Football / World Cup: Irish must fear god of reason: Eamon Dunphy on why a selection policy went wrong

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The Independent Online
AT THE beginning of this season, Jack Charlton decided that he could afford to leave Kevin Moran out of the Republic of Ireland squad. Alan Kernaghan had arrived. Moran was deemed surplus to requirements except in the event of injuries.

In football terms, this decision made no sense. Moran is playing as well as ever for Blackburn Rovers, who are one of the better sides in the Premiership. Throughout last season, this great footballer was faultless whenever called upon by Charlton. Quite apart from services rendered as a central defender, Moran has presence, the unique strength of character that is felt in the dressing- room and on the field, a quality most managers would pay a fortune for if it could be bottled. Kenny Dalglish would testify to that last observation. Blackburn Rovers are not the same side sans Moran.

The above is indisputable. No informed observer would deny that Moran is a much more accomplished footballer than Kernaghan. You could argue that Moran will not last forever, that, aged 37, time is not on his side and this being the case blooding Kernaghan was a reasonable hedge against the day when Moran packed it in. But as far back as last autumn, Charlton appears to have concluded that Kernaghan would be preferred to Moran.

At the time I described that decision as crazy. I refer to the past not to underline my wisdom, rather to point out that no great foresight was required to anticipate that one day Charlton would pay for this error of judgement. Wednesday was the day.

Given the tension of the occasion and the quality of the Spanish opposition, any flaws in the Irish team were likely to be exposed. At the highest level of international competition you always pay for your mistakes. Thus, twice in the opening 16 minutes of Wednesday's contest in Dublin, Kernaghan's inexperience was ruthlessly punished by Julio Salinas of Barcelona.

In the absence of hard evidence, it is impossible to be definitive as to why Charlton prefers Kernaghan to Moran. My guess is that given the choice between a raw, willing young player and somebody like Moran who is undoubtedly his own man, Charlton will always opt for the former. Jack likes to get his own way, which is always more likely with an eager young apprentice than with a mature professional.

The team reflect the character of the man who leads them. Charlton's Irish teams have been notable in that tradition. What was unique about Wednesday's game was the extent to which fundamental errors, which were more to do with Charlton's character than mere footballing matters, were punished.

The mistake of playing Kernaghan was compounded by the formation of the team, which was designed to avoid defeat rather than win the two points required to qualify for the World Cup finals. By packing midfield and leaving Niall Quinn to labour alone up front, Charlton gave the Spanish

a precious psychological advantage.

The fear Spain might naturally have experienced coming to Dublin in need of a draw would have dissolved when the Irish teamsheet was delivered to their dressing-room. The optimism this inspired was evident in the opening 10 minutes when, outnumbering Quinn, Spain's defenders played themselves confidently into the game. Seeds of the 3-1 defeat were thus sown.

In the post-mortems, various theories have been advanced to explain the trauma of this historic day: Ronnie Whelan, Packie Bonner and Ray Houghton are past it; Spain were simply far too good; signs of decline have been there for the past 12 months. None of these claims - except the one relating to Bonner - is compelling.

In particular, it should be noted that Whelan was outstanding in the first 15 minutes of the game. Sadly, the gods concerned rendered him impotent, but no more so than Roy Keane, Dennis Irwin and Terry Phelan, all of whose fitness for future engagements remains unquestioned. The conventional wisdom about Whelan is wrong: like his colleagues, he was demoralised by Spain's opportunism.

Charlton has regularly defied conventional wisdom when choosing Irish teams. A willingness to challenge the prevailing consensus could, arguably, be Charlton's greatest asset as an international manager. Better to be your own man than to be, like Graham Taylor, impressionable to the point of lacking any real conviction. Alas, in Charlton's case, success and national heroism may have induced a feeling of irritability. It is in that context that the preference of Kernaghan over Moran in defiance of football logic is the key to last Wednesday's game. (It should be recorded that Charlton was honest and gracious as he publicly accepted responsibility for this defeat. He quite properly defended Kernaghan. The dressing-room is the place for recriminations.)

Almost certainly, the Republic must beat Northern Ireland in Belfast on 17 November to be sure of qualifying. My gut feeling is that they will fail. Sport has a curious way of giving expression to truth; justice is usually dispensed in the end.

The Republic have a marvellous squad of players and the manager is, in most respects, unimpeachably professional. But beyond the football issues, at the core of Charlton's character, there has always been a streak of darkness, some ghost of past times, who brooks no dissent, who must have his own way, who is contemptuous of those who differ.

Those whom the gods would destroy they first infect with hubris, the feeling that something is right beause you believe it to be. That absence of common sense explains last Wednesday. We must hope that the god of reason has extracted his revenge from the man who has defied him so successfully and often. We must hope that the god of reason is absent in Belfast.