Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Brian Viner: Sorry, Roy, but Republic played like superstars

Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry controls the ball with his hand during the build up to France's goal in Paris
France captain Thierry Henry controls the ball with his hand during the build up to the controversial goal in Paris

The furore concerning the Thierry Henry handball has moved into a new dimension of weirdness, with the player himself agreeing that the controversial World Cup qualifier should be replayed, while former Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane, with his customary charm, asserts that the Irish got what they deserved.

Keane's relentless, rancorous contrariness can be amusing, but it would be nice if, just occasionally, he could show some generosity of spirit. If even the French can applaud the splendid efforts of the Irish on Wednesday evening, then why not Keane? I was certainly applauding, in fact not many international goals even in England matches have propelled me out of my chair like Robbie Keane's did. Or indeed like William Gallas's equaliser did, but in the case of the Ireland goal what separated my backside from the cushion was sheer exultation.



Like more than a few Englishmen I am rather disconcertingly inhabited by some bloke from Tipperary when the Irish play football. And Keane's goal was so beautifully taken, so thrillingly made, so manifestly deserved, that I rejoiced. In the build-up, moreover, Kevin Kilbane fleetingly metamorphosed into the man who inspired his jokey nickname, Zinedine. Kilbane is an ordinary footballer, but his one-two with Damien Duff was a thing of beauty, ditto Duff's vision to find Keane, followed by Keane's marvellously sure touch to stick the ball in the back of the French net and a wince on the face of the watching Zinedine Zidane, the real one.



Then, much later, came the French equaliser, and another leap out of my chair, fired this time by indignation. Unlike Kilbane, Henry is a uniquely gifted footballer. But in a match in which Kilbane turned into Zidane, and Duff into Rivelino, and Keane into Ferenc Puskas, Henry turned into a sneak thief. Accidental, mon cul. The French goal was an affront to the values of the game, or would have been, were those values not already eroded to the point of disintegration.



The consensus from football's commentariat is that Henry had within his grasp a rare chance to restore some of football's eroded values, by confessing to the referee that he had handled. I agree, although it's easy to reach that conclusion in, or half out, of a chair. It would have taken a strong man to throw a wet blanket over the sudden explosion of euphoria that rocked the Stade de France. But I suspect Henry knows he could and should have been that man. Maybe we should now see those Gillette commercials in which he stands alongside Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, of all people, as a reminder that football, no less than shaving, is a cut-throat business.



Another response to Henry's shame is to say, as Keane has, "come on, get real, cheating happens, get over it." But the great amateur golfer Bobby Jones once called a penalty on himself while standing, unobserved, deep in the rough, and when commended for his integrity said "you might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank". In sport, as in life, you're either honest or not. Is it better to be averagely talented and honest, than prodigiously gifted and a cheat? Only, alas, from we're sitting. Or half-standing, shouting at the telly.



On Wednesday, in effect, Henry did rob a bank. He robbed Ireland of a fair chance to make next year's hugely lucrative World Cup, which amounts to the same thing, and he put France there instead. Which is why the French will forgive "Titi" his transgression as quickly as they forgave "Zizou" when he disgraced the World Cup final with an assault more suited to a Marseilles alley, the same alley in which the French code of sporting morality belongs. Yet we delude ourselves if we think that British or for that matter Irish sporting morality belongs somewhere significantly more salubrious.



Move across pond proves McIlroy's major ambition



Young Rory McIlroy ruffled quite a bit of fancy plumage when he stated on the eve of the Dubai World Championship that he intends to join the PGA Tour in the United States next year, where he'll be competing against "better players", by which he basically means Tiger Woods. Among those who tried to persuade him to stay wedded to the European Tour was his compatriot and International Sports Management stablemate, Darren Clarke.



But McIlroy is right, and it is his fierce ambition just as much as his fabulous talent which will, as sure as the wind blows in Co Down, yield major titles.



Clarke, too, had fabulous talent as a younger man. I have stood behind him on many a practice ground and watched the ball sing off the club face more sweetly than it did for any other player, including Woods. But somewhere on the climb to the golfing summit Clarke stopped for a pint of Guinness and a big cigar. McIlroy won't do that until he gets there.



Initial review that sealed Burley fate



In an idle moment this week – it must have been a very idle moment – I mused that the letters GB have loomed bizarrely large in the career of the newly erstwhile Scotland football manager, George Burley. They are his own initials, of course, and when he made his debut for Ipswich Town, as a 17-year-old in December 1973, his job was to mark another GB, George Best. Then last Saturday yet another GB, Burley's former protégé at Southampton, Gareth Bale, was one of the architects of the 3-0 defeat to Wales which persuaded the Scottish Football Association to do a GB on GB, and give him the bullet.



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