City will have amassed a considerably greater following than they had at the start of the century as children, developing an interest in football, flock to them.

In comparison to the English Premier League, very few Irish fans bother to keep up to date with it's Irish counterpart. I wouldn't say much could name the current champions (St. Pats), league leaders (Dundalk), player of the season (Killian Brennan, I had to look it up) or are even aware that the league is run during the summer months as opposed to the more traditional winter season. Were Irish fans heavily invested in their local league and oblivious to the goings on across the Irish Sea, Ireland international games would be a step-up in terms of quality, rather than a come-down for most of us used to cheering on United and Liverpool every week.

The local game is unappealing when you have the major leagues next door

Ireland is a country with a population of 4.6 million people. New World Champions Germany have over 80 million residents. In the vast majority of our country, athletes are drawn more to Gaelic football and hurling than they are to 'soccer'. Most schools don't even bother to play the sport, focusing instead on the national past-times. How on earth some observers expect us to be able to field a team even in the same league as some of Europe's top nations is beyond me. Looking at our population and the resources available to the sport as a whole here, Ireland aren't under-achieving at all. This, battling for a win away to Georgia, is simply our level. We've had golden periods in the past, 2002 was our most recent high point but on average, battling to qualify for the tournaments is where we belong. Being in them is a huge achievement and reason to celebrate when it happens.

The infamous RTE analysis panel are amongst the biggest, or certainly most public, culprits of this over-expectancy. RTE covers two football competitions regularly. Ireland's World Cup or Euro qualifiers and the Champions League. The gulf in class between these two levels cannot be put emphasized enough. Imagine watching Chelsea vs Man City one day and the next being forced to sit through Walsall vs Leyton Orient. Obviously, having enjoyed the quality on display in the first game, you would be naturally disappointed by the drop in standard for the second game. That's what it's like. Do Dunphy and co. expect to see Barcelona-esque passing football from Glenn Whelan and Stephen Quinn on international week? Do they expect Ireland to run riot against Georgia and rack up a rugby score? Robbie Keane to beat six players with Messi-like skills before slotting home. Unrealistic expectations created by what they are used to seeing.

Having said that they got a glimpse of it with that second goal from McGeady. Quality worthy of the Champions League.

McGeady hit a wondergoal to give Ireland a huge win

The quality of the football we've played over the past few years has drawn criticism from a lot of quarters and understandably so. In an era of tiki-taka and fluid dynamic, beautiful football, Ireland's style of play lately has been anything but. But why should we expect it to be? We've never produced skillful players. Liam Brady is one of the candidates for most talented player this island has ever produced and he was schooled in England from the age of 16. In recent times, Damien Duff is probably about as good as it gets. You can argue Wes Hoolohan, a product of the Irish league and a player who's never really cut it outside the Championship but our two best footballers right now are both Scottish, James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady. We have traditionally relied on 'The Granny Rule', never more so than 1990 when our team that reached the last 8 of the World Cup was dominated by strongly English accented 'plastic Paddys' like Aldridge and Cascarino.

We will  never produce a Cristiano Ronaldo. Probably not even a Nani and certainly not anytime soon. The game in Ireland is not appropriately funded or supported enough to do so. Competing with the GAA and rugby for the best athletes would stifle the growth of any sport. It is amazing when you think about it's popularity and how much media coverage the sport gets here that the domestic game isn't funded better.

Part of the reason Ireland were so successful around 1990 was due to the fact that England were also on the crest of a wave then. The competition for a place in the England squad was so fierce that many hopefuls suddenly found themselves discovering Irish ancestry and, in-turn, making a surprise appearance in the knockout stages of a World Cup. If that is any sort of indicator, we can't expect to pick-up any decent hand-offs any time soon. Jack Colback made the most recent England squad. Fabian Delph is a starter now apparently. English football is in the doldrums and there it will remain for the next decade at least. Ireland will have to fend for themselves.

We won't see another Cascarino for a while

On the international stage, Ireland are a dwarf among men, not the superpower some fans expect us to be. What makes it a given that we are going to beat Georgia? They aren't ranked too far below us in the world standings and are probably our most evenly matched opponent in the group. This should have been, and was a close game. And we did very well to win. Scotland have a richer footballing tradition than us and a better squad right now. Poland is a country with a population of 40 million people and a team that boasts one of the best strikers in the world. They will expect to beat us, certainly over there, and rightly so. It's time to embrace our status as underdogs, rather than expect the team to qualify for every major tournament by right, simply because in our day-to-day football supporting, we are all used to success.

We can certainly qualify for Euro 2016, the extra spots available in the tournament make it more likely as we can even finish 3rd and still go through. But fans should not assume that because they see their club sides at the business end of the table every week, that the same should be expected of the national side.

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