Irish fans deserve better

Robbie Keane applauds the best fans in the world ©INPHO/Donall Farmer   

Let’s face it. Roy Keane doesn’t make life easy for himself. He says he’s over Saipan, then harks back to it. He sneers at punditry, then makes a nice little arse groove for himself in the studio chairs at ITV. Everytime he opens his mouth, quills are sharpened and broadcasters clear their throats.

But the ex-Ireland captain should not be criticised for what he said following Ireland’s drubbing by Spain last Thursday night. Keane gave a withering assessment of the Irish performance, and said that these tournaments should not just be a sing song for fans.

This was immediately taken as “Keane takes a pop at fans”.

He didn’t. He just thinks they deserve better. And he’s right.

There is no doubt that Irish fans are the best in the world. Our sporting teams are never under-represented in the terraces, no matter where on the globe they might be playing.

This morning (Irish time) in Christchurch Ireland came within a whisker of a momentous result against the All Blacks. For the majority of the game, Irish voices rang loudest around the 21000 seater AMI Stadium.
When captain Brian O’Driscoll muttered dejectedly through the post match on-field interview, Ireland fans cheered their approval of Ireland’s performance.

Plucky, but ultimately (as O’Driscoll pointed out) ending in failure.

Fans cheering as Ireland lose. Twice in less than 48 hours have our flagship teams lost to World Champions. Twice Irish fans back their team despite the bitter taste of defeat.

Celebrating failure.

This is not the fault of the fans. If anything it shows the supreme dedication of those who follow Irish sport. We demand heart from our teams, and anything else is a bonus.

But why should we be content with heart? Keane is right. The fans deserve more than a singsong and the honorary title of the best supporters in the world. The main reason they are being dubbed that in the first place is because the international media can’t understand just why the fans aren’t booing the soccer team.

Houghton 1988. O’Leary 1990. McGrath 1994. Robbie Keane 2002. All great memories. The abiding memory from Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign? A fan sucking on a Croatian tit.

Irish fans have flocked in their droves to Poland to support the Boys In Green. Many will spend years paying off the loans they took out to get them there. And the team have given them nothing in return. The stalwarts of the team have made mistakes that they never make with the Irish shirt on their back. In two excruciating games they have given away horrendous goals just after the first and second halves have gotten under way. Lapses of concentration have let them down in a way that all the heart and desire in the world could not rectify.

Ireland’s fans sang the Fields of Athenry as their Euro 2012 dreams unravelled before them. Faultless support, and Roy Keane’s message was that they deserved more. The Italy game has now been reduced to a chance to restore some pride in the jersey.

We are a small nation. The high level of interest in sport sometimes ironically causes us problems as oour small population is divided between soccer, rugby and GAA. No one sport gets unrivalled attention in the way that rugby does in New Zealand or football in Spain. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t put it up to the biggest teams in the world on occasion. We should always strive for excellence, and not be content to sing in the pouring rain as another defeated Ireland team trudges off the field.

Here’s the crux of the matter. Irish teams know that no matter how they perform, the fans will stick by them. This is particularly the case with the football team, as the rugby team is at a level where they are expected to be competitive on the big stage.

If fans were more demanding, would it help to change the mentality that we are just in major tournaments for the singsong? Maybe.

Murray Kinsella wrote today about Ireland having the players in rugby to compete with the world’s best, and  that perhaps that’s not the case in football. He’s right. We don’t have nearly enough quality to cope with the likes of Spain. But neither did Greece in 2004. Neither did Switzerland in 2010 when they beat Spain in the World Cup.

Ireland need to be more than just cannon fodder for nations in big tournaments. They need to be in big tournaments more often. And they need to shed that “happy to be here” mentality that leads to every other country in the world running stories about plucky Paddies having the craic. There is no greater insult to our sporting pride than those stories.

Brian O’Driscoll and co will be absolutely gutted after the narrow loss this morning. It will be hard to pick themselves up after a performance of such high standards led to nothing but another defeat against the All Blacks.

But we expect them to pick themselves up. We expect them to give a good account of themselves and push New Zealand all the way next Saturday. We expect all this because this is a generation of Irish players that has given us so much, and proved that they can beat anyone on their day. Our expectations are high, and Kidney’s men deliver.

There’s a line from a Kanye West song; “Reach for the sky, if you fall you land on the clouds.” Aim high. Do not be content on getting to a tournament. Go out to win the damn thing.

 Expectation breeds success which in turn breeds expectation.

It’s a vicious circle, but it’s gold-tinted. Ask the All Blacks, ask the Spanish footballers. They are expected to perform every time they take to a pitch. The pressure is immense. But so is their record.

No team should ever be slaughtered for playing with heart and coming up short. But criticism – like Roy Keane’s – of poor performances should not be criticised. The fans deserve better than having to dine out on nostalgia.

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