James Lawton: Republic of Ireland need a foreign legion
Published 05/03/2010 | 01:32
What is it that makes an Irish international footballer: A birthplace, a passport, an accent or Jack Charlton's rough-and-ready requirement of a smudge of a bloodline and a spurt of desire?
Given current resources, and the record of the glorious, assimilating Charlton years, those last two credentials still seem by far the most compelling.
Certainly they make Brian Kerr's agonising over the Republic of Ireland's willingness to continue raiding the resources of such embattled football nations as Scotland and Northern Ireland seem shot through with time-expired moral censure and historic inconsistency.
To be fair, he acknowledges the latter point by recalling that in his own time as coach he was quick to set in motion the luring of Manchester United's Darron Gibson from his northern allegiance.
He also concedes that such native-born sons of Scotland as Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy were early in their lives infused with an ambition to wear the green rather than the blue.
However, Kerr's successor Giovanni Trapattoni is also surely entitled to say that what was good for Charlton, the most successful of all the Republic's managers, is equally so for him as he battles to return his adopted football nation to the front rank of the international game.
Nor is Trapattoni exactly short of a wider perspective.
He need point no further than Spain, champions of Europe and the continent's most serious challengers for the World Cup in South Africa.
Spain — for whom talent of mesmerising quality has been around in such profusion that the brilliant captain of Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas had to be content largely with walk-on parts when the European title was seized so superbly in Vienna in 2008 — have never had a qualm about augmenting their own considerable natural reserves.
While Fabregas was obliged to wait patiently to be called from the bench, the born-and-raised Brazilian, Marcos Senna, was an integral part of the first team, tackling and passing with wonderful precision.
Trapattoni can only dream of such a contribution from a McGeady or a McCarthy.
He can also point out that Europe's best team are old hands at the business of pragmatic selection. Not only did Alfredo di Stefano — some hard judges' idea of the best player the world has ever seen — score 23 goals in 31 games for Spain, he also adopted a goal-a-game routine in his first six international matches for his native Argentina. Then, en route to Real Madrid, he appeared four times for Colombia.
It wasn't as though Di Stefano could trace his lineage back to the conquistadors. He was born in Buenos Aires, the son of Italian immigrants from the isle of Capri.
What isn't clear is quite what Kerr is proposing, though the best indication is that it is some kind of voluntary abandonment of any predatory moves against the likes of Northern Ireland, who in all practicality might be better served by an encouragement to join forces with the south. Their best players might prosper to a much greater degree in an all-Ireland team modelled on rugby union success.
Hardly feasible, you might say, but then in the department of reality, a self-denying ordinance on recruitment from anywhere on the island of Ireland seems equally remote.
It would, after all, involve a rejection of the possibility that future players of the quality of Ray Houghton, Tony Cascarino and Andy Townsend would be able to augment the Irish cause.
And wouldn't that be a reversal of a policy that gave Ireland its first real foothold among the front-rank football nations — and which set a standard and gave a bank of memories which are now fundamental to the self-belief of the Irish game?
What is plain enough to Trapattoni — at a time when arguably the nation's most sophisticated talent, Stephen Ireland, has made it clear that he would rather do anything, including lying about the mortality of not just one but two grandmothers, than play for his native land — is that like the much more abundantly equipped Spain, he must draw his talent from wherever he legally can.
In his superbly quirkish autobiography, Cascarino described himself as a fake Irishman but it turned out that though his mother did not have a drop of native blood in her veins, after being adopted by her Irish father, she was still able to pass on to her son the legal status of a working Irishman.
That was to the huge benefit of both Cascarino and Jack Charlton. The player was able to operate in a much wider football theatre and the manager had a forward custom-made for his long-ball game.
What Kerr is advocating is scrupulous fair play, a commendable objective in itself but one that may not be at the heart of the concerns of a team management so recently expelled from the World Cup finals by one of the worst examples of cheating in the history of the game.
The French culprit Thierry Henry went unpunished and the president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, even made a joke of it.
Against such a backcloth of immorality, Kerr is asking the Republic to walk steadfastly with the angels.
It is maybe an exemplary ideal but it would involve Trapattoni in a form of altruism that would at the very least put the Republic somewhat out of step — at least with a policy which brought three World Cup final appearances and, among many other happy experiences, a day when Irish supporters bathed with great contentedness in the fountains of Rome.
That came from the decision that the Republic would track down every available source of strength.
For quite some time it changed the face of Irish football, it recruited players of considerable ability who embraced the chance of a journey to the highest level of the world game. Short of illegality, there is surely no reason to stop now.
When the goals of Di Stefano, and the tackles of Senna, were counted up they were placed in the column of Spain. In their circumstances, the Republic of Ireland are surely entitled to the same privilege.