Remembering Hearts and Heads

Ireland on the eve of Euro 2012 looks forward and back.
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Portrait of the grandfather/absentee landlord as a young-ish man

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Yesterday, Giovanni Trapattoni named the Republic of Ireland's squad for the European Championships, and this shit suddenly started to take on the hue of something approximating real. This is the fifth time our boys from the land of saints, scholars, and committed if technically limited footballers have qualified for a major tournament, and only the second time they've made the Euros. The first was under the management of Jack Charlton in 1988, when (as I'm not the first to note) they beat England when they should have lost, drew with the Soviet Union when they should have won, and lost to Holland when they should have drawn. The result was a narrow exit in the group phase, a justified heroes' welcome, and a mighty and prolonged dose of football fever. Whenever we qualified for a tournament thereafter, we drove ourselves gleefully delirious in the months beforehand, thus creating a precedent for all subsequent occasions.

This time, however, the build-up has lacked something. Maybe we're too distracted by the economy. Because of it, we are currently in a constant state of tetchiness (the Greeks apparently having stolen our anger). In a few weeks' time, we get to vote on whether to sign up to the European Fiscal Compact (the referendum question: "Alright, me little beauties: which direction do you want to get shafted from this time?"). It's not exactly thrilling stuff. But let's confine ourselves to sporting reasons here.

One such reason is that the team's qualification campaign was a strange one. The group stage was devoid of a single defining victory, a euphoric moment whose memory would forever evoke the glory of qualification. It's not that there were any sub-standard performances. In fact, the campaign comprised nothing but standard performances: they were unceasingly competent, relentlessly adequate. The normal rhythm of an Irish campaign—the ebb and flow, the despair and ecstasy—was absent. Some sub-standard performances might have broken the monotony. But slow and steady wins the participants' ribbon. Because of the poverty of Ireland's group, it also won us a playoff against Estonia. A 4-0 first-leg win was the first sign since the World Cup playoff against France in 2009 that this team was capable of elevating themselves above their basic standard. But it was only Estonia. It's not quite the same as beating Holland or Spain, or even drawing in Belfast.

This mediocrity sometimes seems like precisely the effect Trapattoni is aiming for. There's a certain streamlined grace to it, if you bang your head hard enough. The main aim of Trapattoni's Ireland is to be as a wall against which the opposition will bang their heads until they start to question just how much they want to break through. Containment is the key, and it rarely makes for attractive football. In the high days of the Charlton era, the team rarely played attractively either. But for them, the key was pressure, and such a nakedly combative style at least had a certain vigour to it. Trapattoni's style will reach its zenith when he can slow the other team down to a near-standstill, like molecules approaching absolute zero. The problem with that plan at the European Championships is that Ireland play Croatia, Italy and Spain, and they might be a wee bit too kinetic for our liking.

Trapattoni himself possesses a grandfatherly charm. But at the same time, there's something of the absentee landlord about him. A nation's plaintive pleas for its sentimental favourites—James McCarthy, James McClean, even Andy Reid, once upon a time—go either unheeded by Trap or ignored for for just long enough that we know he's not going to swayed by our wailing. And whether deliberately or not, his imperfect English acts as a shield against close scrutiny. Journalists come away from media conferences sure that he must have said something, if only they could figure out what it was.

But perhaps there's a bigger reason yet for the lead-up having been somewhat muted. It's hard to overstate (though some have tried) how big a deal the exploits of the Charlton team were in Ireland. The nation had never been brought together and taken on such a trip before. It was a profound and welcome shock, and immediately became a part of our national myth. When England won the 1966 World Cup, it took a generation for it to become fully nostalgiafied. When we did pretty well at the 1990 World Cup, we nostalgiafied it instantly. The way we watched the games of that era, the way we celebrated and felt, has become the template for how we've done so subsequently. But there's the problem. Twenty years ago, it was spontaneous. No one knew what the hell to do, but they knew they had permission to go crazy, so they did that. There was an innocence to it. Today, those who were there, man, are the grizzled veterans, and those who experienced the whole thing as giddy kiddywinks are now grown-ups who spend the hours and days before big games on YouTube watching Ronnie Whelan's shinner and Tony Cascarino's more-turf-than-ball penalty, and listening to "Put 'Em Under Pressure" while trying to pretend that it's just a very hot cup of coffee that's making them well up. (Not that I'm speaking from personal experience, you understand.) How we respond to the team's current success is viewed through how we responded in the old days. And they are the old days. Now there's a script to follow, and it's getting stale. Now, we consciously look to our footballers to lift us out of our national gloom. Back then, we didn't expect anything in particular. It just happened. It's all a little bit forced these days.

In one important way, the Charlton era is history. There is a whole generation of Irish people who have no first-hand memory of that time. Some hadn't been born yet. Some don't even remember the 2002 World Cup, let alone what went before it. Some of these people are adults, able to vote and have families and emigrate and everything. To them, the reminiscences of us old and not-so-old codgers are lovely and all, but they are of things that happened to other people.

But there's still something cool about the fact that the squad comprises so many players who were children of the Charlton era. At least there's been something to pass on to them. Charlton's teams were pioneers, doing what none of their predecessors had done. They inherited years of near misses and the occasional calamity. The current side have inherited the same, but with a large helping of success too. They have personally felt the pride that all this can beget, and how it can make an entire people radiate benignly for a few weeks. Now the responsibility is theirs, and they bear it gracefully. So as the memories themselves pass into unreality, the embodiment of those memories will be, with a bit of luck, creating new ones. We now know who those players will be, and it's all starting to become real again. There are 33 days until Ireland's first game. They can't pass quickly enough.

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