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Croke Park – It's About Time!

Now that the GAA are doing their bit, what about a united Ireland team? Words Tony Cascarino

Tony Cascarino, 21 Apr 2005

I’m delighted that the GAA have come to their senses and offered the FAI the use of Croke Park while Lansdowne Road is being rebuilt. It would have been a national disgrace if Ireland had been forced to play “home” matches in Anfield or the Millennium Stadium, which as I understand it was definitely on the cards.

What’s disappointing, besides it taking as long as it has done for them to change their rules, is that they’re not letting us play our World Cup qualifiers against France and Israel there. Not only would an extra 80,000 people get to see the games, but playing in front of such huge crowds would give the lads a psychological lift.

Despite my grumbles with them over Croke Park, I’ve a lot of respect for the GAA and the way their players conduct themselves on and off the pitch. You never read about eight hurlers “roasting” somebody in the papers, or see a top player being hugged and kissed by their team-mates when they’ve conned the referee into awarding them a last-gasp penalty. Michael Ballack’s dive when Bayern Munich played Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is typical of the wholesale cheating that happens in every game of football nowadays. A few referees have started issuing yellow cards for “simulation”, but I’d like to see the Ballacks of this world sent off and banned for three games, the same as they would be for violent conduct.

Of course, the Ireland football team wouldn’t be dependent on the goodwill of the GAA if the FAI had made better use of all the money that came from us competing in two World Cups and a European Championship. They’re not alone in contributing to the travesty – the various Taoiseachs were happy enough to pose for photographs with us when we flew back in to Dublin, but otherwise they’ve done very, very little for Irish football.

The GAA being a cross-border organisation, I wonder if this is moving us a step closer to an all-Ireland team? Morally and historically, there should be one team representing the whole island. Ten years ago with all the violence in the North that would have been unthinkable, but now it’s a realistic proposition. True, the only Northern player you’d want in a united Ireland squad at the moment is their goalkeeper Maik Taylor, but back in the day you’d have had George Best, Derek Dougan Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside, Gerry Armstrong, Alan McDonald, Billy Hamilton, Neil Lennon and quite a few others claiming a place. With them on board, we’d have qualified for a major competition long before 1988.

I’ve chatted to a lot of Republic of Ireland players about this – past and present – and all of them have been in favour of a united team. It works for rugby and athletics, so why not football?

While you can never rule out an upset, I think Chelsea will win the Champions’ League and go on to replace Man U as the dominant force in English football. In fact, with the wages they’re able to pay, they’re in a position to take things to the next level. South Americans are always going to gravitate towards Spain because of the language, but the days of La Liga and Serie A getting the best European and African youngsters could be over.

There’s only one person who can stop their progress – Vladamir Putin. If he suddenly decides to stick Roman Abramovich in jail for something or other they’re in trouble, but otherwise the Chelsea revolution looks unstoppable.

Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool will certainly have a go at derailing it. Rafael Benitez demonstrated against Juventus that he’s as tactically aware as any manager in Europe. Without all the injuries they’ve had this season, Everton and Bolton wouldn’t be anywhere near qualifying for the Champions League. This might sound odd, but the key for Liverpool could be selling Steven Gerrard to Chelsea and using the transfer fee to strengthen the squad.

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