Big Jack beaten by fear

Eamon Dunphy laments a generation of greatness stifled by a straitjacke t of orthodoxy; As the Ireland manager takes time to consider his future Europe rejoices in the new generation of Dutch masters
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The Independent Online
AS SOON as Jack Charlton announced his team last Tuesday the writing was on the wall. Knowledgeable professionals knew there was simply no way a team containing four full-backs could survive against Holland. Perceptive football fans also knew that Charlton had made a grave mistake.

He had selected a team that reflected not the talent at his disposal but his own rather curious personality - and his own enduring dislike of anything that smacks of originality or daring.

To describe the selection of two full-backs to occupy the wide midfield positions as defensive would be an understatement. The decision was absurd. It was cowardly, it reeked of fear. The signal sent to the Dutch must have been reassuring: they knew they would not have to defend their flanks, they could concentrate instead on attacking Ireland for 90 minutes knowing that goals would inevitably come.

Charlton was asking the impossible of the two full-backs designated to play as wide midfield players, Jeff Kenna and Terry Phelan. Kenna has played wide for Blackburn, with some success, in the Premiership. But playing for one of the better teams in the English league bears little resemblance to facing Holland at international level. More pertinently, Blackburn never had the option of playing Jason McAteer instead of Kenna. On Wednesday McAteer, dashing, accomplished, daring, a threat to Holland, spent all but the closing 15 minutes of the game on the bench.

When Charlton eventually sent McAteer on, the Liverpool player transformed the game, creating alarm in the Dutch defence . . . and, with a superbly flighted cross, Ireland's best chance of the night which Tony Cascarino missed connecting with by a matter of inches.

It is an open secret that Charlton doesn't like young McAteer. Off the field this gifted young player possesses the kind of irreverent exuberance that is reflected in his play. Jason is an original. A free spirit. Unafraid. No respecter of reputations, as the great Italian Paolo Maldini discovered at Giants Stadium, when McAteer took him to the cleaners during the last 20 minutes of Ireland's most famous victory during last year's World Cup.

The case of Jason McAteer is the perfect illustration of Charlton's mistrust of originality, of his narrow mind and fearful spirit. Jason cannot be trusted to obey orders. He won't be bullied. Therefore he is no use to Jack Charlton.

The decision to play Terry Phelan on the left side of midfield was laughable. Phelan is a good full-back, quick and aggressive. He is notably limited with the ball at his feet, which is where it was on Wednesday night. Watching him struggle in vain to cope with the problem Charlton set for him was painful. The idea is to humiliate the opposition . . . not your own players.

Ray Houghton is a great battler, a player blessed with the spirit for the important occasion. For Liverpool, Aston Villa and Ireland, Houghton has been an inspiration to his team-mates in so many difficult games. He is a wonderful player, the quintessential good pro with an acute footballing brain. Houghton lifts any team he plays for. And although he is not a goalscorer, he scores goals when they are most needed.

Houghton torments defenders. As recently as last April at Lansdowne Road, Houghton played a major part in turning the game against Portugal Ireland's way. He was superb. He would have made an incalculable contribution to the cause last Wednesday. Charlton decided to leave him on the bench.

Perverse? Worse than that. This preference for Phelan over Houghton offended football reason. Thus, this important game was lost before the Irish team left the dressing-room. Commenting before the game John Giles and Mark Lawrenson both expressed disappointment and bemusement at Charlton's team selection. Two great, vastly experienced players, who know the game backwards, know the demands of a great occasion such as last Wednesday, know as well how utterly demoralising dressing-room life can be when the governing imperative is managerial folly and fear.

The folly of a limited coach who has never really known how best to deploy the wonderful players available to him, the fear of a bully confused by talent, determined to mask his confusion by projecting the image of sturdy conviction. In public relations terms that act has worked, worked beyond his wildest dreams, elevating him to the status of national hero at the expense of the true heroes, a magnificent generation of Irish players whose like we will never see again.

Last Wednesday night at Anfield the Irish football team looked demoralised from the moment they entered the arena. Although we fervently hoped that those magnificent professional players would avoid humiliation we knew, as in their hearts they did, that humiliation was a possibility. Fortunately, it was not a debacle. Narrowly, by the width of a goalpost, by virtue of the unfathomable courage of every one of those players, a defeat of epic proportions was avoided.

We can only guess how good the Dutch really are, for they and their wonderful, instinctive striker Patrick Kluivert never had to break sweat to prevail against a team disarmed by a fearful manager, bewildered by tactical folly on a scale unprecedented even by the bizarre standards previously set by Big Jack.

Three Irish players deserve special commendation. Tony Cascarino was magnificent. For 90 minutes his intelligence and honesty when confronted by a hopeless task was inspiring. Paul McGrath was simply his heroic self. John Sheridan has been the butt of much anger but he displayed an admirable degree of moral courage last Wednesday, attempting valiantly to remain true to his footballing nature. He erred to concede the first goal . . . but he erred trying to do the right thing. Yes, the truth is complex, but not something to fear. Except in an atmosphere contaminated by sentimentality.

For this observer, two contrasting memories of the Anfield game will long endure. After the game the Irish supporters offered a moving tribute to their team and the man at the centre of all this, Jack Charlton. This spontaneous eruption of emotion vouched for the indefatigable good nature of Irish sportsmen. The loving affinity between fan and player was never more engagingly evident.

The Dutch and English people present were beguiled by this manifestation of grace in adversity. This we can celebrate. But not what followed. An ugly scene which illustrated WH Auden's maxim that "private people in public places / are so much nicer than public people in private places".

The other side of Irishness was witnessed only by the few who see this story from the inside, who see the ugly consequences of sentimentality. Having just been acclaimed by the fans outside, Jack Charlton entered the press-room to account for the business of the night. Baby was brooding, ready to explode with petulant anger. Faced with a polite question about his future he humiliated a journalist who has recently experienced hard times, a decent man trying to do his job.

Then, as is lately the norm, Charlton proceeded to lay into his players who, he claimed, had failed to execute his orders. A colleague courageously inquired if this didn't imply some problem with the instructor. The question was couched in deferential terms by a gentle man, respected in our business for his singular good manners.

Charlton glared menacingly at his inquisitor for an instant . . . then uttered an obscenity before storming out.