06 September 2008

A beginning

Now I'm resigned
To the kind of life I'd reserved
For other guys less smart than I
Y'know, the kind who will always end up with the girls...

Over on the shore, the playboys dare each other to ski-jump over the biggest fish they can find. We, however, retreat to the quaint old inland, where the Weather has decided to dump half the Irish Sea (I know people like to complain about the rain, but viewed from a warm, leak-proof, sufficiently-elevated dwelling, it's magnificent). Or, to put it otherwise, it's time to switch off the reality show for a few moments and venture out for a bracing stroll where the wind lacerates the skin like when you try to climb over one of those walls that has bits of broken glass sticking out from the top of it. Or, to disentangle ourselves from this metaphorical, meteorological mess, it's time for the international 'break'.

Yes, 'break' - not break. This is no mere intermission. No stretching your legs and filling up your five-gallon bucket of suspended disbelief - this is the main feature, baby.

While your affections get pulled and pushed every week by a bunch of essentially random personages in a corner of a sprawling metropole in another land, it's still no more than a long-distance relationship. It can work, if you try. But flowing underneath it is the suspicion that you could, if you really wanted to, break it off, and neither party would be too perturbed. You wonder whether by scraping away the layers that have gathered from years of emoting over the Wednesday evening soaps you wouldn't find something a mite too artificial and self-conscious for comfort. (But why would you scrape?)

There are no such qualities in your nationality. It gets given to you, like family; and whether you like it or not, the national team is you. It's the dewy field under a bank of cloud that obscures the sunrise; it's the evocative saltiness of the riverbank sludge at low tide; it's the view of the Cooley Mountains on the horizon on a clear day; it's the bits of the Constitution you vehemently disagree with; it's the claim on a rock in the North Atlantic; it's Iarnród Éireann's grossly unfair train fare system; it's the low-budget TV shows that educated you; it's the first girl you kissed; it's the memory of a loveable rustbucket that once stood in Dublin 4. For better or worse, you are what you are.

(To some degree, what gets you first plays a part. I was a part of the generation old enough to be conscious of the glory days in the late '80s and early '90s, and young and impressionable enough to be definitively swayed by them. I was already a converted and confirmed Arsenalite by that stage, but my first season as such was typified by staying up late to watch the highlights of a dismal Cup replay defeat on Sportsnight, which was still enjoyable, but not quite as intoxicating as, say, Niall Quinn's baby giraffe legs scooping the ball into Hans van Breuckelen's goal. This "get them while their young and stupid" tactic is also employed by the Catholic Church by conducting baptism and confirmation when the victim child of God is incapable of the sort of rational thought required to assess the merits of arguments pertaining to the likelihood of a monotheistic universe.)

A dubious notion rises to the surface. I'd wager that few have expressed hope and anger and frustration as succinctly as the son of a former Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher did a decade ago to the week:

Who cares where national borders lie?
Who cares whose laws you're governed by?
Who cares what name you call a town?
Who'll care when you're six feet beneath the ground?

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Nationalism is the last refuge of a cunt with a mangy brain. You see my problem here.

The only way I can placate my aching citizen-of-the-world conscience is to postulate a division between bad nationalism - the kind which makes you phone local news organisations, making sure to mention the recognised code-word - and good nationalism - the kind that drags you to the Paddy's Day parade and puts a miniature plastic tricolour in your hand.

(I've done the sums, and I believe I'm right. Phew.)

Things have changed dramatically in our little Hibernian happydome in the last twelve months. We have seen the sad demise of a national hero; the only Irishman to play in three World Cups, the only player from the Republic to possess a century of caps. Two years ago, the game's national governing body decided to pluck said hero from his post-playing drudgery lining up cones on a training pitch in England's midlands and feed him whole to an ungrateful nation with uppity notions of its own stature and an increasingly tabloidised media. It went as one would expect such a thing to go. 'Solid' performances against Germany got sucked into the black hole created by a stoppage-time victory over a pebble washed up on shore by the wave of Italian unification and the 6-3 aggregate arrears accrued against two-thirds of a Mediterranean island. Cue hilarious mockups of Staunton as one of Jim Henson's creations. Seriously, you had to be there.

The FAI decided that the average bookie's car just wasn't big enough, so the selection process dragged on for several months with, almost literally, a new favourite every day. Besides the ones that had their turn at being odds-on at some stage of the torturous (sic) journey, other long-forgotten ghosts of football past materialised. One day, Arie Haan would try to convince us that his Chinese expedition was but a blip; the next, Howard Kendall would stress that he still keeps in touch with the game - he watches a match every week and write a column for a local paper. I'm not making this Kendall shit up, by the way - he gave two of the most excruciating radio interviews I have ever heard in support of his candidacy. I feel patronisingly embarrassed on his behalf just thinking about them.

When rumours of talks with a certain silverwared, silver-haired Italian emerged, it was easy to dismiss them as the result of Sky Sports' website's server overheating. After all, others whose links with the role disintegrated in the sweaty hand of anticipation were Jesus Christ, the woman from Supernanny and the ghost of Herbert Chapman. But it was true. He arrived on Irish soil, charmed a nation with his sweetly broken English, and left us feeling as if we had just been given a shiny new toy to play with, as well as some pesky geminate consonants and more Trap puns than anyone knew what to do with.

And here we come across another quandary. Gio's last foray into international management was not a happy experience, and foundered in a sea of negativity (and holy water). Indeed, none of his teams are renowned for producing football of swaggering élan.

Your humble bloggeur, as the long-term reader (hey, three months is a long time on the tinternet) will know, does not really swing that way. A consciousness of what my footballing tastes were began to emerge around the same time a speccy Frenchman alighted upon London N7. Thus have I been utterly, utterly spoiled. So much is this so that when Arsenal defeated Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final with a less than Wengeresque display, I actually felt underwhelmed. (I realise what a twat that makes me, so if your going to swear loudly and violently, do it now.......Done? Then we'll proceed.) I've come to regard this gorgeousness from Arsenal as a right, and luckily le Wenger seems determined to defend this ideal from the forces of evil which lay siege to it.

But when it comes to the national team, fuggeddaboudit. The stakes are too high for principle and morality. The plaque with the Blanchflower quote in my drawing-room will be attractively draped off until Thursday morning. Placed on the telly will be a photograph of Gianni Brera. The prospect of the team being managed by someone who has won loads and loads of glorious STUFF - seriously, look at that list! - is too exciting to let any wishy-washy romanticism infiltrate and soppy up the joint. This is all about solid performances, avoiding errors, being cautious. If it means stealing a goal off whoever and then defending the lead forever, then hey, we've been there before. It's what the legend of this team is built on.

Look, I'm not saying I'm totally happy about this. I have this recurring dream where Andy Reid completely dominates the second leg of the play-off at Wembley in November '09, setting up each of Robbie Keane's three goals with majestic through-passes, then rounding it off with a run beginning 70 yards from goal, taking him past eight defenders and ending in a chip over whichever poor sap has been given the honour of being this international cycle's Scott Carson. Then he takes everyone down to Ronnie Scott's for an evening with Mose Allison before jetting off to Argentina to teach some lad called Juan Román something-or-other how to play football.

But we all have to make our peace with the world somehow. Doomed romanticism is wearing. We can't all be Dutch, or live in a Suede song. There's plenty of time in the rest of the year to compose odes to capricious deities who secretly hate you. The fact is that right now we have un Trainer who ist, let's not forget, nicht un Idiot. It's time to be less like Danny and more like Alfie.

Photos (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) by Tomitheos, Irregular Shed, Its Mike, cattycamehome, Martin Beek.


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