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Intense rivalry should be put behind us now

David Kelly


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The Ireland vs England match at Lansdowne Road in 1995 had to be abandoned after English supporters rioted.

The Ireland vs England match at Lansdowne Road in 1995 had to be abandoned after English supporters rioted.

The Ireland vs England match at Lansdowne Road in 1995 had to be abandoned after English supporters rioted.

Aaron Connolly, until his latest, late withdrawal from an Irish squad, confided this week that he was hoping to score a goal for his country in tonight's friendly for a variety of reasons.

But perhaps not the ones that many of his country's more devoted supporters might think.

His primary determination would have been to rediscover his own loss of scoring form, followed closely by his team's ambition to renew theirs.

That it may have arrived against England should be besides the point. And, for some, it is.

Particularly, those who desperately crave an Irish side, seeking a new identity, somehow also finding their way to get the ball into the back of an opposition net.

Even then, a goal scored against England would hardly deny the fact that a goal against Slovakia would have proved far more valuable.

A cursory glance at two more neighbours to whom we should pay a little more attention, Scotland and Northern Ireland, engaged in respective European Championships play-offs on the same evening, tells us as much.

For others, however, a match against England sparks something much more primal.

Mick Byrne hauling the kit off the bus. "We'll do them for yiz today lads!"

Ray Houghton's head. Kevin Sheedy's left foot. Niall Quinn's cushioned instep. David Kelly's abortive strike. The memorable 0-0 win (sic) four years ago. Or was it five?

The familiar struggle - well, if nine times in 40 years represents an intense rivalry - to defeat the noisy neighbour.

And more, the political context of that sporting struggle, fused so often with blurred lines into the sporting arena, the bloodthirsty anthem, the emblems, the flags.

And who can forget the songs, dirges of breast-beating bombast from both sides celebrating the rivals fans' affection for ancient battles?

Thronging

We shall miss those tunes thronging the empty stands, as well as the boos that would have cascaded upon the tuneless anthems.

The old barnstorming rabble-rousers - perhaps even that once chosen by an erstwhile FAI CEO in a Dublin bar - would have been wheeled out for the occasion while the English don't need Ireland as opposition to belt out "No Surrender" or other ditties that denigrate the good old boys of the IRA.

In the context of a fixture that had cause once to be abandoned prematurely because of violent destruction visited upon the old Lansdowne Road stadium by the cancer of English hooliganism, itself an extension of age-old imperialism, the jingoistic occasion has rarely sat comfortably.

The phony patriotism that extends to some international teams, and this pair in particular, grates when placed in a sporting context, with all manner of delusional hangers-on wrapped within the folds of the flag.

There are so many genuine supporters of the national team, the Irish we have met on countless trips abroad, stout opponents of the Delaney regime when others remain silent, and the English, mostly hailing from lesser known clubs down the league, who refuse to be associated with the Neanderthal wings of their country's rabid following.

Many have forsaken their support for the international side, not just Ireland, either disillusioned with those who play the game or administer it - often both.

Those who remain are too often drowned out by the boorish elements, who only go along for the piss-up and the preening and the pathetic abuse.

For those of us who grew up experiencing a culture wherein our schools were enthusiastically propagating a culture of virulent antipathy towards the English, just as the English were groomed with a self-serving presentation of their superiority, the resonance of prehistoric grudges grates.

The enduring irony that so many perceived fans of the Irish national side can dove-tail their purported affection with a strong cleavage to the flags of English club sides remains a mystification to these eyes.

There will be those who, were they allowed into Wembley Sadium, or their local hostelries, would gladly spit bile and fury at an English man this week - or indeed a former Irishman playing for England - and yet cheer on their club sides.

While the memory of the 1995 Lansdowne riot always remains, so too does a summer friendly that year between UCD and Liverpool, and the racist abuse dished out by a red-clad Dubliner towards a young Jason Sherlock for having the effrontery to win a free-kick that Packie Lynch would convert.

Of course, we are told by a variety of pointy-headed opinion formers and academics that Ireland has matured as a nation and it is an argument that contains merit when extrapolated into a variety of societal areas of life.

But in terms of the Irish national team and those who crawl from beneath lice-ridden woodwork to cleave themselves to it, we beg to differ.

Those who have played for Ireland and experienced horrendous personal abuse, never mind racist abuse, may cavil also - not to mention those who once sought to represent Ireland but then were persuaded to change their allegiance.

That players like Declan Rice and Jack Grealish decided to deviate from a perceived path of fearless patriotism into a road of financial expediency exposes the international game to a ridicule which is then compounded by those who seek to criticise them.

Nationalism which is dependent on hero worship is folly of the highest order; Shaw likened it to a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy.

Added to a dozen pints of beer, it can be toxic.

The odious patriotism which seeks to transform a simple contest of football into something much more grandiose may have held sway in the past but that was a different country, one would hope.

Darren Randolph - another to experience racial abuse in this grand little country of ours - is likely to be the only player in the squad travelling to Wembley who was alive when Ray Houghton and his merry band of Scots, English and Irish colleagues put the ball in the English net in 1988.

When we spoke to Connolly this week, we had to remind ourselves that the Wembley Stadium upon which so many ancient childhood dreams were formed, of playing beneath those famous twin towers, were rendered redundant as they had been torn down before he was even born.

"Personally, I haven't grown up saying that I want to play at Wembley because obviously as an Irish kid, you don't grow up thinking, 'I'd love to play at Wembley."

And neither did he grow up dreaming of downing the great infidels of evil empire in the shadow of their imperious home either; the deeds of Houghton et al are as relevant to the former Castelgar hurler as those of Joe Connolly.

"Maybe it is a bit lost on me, as I don't really understand most of what has gone on or happened. I'm not going to go back into the history of something I don't really understand."

Only a few years ago, his predecessor and county man, David Forde, said this; "If there is one game I want to play in, it's England and it is England at Wembley."

But maybe it doesn't mean as much any more. No bad thing. This week, the build-up has been strangely subdued, perhaps pandemic induced. Or simply due to a sense of weary ennui.

It is all so much a case of ancient history and deserves to be condemned to stay there.

The real sign of maturity would be for Irish soccer supporters to resist the recurring addiction to comparing themselves to England, regardless of what happens in Wembley.

It is countries like Finland they should really be fretting about. That and the forlorn quest for someone to put the ball, not just in England's net, but any net.

For now, though, the sound of silence will be bliss. And when these sides next meet, and "fans" are present, perhaps those who think it's fun to sing songs about death or hurl abuse will remain quiet.

Or, simply, just stay away and let the rest of us enjoy the game for what it really is.


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