\"Robbie

Robbie Keane.

The good old days of Irish soccer

\"Robbie

Robbie Keane.

The elevator door opened and Niall Quinn’s big frame emerged into the morning light in the lobby of Fitzpatrick’s Grand Central hotel.

It was roughly 10 in the morning and the Irish team were free to do as they please on the first down day of their 2000 summer tour to the U.S.

Mexico were next up at the Giants Stadium if I remember rightly, the same venue that had rocked to an Irish beat six summers earlier as the Italians were put to the World Cup sword.

My initial mission that morning was to sit down with the then FAI chief executive Bernard O’Byrne and gain the inside track on some soccer story or other. It was mission impossible as it transpired.

Niall’s mission was only to enjoy his day off in a manner befitting at a man who at the time was Garth Brooks’ biggest Irish fan. I kid you not.

He knew there was a very decent Irish pub just around the corner from Fitzpatrick’s -- O’Neill’s on Third Avenue if that memory bank is still working -- and he needed an accomplice.

Guess who was asked to fill the early breach? Yes, yours truly. 

Protesting that it wasn’t long past 10 in the morning, I was duly informed that it was three o’clock at home in Ireland and it was more than acceptable to go for an early afternoon beer or two on body clock time.

Being the meek sort that I am, I had to renege. And I was glad I did. By the end of the sojourn I’d heard Stephen McPhail, now with Shamrock Rovers, out-sing Robbie Keane in the “Wonderwall” stakes a la Oasis.

And it was still three o’clock at home by the time we finished -- three o’clock the next morning that was.

The reason I am repeating this story here – I’m sure I have told it before on these pages but the memory bank is getting old now – is because the boys are back in your town next week, back in New York though sadly, for their sakes, stationed out in New Jersey and not in either of the Fitzpatrick hotels that have served Irish soccer so well down through the years.

Games against Costa Rica in Philadelphia and Portugal in the new MetLife Stadium await a new generation of Irish footballer, and only Robbie Keane will survive from that crazy 2000 sing-sing in O’Neill’s.

I don’t know if Robbie will lead a sing-song in Manhattan this time around. I doubt that the now righteous Roy Keane would approve of such things since he has quietened down from his own days as yellow jersey leader in the raucous stakes.

And the game, like the scene around the Irish soccer scene, has changed dramatically in the 14 years since one of those players chased his shoe down Third Avenue in between all the yellow taxis.

The Irish team is all serious now. We have a manager on over a million bucks a year, we have an assistant who is probably more famous than the manager and we have a back-up team heading into double figures.

They will travel to New York next week with everything from masseuses to kit men to physical trainers to bodyguards down the back of the plane as they enjoy the big seats courtesy of Roy.

They will enjoy video analysis sessions in between their workouts in Philly and New Jersey.

They will know Portugal and Ronaldo and Costa Rica inside out before they take to the field in either game.

And are they the better for it? In preparation terms? Yes. In professional terms? Yes. In responsibility terms? Yes.

In real terms?  Are they heck.

We may have higher standards off the field now for our international soccer team. We may expect more of them as professionals and as people than we did in the days when fun was still part of the Irish soccer vocabulary and the fans were free to mingle with the players whenever and wherever they came across them.

But the bottom line is this team has nothing like the potential or the skill of the side that spent a lazy summer’s morning and afternoon in an Irish pub in New York some 14 years ago when we were all much younger.

That much was evident again last Sunday when they missed a lorry load of chances and lost 2-1 to Turkey in an Aviva Stadium friendly that only filled the available seats.

Sure the sports scientists and the self-righteous wouldn’t have approved if they had walked into O’Neill’s bar all those years ago as Robbie did his best Liam Gallagher impersonation.

But that same squad of players, by and large, went on to qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea, the last time we performed on a big stage.

And Mick McCarthy has always maintained that the spirit built up in that U.S. Cup trip -- without the absent Roy -- paid handsome dividends when the chips were down in the Far East, again without the absent Roy.

Yes, some of those headed for America next week did play in the European Championships in Poland two summers ago but the less said about that experience the better for all concerned.

And the conclusive proof that things were better then came with a Robbie Keane admission by Mr. O’Neill on Monday, hours after he had admitted he didn’t know how his team lost to Turkey even though he is paid to know how they lost.

Martin said on Monday that the Irish team struggles to score goals without record scorer Robbie on the pitch.

For all his years and miles on the clock, for all his many critics in some media quarters back home but not in this one, Robbie is still our best chance of a goal.

If you’d said that to him all those years ago in O’Neill’s, he’d have laughed at you.

So let’s hope he leaves the Galaxy far behind and plays in Philadelphia and New Jersey next week and reminds us just why he is still our best player. And maybe even our greatest ever.

 

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

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