For the past few years, Ireland have purveyed a style of football often euphemised as ‘direct’ – but which is more accurately described as a ‘long ball game’. During most of this period, a significant minority of Irish supporters have complained bitterly about having to sit through countless matches in which the ball spends about as much time on the ground as a discarded condom wrapper in a Force 10 gale.
Lately, however, it seems as if there has been a growing acceptance among even the most fervent purists that there’s something to be said for launching it forwards and skywards at the earliest possible opportunity. Even if it’s only to spare us the heartbreaking sight of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark attempting to one-two the ball out of the six-yard box.
There’s something vaguely thrilling about Ireland’s approach. They are aggressive and ungainly, but seeing them in action is somehow captivating in the same, slightly visceral way as watching a monster truck barrel over a row of Fiat Puntos. That mad, vicious and untamed performance against Wales was a perfect example of their style: brutal and sometimes frantic, yet oddly disciplined and always, always committed.
This is a team that looks like a throwback to the hard-punting 1980s, a time when Taylor-ball emerged in the UK as a direct consequence of Charles Hughes and his ‘Positions Of Maximum Opportunity’. Ireland, funnily enough, are as ‘British’ a team as has existed in the last twenty years – but perhaps this is no surprise given the vast majority of players in the current squad ply their trade for the more modest of the English top-tier sides.
But there’s no shame in this.
You make the most of what you have – and, for the moment at least, long ball is what suits Ireland best.
Martin O’Neill’s side are notable because they are something different. Most national sides have become unpleasantly homogenised: an unimaginative set of clones whose identity you’d struggle to decipher even after a month of Bielsa-esque, late-night video sessions.
If international football is to become interesting again, it will need to offer an alternative to what everyone sees each week in the Premier League – a place where the Boys in Green would unquestionably look out of place in the modern era.
Not every team can play like Spain. But, equally, not every team should be trying. There are few things duller than watching two mediocre sides spend 90 minutes knocking the ball back-and-forth in defence and misplacing a pass as soon as they enter the final third, simply because they want to adhere to notions of ‘good football’ even if they don’t have the ability to do so.
Some might feel that Ireland are thrilling for all the wrong reasons, and from a certain point of view, there’s no real arguing with that. But everything can’t be the same. Everything can’t be sanitised, samey and safe. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a dirty little spanner in the nice clean works.
It’s all just a little bit more exciting that way.