Jim White

Ireland have not let anyone down

Jim White

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Roy Keane may have been addressing the watching British public back home, but his angry television analysis about Ireland's hammering by Spain quickly ran through the press room in the Gdansk stadium. We could almost see the steam escaping from the ITV box.

Keane is not a man for kind words. Emollient is not his style. If he sees a dog lying prostrate on the ground, his instinct is always to give it a good kicking (football wise, I mean; he wouldn't do that to Triggs, obviously). And, as is always the case, there was no attempt to sugar the pill as he laid into Ireland's hapless performance, into the defending he described as "absolutely shocking" and into his namesake Robbie ("I'm not having that he's a great player").

But much of Keane's ire was directed at the praise that was being larded on to the Irish supporters. In truth, I was one of those lavishing the praise. It was astonishing in the stadium to hear them in defeat belting out "The Fields of Athenry". I have rarely experienced anything to touch it. By contrast, the Spanish fans chant of victory — "Viva Espana" - sounded a thin thing, more Eurovision than inspiration. For those who still have sufficient hairs on the back of the neck to do so, this really was an occasion when they stood to attention. I could feel the tears pricking the corner of my eyes and I haven't a republican bone in my body; with a name like mine, my heritage is quite the opposite.

Keane, though, was virulent about the assumption expressed around him that somehow this vocal display of loyalty was some sort of consolation. Sentiment and Keano have never been close associates.

"To praise the supporters for sake of it … Let's change that attitude towards Irish supporters," he grouched. "They want to see the team winning — let's not kid ourselves, we're a small country, we're up against it, but let's not just go along for the sing-song every now and again."

Keane, of course, has been railing against what he sees as Irish amateurism, the institutionalised satisfaction in going along for the craic, ever since he stormed out of the World Cup in Japan a decade ago. Nothing much has changed since then: Ireland are still making up numbers, with plaudits gained for their supporters (principally the amount they deposit in the bar tills of host nations) rather than their players. But as Keane intimated, international football is not a branch of the Eurovision Song Contest.

When it comes to handing out the gongs in top level sport, frankly, out-singing everyone else in the stands is little more than an irrelevance.

What we saw last night is a harbinger of Euro finals to come. When the competition is stretched to 24, thrashing of the have nots by the haves will be routine. In which case, the have nots better remember to bring along their song book.

So what, then, do Ireland do to change things and give their supporters something proper to sing about? The first thing to be pointed out is they are not Spain. Pretty obvious, I know, but the Irish do not have a leading edge league system of their own to influence the development and creation of top players.

They piggyback on the Premier League. And we know how hard it is to develop young English talent in that system, never mind give Irish youngsters a break. It is not a numbers game in Ireland as it is in Germany, England, France, Italy or Spain. With so few to choose from, they have always relied on a couple of exceptional talents and progress to tournaments when a group of such individuals happen to arrive together.

If Keane is unhappy now, you wonder what he is going to be like after Richard Dunne, Shay Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane retire: there doesn't seem to be anything remotely comparable coming through the ranks. The Irish may crave more of James McClean, but, game as he is, he is not salvation on the wing.

In such circumstances it may seem fanciful even to suggest they could properly compete. Sure, Keane is right a bit of competence might have helped. Yes, the best route to beating Spain is to frustrate them into self-indulgence, present resolute defence and watch them pass themselves to distraction, before hitting them on the break. It is a plan that requires you do not fall behind after two minutes.

But it is easy to write it down. Harder to produce on the pitch. And in many ways the gap in resources evident in Gdansk last night was unbridgeable. Andrews and Whelan against Xavi and Iniesta: it was as one sided on grass at it appears on paper.

In fact, without wishing to sound too pessimistic, Keane may be misjudging what is possible. Maybe Ireland are fulfilling exactly their potential by qualifying and giving their fans something to travel for.

Irish supporters I have met in Poland over the last week have been united by one thing: they have travelled in hope not expectation, prepared to make the most of what they knew from the start was the toughest of assignments.

Sure, their team has not illuminated this tournament in the way its followers have. But Keane is probably alone in feeling he has been let down by a failure to achieve something that was always close to impossible.

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