Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Euro 2012: Why I'm Not Supporting Ireland either

I was listening to Radio Five Live last night as Packie Bonner, John Aldridge and David O'Leary were reminiscing about playing for Ireland in the Euro 88 and the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and what was most striking was how familiar it sounded.
Change the year and move the accents slightly north (Aldridge accepted of course) and it could have been Gerry Armstrong, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside talking about Spain in 1982 (another anniversary fast approaching).
I remember watching Jack Charlton's team with a slightly detached enjoyment at the time. It was a great story in 88, especially when they beat England in the opening game - a classic case of the thrill that greets the triumph of the underdog. My dad, whose background and inclination were solidly unionist even cheered that one,  though his politics would have suggested otherwise. Sometimes, sport can be just sport I guess.
So here's the thing. I support Ireland on the rugby pitch but not on the football pitch (not unless they're playing for the Northern version). Why is that?
 I hope it is very simple. The Republic is another country in footballing terms - which are the terms I'm interested in -  and so many of the same reasons I suggested for not supporting England yesterday are relevant here too. Well, apart from the media coverage perhaps.
 Not everyone would adhere to such airy dismissals of course. The history of Northern Ireland's meetings with the Republic of Ireland has often had more than a bit of poison swirling around it, most notoriously in 1993 when Charlton's team travelled north to play at Windsor Park hoping to ensure their place in the World Cup in America. The venom in the ground that night directed towards the Republic's players would inspire Marie Jones's play A Night in November. It's a game I cover at length in Whose Side Are You On? On that night, as on many others, football was politics by another means. For some in the crowd at any rate.

And an ongoing tension between north and south continues up to the present day. The fact that there are players born and raised in the north playing for the south is a bugbear for some. There's been some heated words said in the last couple of months about Sunderland player James McLean's comments suggesting that Catholic players were not welcome in the Northern Ireland set-up. Former Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie had a go at him this week and even argued that McLean had used Northern Ireland when playing at Under 21 level: "He had no intention of every playing for the Northern Ireland senior team and he's made that clear but he used the Northern Ireland system to get into a position where he could defect to the Republic."
Others, anonymously, said much worse and even sent McLean death threats, which no one deserves.
McLean's comments do point out the challenge that still faces the Irish Football Association in Belfast despite the huge strides that have been made via the Football For All campaign. We have to recognise that some players from nationalist backgrounds will always prefer to play for the Republic. And after that make the Northern Ireland set-up as welcoming for everyone else. Some would argue - Gillespie among them, I guess - that's already been done.
Football has always been one of the principal sporting theatres for sectarianism in Ireland, north and south. That's a given. But it should be said that it's also a theatre for challenging it too. Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings are heroes to most Northern Ireland fans. It doesn't matter their background.
But back to not supporting Ireland. Here's the thing. I hope they do well. I hope they're not too boring and I hope that Robbie Keane bows out in scintillating form (always loved Robbie). But I'm not going to be cheering them on. I want Euro 2012 to be a brilliant footballing spectacle where the best players in the world play to the best of their ability and dazzle us with their skills. I kind of hope Spain win but really in the end I want the best team to win and not someone boring us to death with 1-0 wins.
If Northern Ireland had made it I would qualify that wish. But as they didn't, I can smugly say that's exactly why I won't be supporting Ireland (or England for that matter). In the end it is about the football.
Then again, say both England and Ireland come through their groups and meet in the quarter finals. Who will I be cheering on then?

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