THE current conflict around the Irish football team has strange undercurrents of another Irish football team row.
The Stephen Kenny debate hasn’t yet reached the heights of Irish football’s civil war in Saipan but it shares many characteristics.
The chief elements of these are that they are and were both about so much more than football tactics or team selection.
A lot of the Saipan fallout, where a row erupted between then manager Mick McCarthy and team captain Roy Keane while the team were in Japan preparing for a World Cup 2002 match, was about the loss of our captain and best player. But a lot more of it was about identity and who was fully Irish and who wasn’t. How dare Barnsley-born McCarthy stand up to Cork’s Keane.
When Keane, allegedly, called McCarthy an ‘English ****’ it didn’t need pointing out that it wasn’t the expletive that was the insult.
Sport, as is often the case, reflecting vital aspects of the society’s culture.
Likewise, the current criticism heaped upon Kenny is about so much more than football.
Indeed many of those now criticising Kenny most vociferously were the very cheerleaders who wanted a ‘proper Irish’ one-of-our-own managers.
Not for his footballing expertise, you see, but for his simple Irishness.
A leftover from the Saipan row, perhaps.
Of course Kenny’s stint so far has been a struggling one and results have not been great.
It is more than fair to criticise his tenure. The criticism he has had, though, is quite clearly not just about football.
For instance there is, back to Saipan, the Roy Keane effect.
Roy Keane is now most well known as an acerbic, harsh, biting pundit.
Roy Keane is, in fact, increasingly building a career as a caricature of Roy Keane.
Keane knows that praise doesn’t make headlines whilst having a dig does.
Why indulge in fair comment if you can indulge in controversy?
Clearly, Kevin Doyle, Richie Sadlier, Richard Dunne and Brian Kerr have seen this and thought, well, if that’s what you have to do.
Of course, there is an intellectual deficit here too in that pundits seem to confuse critique with criticism.
Critical thinking, an ability to assess facts in an informed and considered way, becomes transformed into criticism. And the harsher the criticism the more depth your supposed analysis has.
It’s a little bit sad.
On a more individual level there is very disappointing level of personal bitterness displayed by these critics that is disheartening.
It would almost make you concerned for them.
Indeed, as a body, these critics have displayed such an inability to accept any positives in the current Irish set up that you’d wonder for their emotional health.
Bitter begrudgery, after all, isn’t a good look on anyone, however suited and booted you are.
Which is sharply contrasted by the performances, both on and off the pitch of our current bright hopefuls.
Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele and Adam Idah.
The contrast, in fact, could not be sharper. Not only have these young men all shown outstanding promise in the green shirt, all show that Kenny’s emphasis on promoting youth could reap great rewards, they have conducted themselves in the most dignified way off the pitch.
Their joy at representing their country, their optimism, their hopefulness, has been impossible to resist.
These young Irish men, coming up through the ranks of professional football, a hard, callous, cynical business, have displayed such dignity and pride it is impossible not to share it.
Impossible not to notice, too, that all three of these players are nineteen years of age. All teenagers. New Ireland indeed.
Impossible not to notice too that all three of these men are the children of immigrants.
Dublin’s Bazunu, Kildare’s Omobamidele, Cork’s Idah.
It is like the Ireland team of Jack Charlton that we all fell in love with, crucially underpinned by the children of immigrants.
McCarthy, Houghton, Aldridge.
Those who left lifted us once and those who came are lifting us now.
It does get more Irish than being shaped by emigration and immigration.
It was even, in this context, of the promising, dignified young players and the disgruntled, embittered pundits, like watching the new Ireland struggling to come out from beneath the old one.
I know which one I want to see.
If the criticism of Stephen Kenny’s young team was only about football, only about results, it would be fair enough.
Harsh, but understandable.
And perhaps they’ll achieve nothing and those comparisons to the Charlton years will seem ludicrous.
It’s not though, is it? It’s about so much more.
Is breá liom an tír seo, Andrew Omobamidele tweeted after his appearances for Ireland. I
love this country. Omobamidele’s Ireland.
That’s the one we love too.