Had anyone chosen to watch the Ireland-Croatia game in a pub, there was hardly enough time for someone to wet their lips before the first goal was scored. Sean St. Ledger offered a brief moment of hope that was soon to be eradicated by Jelavic’s poached effort before half time. The second half started much like the first, a shot from Mandzukic hit the post, only to rebound off the back of Shay Given’s head and hit the back of the net. Then it was on to Spain, and the plan was to keep it tight—I thought at least. Again, with the game in its infancy a goal was conceded. A 1-0 score line at half time didn’t even look all that bad, by full time it was four and Ireland was out. It was Ireland’s worst showing in major championships, and it was completely deserved.
Just this morning, Monaghan United announced its withdrawal from the Irish league. John Delaney, the chief executive of the FAI, is sat in Poland enjoying the atmosphere that the ‘tremendous’ Irish fans are producing. The Irish have had a reputation, a somewhat exaggerated one, of having the best fans in the world. In a survey taken just this year, which accounted for the percentage of the population attending home games in their country, Ireland had a measly 0.51%.
So while the fans pay ludicrous money to follow Delaney’s vanity project to Poland, a team in their own backyard has to pull out midway through a season. Clubs in Ireland do not spend millions on new signings; I would be willing to hazard a guess that it would only have taken a fraction of the expense of traveling to Poland to save Monaghan’s season.
So where is the significance of this? Well I spoke in the previous article about Ireland being reliant on English clubs to develop their players, which is true. There have been exceptions, not that they have a place in the first team… yet. James McClean is a former Derry City player; he played for them right up until August of last year. Seamus Coleman made the jump from Sligo Rovers to Everton with relative ease, and if he can find the form that he showed in his debut season, he could be a major player for the Republic of Ireland. Enda Stevens moved from Shamrock Rovers to Aston Villa, where he is yet to make his breakthrough. In the desecrated landscape of Irish football, there is still that glimmer of hope and the odd breakthrough.
The problem is not that the team was beaten 4-0 by Spain or 3-1 by Croatia, or 2-0 by Italy. It rests in the poor infrastructure of Irish football. That is mainly due to a lack of priorities. Should the FAI and Irish supporters do some soul searching, they may find the answer to some, if not all, of their problems may well be on their own doorstep. €15 a week is what it costs to follow your home side here, and that €15 could easily turn out to be better spent than the hundreds of thousands the FAI choose to spend on its hierarchy. Dismal as the performance may seem, it can easily turn into a stepping stone for the future of Irish football. It’s not a question of competing for trophies, it’s the ability to compete at all. During the 90’s, Ireland picked up two underage European Championship titles, and finished third in an underage World Cup. Repeating that performance at senior level is unrealistic, and qualification is an achievement, but one show does not grease over the cracks that have appeared and continue to appear domestically. In the last twelve months, Ireland has qualified for a major tournament, and Shamrock Rovers qualified for the Europa League group stages. To continue improving, more attention needs to be given to the grassroots of Irish football.