- Lifestyle & Sports
- 18 Nov 14
The forthcoming clash between Ireland and Scotland brings with it huge historical resonances. May the best team win (so long as it’s Ireland).
HERE GOES. A reunion of old friends and blood-brothers, bound together by a shared history of oppression at the hands of a rapacious invader, an occasional fondness for the odd tipple and a highly developed capacity for the elegiac, melancholic mood. Scotland vs Ireland, in competitive combat? It’s been a while.
In fact, it’s been 27 years; and the last pair of meetings signalled something of a power-shift. When the Scots visited Lansdowne Road in late 1986 for a stultifyingly dreary 0-0 draw – an occasion at which the 12-year-old Foul Play was present, and the ball barely touched the ground all day – they arrived as unquestionably our superiors in terms of achievement on the international stage, being more or less perennial qualifiers for the World Cup, where they invariably departed the stage early on goal difference after beating Brazil and losing to the Falkland Islands (or their equivalents). Ireland were also-rans and major-tournament virgins at the time, but the sun was about to break through the clouds.
In fact, the first sure-fire indication that we were on the verge of doing so arrived four months later, when Jack’s troops pulled off a righteous 1-0 victory in Glasgow. It may be that nostalgia plays tricks on the mind, but that one still stands out in the memory as a breakthrough display; a glance at that night’s team-sheet still evokes awe, and perhaps a timely reminder that we no longer have anything resembling the riches at our disposal that landed in Big Jack’s lap.
Scotland were about to head in the other direction, the likes of Dalglish and Souness having recently quit international duty, and the following couple of decades would witness a profound decline in the quality of footballer produced by what was (and remains) a genuinely football-mad nation.
So, what to expect? It is reasonable to state that our old friend ‘morale’ – a concept whose importance in determining the outcome of football matches is constantly over-estimated – is pretty healthy right now, in the wake of the Gelsenkirchen affair, where we escaped unbloodied and unbowed from undoubtedly the toughest fixture on our schedule. Barring the predictably crackpot response of Dunphy in the RTE studio, who sounded as if he was damned if a stoppage-time equaliser was going to stop him churning out the script he’d already written at 1-0 down, everyone will have been delighted with the result and rightly so. A seven-point haul from the first three fixtures is exactly what the doctor ordered, and another three at Parkhead will put us in a truly commanding position as we head into the winter. Even a draw would leave us in quite a favourable place, with three of the four meaningful away fixtures done and dusted, and a sequence of winnable home games to come – though our home record in recent years falls a long way short of the standards we should be aspiring to.
But a note of caution. A point away to the world champions was all well and good; the reality remains that it is a long, long time since we’ve actually beaten a nation of note in competitive combat, and until such time as we do so, optimism must be tempered by a recognition of our weaknesses. In particular, our level of comfort in possession is still some way short of the level required to make any appreciable impact on the international stage, and there have been lengthy passages of really ragged, disjointed play in all three of our matches to date.
We are not as bad as many like to make out, but nor is there compelling evidence to suggest that we’re on the cusp of becoming world-beaters any day soon. We are what we are, and in our present state we will need to scrap and slug it out to get the required results, whether it’s against Germany, Scotland or Georgia.
Scanning both squads and the likely line-ups, it seems more or less reasonable to conclude that there isn’t a cigarette paper to split the two teams in terms of overall potency, with Ireland’s marginal edge being neutralised to an extent by home advantage, the SFA’s policy on ticket allocation having staved off the spectre of a Parkhead crammed with tricolours from pillar to post. Again, there is no significant advantage to either side in the dugout, Gordon Strachan’s track record in charge of Celtic and others being essentially equivalent to that of his Hoops predecessor Martin O’Neill. If I absolutely had to pick a winner, the Boys in Green would just about get the nod, but from this vantage point the match looks to have ‘draw’ written all over it. And, even if the worst comes to pass, we have ensured there is much to fight for in the months to come.
Before the serious business of the Battle of Parkhead, Foul Play is bound for sunny London for a five-day sojourn, wherein I will (by the time you read this) have taken in the QPR-Manchester City clash at Loftus Road, followed the next day by the Dallas-Jacksonville clash at hallowed Wembley.
I’ve tended to favour Barca, Madrid and Rome for footie city-breaks in recent years, but there remains something uniquely wondrous about Cockney football culture: the black-cab drivers who can give you chapter and verse on every Charlton Athletic team since the Middle Ages; the diamond geezers in Millwall gear who go out of their way to demolish perceived BNP affiliations by listing all the Irish lads who’ve served at the Den with distinction; the Gunner devotees who helpfully explain that ‘I’ve got red and white in me blood’; the Evening Standard’s quite excellent coverage of the Beautiful Game – it’s been a while, and it’s always a pleasure. The huge spread of clubs competing for popularity in the capital has been one of many factors which combined to ensure that, perversely, London didn’t produce a European champion club until Chelsea’s astonishing 2012 escapades — but there’s no doubt that, as world footballing centres go, it is right up there with the best of them.
But goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square... it’s all about Parkhead now, and may the force be with us. Enjoy the match, comrades.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jan 18