Wednesday, September 26, 2007

One Player’s Influence

The Roy Keane / Saipan incident caused deep divisions in the Irish footballing fraternity. Like Civil War politics, it split families, friends, colleagues. I decided quite early on to avoid getting into arguments over it, although that was not easy when you heard the huge amount of verbal effluent spouted by non-football people on both sides of the divide.
I’m not going to rake up the whys and wherefores of the situation again. Most of us are sick to death of the subject. But there were two statements of opinion that kept on, and keep on, recurring whenever the argument rears its ugly, little head: -
1] It was Roy who got us through to the World Cup in the first place.
2] If we’d have had Roy, we’d have reached at least the semi-finals.
These two statements assume that one player can win a match, or indeed a succession of matches on his own. Is this possible?
We have all become accustomed, in the hysterical hyperbole that is the sporting press, to encountering the phrase “match-winner” or “potential match-winner”. Invariably, these players are forwards, which is a bit of an insult to the other nine players on the team.
Of course, anyone has the potential to win a match. Oliver Kahn’s performances helped Germany to the World Cup Final. Paul Osam bosses it at Pats. Bruce and Pallister were twin towers at the back for United. But can one player, on his own, really win a match?
The example that frequently comes up is that of Maradonna in the 1986 World Cup Finals. To most people, his performances in that tournament were the closest we have seen to perfection. His goals against England and Belgium took your breath away. [Why do English people have the nerve to keep bringing up the “Hand of God” goal, after Michael Owen has blatantly dived in two successive World Cups to gain penalties against Argentina?]
Maradonna’s influence on that Argentinian team was immense, and most serious commentators doubt they would have won the World Cup without him. We shall never know for sure, but Argentina was still a pretty useful team without him. In the Final itself, Diego had a very quiet game, although it could be argued that Germany paid him so much attention that it allowed other players to express themselves more.
But, the question remains – if Maradonna were Welsh, would Wales have even got to Mexico, never mind won the damn thing? I seriously doubt it. Individual brilliance may turn a match on its head, but there are many ingredients which make a good team. George Best may well have helped Manchester United to the European Cup, but he was still there when the inevitable slump came a couple of years later. And despite his brilliance, he never dragged Northern Ireland into the World Cup Finals. And, if Best couldn’t do it, it seems absurd to claim that Keane was able to do it.
Best and Maradonna were geniuses. They could do things other players couldn’t do. Keane is more of an inspirational player. He doesn’t possess breathtaking skill, but he does the simple things better than almost anyone. He will inspire his teammates, in much the same way that Mick McCarthy used to for the Republic of Ireland. [The comparison is not merely mischievous, but probably an indication of why there was a personality clash there]
Whereas it is possible for a player to turn a game on its head by some breathtaking display, for a team to be successful over a period of time there are other attributes that are needed. Managerial nous is important. Organisational ability, tactical acumen, motivational skills all combine to allow your better players to express themselves. As France found out at the recent World Cup, you can have the best players in the world, but that doesn’t always translate into success. You need players of a decent footballing ability who will give their all for the cause. You need a good goalkeeper, a defence that works as a unit, a midfield that both spoils and distributes, and forwards who, if not scoring themselves, will allow other players the opportunity to get forward and score. And, most importantly, you need luck. We rode our luck in qualification for the Finals, just as we rode our luck during the Finals themselves. Its better to have an average but lucky team, than a brilliant but unlucky one.
Lets examine the important games in our qualification group, viz. the two games against Holland and the two games against Portugal. We won one of those games, thanks to some brutal finishing by the Dutch, and drew the other three. If truth be told, given the ability of our team, we could not have expected more. Roy Keane played in all four games.
In Japan and Korea, we again drew three games, against Cameroons, Germany and Spain.
Germany and Spain, in particular, I would put on a par with Portugal and Holland.
Now, how come we could not beat Portugal or Holland in three of the four games with Roy Keane, but people are saying we would have beaten Germany and Spain if he had been present? It doesn’t make any sense at all.
He’s a great player and his presence could only have strengthened our side, that’s admitted. But Holland and Kinsella played out of their skins, and more than compensated for his absence.
And don’t forget, Ireland and Man United have both lost matches occasionally when Roy has been playing. He is not Superman.
At the start of the Charlton era, when Liam Brady fell out of favour, there were numerous calls for him to be reinstated in the team. How could you not pick a player of his ability? These people seemed to forget very conveniently the games in which Brady was absolute rubbish for Ireland [the 1-0 defeat away to Norway springs immediately to mind]. Roy, on the other hand, rarely had a bad game for Ireland, but to listen to some people talking, we won every game when he was in the team. This is the rose-tinted brigade up to their old tricks again.
To say that Roy was solely responsible for our qualification for the Finals is extremely insulting to the management and the players who got us there. You could argue that we wouldn’t have drawn in Lisbon if it weren’t for Matt Holland’s goal. Therefore, Matt Holland got us through to the Finals. Or Jason McAteer. The truth is, it was a combined effort, everybody helped, and you cannot say that it was thanks to one player alone that we got there. Roy was not a great player in a mediocre side; he was a great player in a good side. And in Japan and Korea, he was a great player not in a good side. It is easy to claim we’d have got further with him – for that is an opinion that is impossible to contradict – but logic dictates otherwise.

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