Take a good look around you on Saturday afternoon when you sit down to watch Ireland take on Macedonia in a vital European Championship qualifier, live from Skopje’s spanking new stadium.

If you’re watching the game on a big screen in a Manhattan bar, there’s every chance that an Irish player might just be sitting beside you to see what they’re missing.

America is now the destination of choice for Premier League footballers who want to go missing on their down time in those few months when English football isn’t wall to wall on our TV screens.

Paul Scholes, mentioned elsewhere in this column, used to get off the Manchester United team bus near their hotel and walk, simply because he could without any fear of being bothered or pestered.

Professional footballers are still, by and large, anonymous in the Big Apple. America has other sporting heroes to worry about, so the Irish footballers who didn’t bother traveling to Dublin this week could easily lose themselves in one of your city’s main fine bars and watch the big game live on Saturday.

There’s a load of them missing by the way. Some have genuine excuses -- Richard Dunne is suspended and Damien Duff, Keiren Westwood and Kevin Doyle are all genuinely injured.

Others have claimed injuries without having them checked out by the Irish team doctor, notably Jonathon Walters.

And then there’s the no-shows, the players like Anthony Stokes, Marc Wilson, James McCarthy and, now, Darron Gibson who just didn’t make it.

Stokes isn’t with the Irish squad this week because he’s too tired after a demanding season with Celtic -- when he was a sub more often than he wanted to be.

McCarthy has an injury if you listen to Wigan and their manager Roberto Martinez, but again Irish boss Giovanni Trapattoni has yet to hear it from the player himself.

Wilson hasn’t bothered, reportedly, to make contact with Trapattoni or the FAI to explain why he didn’t show up after Stoke’s season ended two Sundays ago.

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any more farcical, Gibson informed Trap BY TEXT MESSAGE on Monday that he has a groin injury and won’t be traveling -- after parading around Manchester on an open top bus with his United teammates the very same day.

Gibson -- first capped competitively by Steve Staunton by the way, and not by Trap as one paper suggested on Tuesday -- would have played in Skopje on Saturday night even though he hasn’t been picked by Alex Ferguson for almost a month.

Now we’ll have to do without him. And without Stokes, Wilson and McCarthy in the Group B game.
It’s something we should get used to. The players who did turn up in Dublin for the Carling Nations Cup, ahead of the flight to Skopje on Thursday, are none too pleased with their absent colleagues.

Robbie Keane -- who even used the f word he was so animated when he spoke about it -- Shay Given and Stephen Hunt have all used interviews this week to slam those who put their summer holidays before their country.

Keane has even suggested that his manager will stand by the players who did bother to make an effort for Macedonia when it next comes to picking an international squad. I hope he is right.

Even my nemesis Keith Fahey had the grace and the manners to make it to Dublin this week, despite the pain of Birmingham’s relegation and a knee injury that threatens his place in the team for Saturday’s big match.
I don’t like the bloke, as my regular reader will know, but I do salute the fact that Fahey took the time and the effort on his country’s behalf this week.

Others couldn’t be bothered and that should never be forgotten, particularly as Ireland has to win in Macedonia.

Trapattoni will be diplomatic between now and Saturday and claim that a draw isn’t the worst result in the world, but the bottom line is that Irish football needs the Ireland team at the Euro finals next summer.

More than that, the country and the economy and our flailing national spirit needs something to shout about and sport, as the Jack Charlton era proved, is always one of the great catalysts for national recovery.

To get to the Euros, we have to win in Skopje and now we have to do it without some of the best talent eligible to play for Ireland and for Trapattoni.

Some of those players may well turn up in an American bar on Saturday to watch the game on the satellite channels that keep you guys in touch with sport at home.

If they do then let them know what you think. The last time I said that about an Irish footballer I got in big, big trouble, but this time I don’t care.

As Keane said to me and a group of other football journalists on Friday, “This is our ‘f***ing country we are talking about.”

Our country and its national football team deserves to be treated with respect no matter who any footballer thinks he is or who he plays for.

It’s not too much to ask of the pampered prima donnas who let their nation down this week.
Their treachery should never be forgotten -- or forgiven.

Sideline Views

SOCCER: Paul Scholes retired on Tuesday, not long after Manchester United were completely outplayed by Barcelona in the Champions League final on Saturday night. I suspect the two events are not unrelated. Any thoughts Scholes had about staying on as a 38-year-old in the United team were surely killed when Lionel Messi ran rings about the same side all night long. Scholes has been a fantastic servant for his club, but they need young legs -- and soon -- if they are going to challenge Messi and Barca in the coming years. Wembley proved that.

SOCCER: Derry-born Celtic winger Niall McGinn admitted to being a Republic of Ireland fan when he spoke to some media at the Carling Nations Cup in Dublin last Wednesday night. Sadly, some of the fans of the Northern Ireland team he plays for weren’t too impressed by his comments. Speaking of Northern fans, they did unveil a funny banner at the Republic game. It read, “Stop poaching our players – but you can keep Darron Gibson.” After Gibson’s no-show for Macedonia, we mightn’t want to keep him!

SOCCER: Funny story from Manchester, where City fan Rodney Ward now sports a United tattoo on his chest after losing a bet in a pub. Rodney, a City diehard, and his United mate Paul Madden wagered on the outcome of the Premier League title last August with the loser to have the crest of the winning team tattooed onto his torso. That’s why Ward now has a United tattoo just above his right pectoral -- much to his embarrassment!

HURLING: Cork gave Tipperary a right good rattle, as they say, in the Munster Championship on Sunday, but the All-Ireland champions took it all in their stride with a performance that suggests there is more to come from Declan Ryan’s team over the course of the summer. With Kilkenny gearing up for a crack at the Premier County as well, this could be a very good year for hurling.

SOCCER: Wonderful gesture by the Barcelona players on Saturday night when they sent Eric Abidal up to receive the European Cup -- just months after a three hour operation to remove a cancerous tumor from his liver. The Frenchman played the full 90 minutes of the win over United, but the sight of him receiving the trophy will live far longer in the memory.

RUGBY: Interesting stat from RTE television. The Magners League final between Munster and Leinster drew a bigger Irish television audience than the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United on Saturday night. Now that is very interesting as soccer continues to lose popularity.

MOTORSPORT: Lewis Hamilton made a very stupid remark with a racist overtone after the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday. It was so stupid it doesn’t deserve to be repeated. At least he has apologized.


Those who doubt Robbie Keane’s ability as a footballer got their answer when he scored his 49th international goal on Sunday. The goal also won the Carling Nations Cup for Ireland, but more importantly Keane came of age as Irish captain in the lead-up to the Scotland game. His comments on those players who stayed away this week can be found elsewhere on these pages. Read them. And enjoy them.


The Irish players who couldn’t be bothered to turn up for the European Championship qualifier in Macedonia this week should never be picked for their country again. Plain and simple. Nothing justifies putting your summer holiday before your national team, and they should know it.