by Leighton Cullen
This is the fifth major championship Ireland have qualified for only this time they have to somehow muddle through with a central midfield pairing that’s a pale imitation of those who have gone before. To compare the present options – any two from Glen Whelan, Keith Andrews, Darren Gibson and Paul Green – against the top class performers of yesteryear is a disparity so vast as to be unfair. It also illustrates all too starkly the insurmountable challenge that lies ahead with Spain and Italy and their star-studded heartbeats of Xavi and Pirlo.
In 1988 at the Euros Ireland’s engine room was enhanced considerably by the class of Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath. Whelan was the style in a Liverpool side that was blessed with an abundance of it who made everything appear so easy. McGrath meanwhile was a phenomenon who transcended an injury that would have retired most. Instead he sauntered his way to masterclass after masterclass before heading off for a Guinness or twelve.
If that duo wasn’t impressive enough one of the greatest players the country had ever produced was at home. Liam Brady was suspended for the opening two fixtures so Charlton had controversially decided to omit him entirely. The fact that Brady never played in a major tournament is a crying shame and who knows what might have happened had he been allowed to sparkle against the Dutch in that third crucial group game.
It wasn’t just centrally that the Irish were so strong either. They had a wonderful mix of talents that blended together into an industrious foursome that was capable of magic.
Two years later at the World Cup and the options were even greater. With McGrath now slotted into the defence it allowed Andy Townsend and John Sheridan to compete for a starting place. Sheridan only played a bit-part but was one of the finest passers around and his unfussy retention is something the present set-up lacks dreadfully. Townsend was the break-through star and four years later would go on to lead the side in the USA.
In 1994 Ireland’s options were increased further with the emergence of Roy Keane.
In the scorching heat of Orlando and New Jersey Big Jack employed a midfield trio of Keane, Townsend and Sheridan with the aging Whelan having to be content with a place on the bench.
While it’s true that Ireland favoured a direct approach under Charlton and often by-passed the midfield areas it would have been madness in such stifling conditions to not get it down and retain possession whenever possible. For this Sheridan was priceless: he never wasted a pass.
The trio soon formed a decent understanding with Keane – the ‘legs’ of the three – taking the tournament by storm.
Eight years later in Japan and now Ireland’s captain and leader he caused another type of storm altogether of course and walked away acrimoniously. Even so, although any nation would miss a player of such outstanding qualities, the remaining midfield talent were hardly make-shift selections. Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella formed a harmonious partnership that complimented each other perfectly with the former’s grit and the under-rated Kinsella’s passing range making their captain’s loss hardly felt. Additionally, should it be required, they had Lee Carsley to bring on as an enforcer.
It pains me to say this but the players that Trap has picked for 2012 just do not cut it and Ireland have better players in Hoolihan, Coleman and McCarthy reluctantly sunning themselves on the beaches. His selections can be maddening with loyalty shown to those that may deserve it for their services but should not be afforded it considering what is at stake. With the talenthe had at his disposal Trap had the possibility of continuing Ireland’s fine tradition of gracing the biggest events with engine rooms to be proud off. Instead I fear them being over-run, out-manoeuvred, and out-thought in the games ahead.