Most would bet on Brazil but I'm not so sure they're right. Ireland's fate in this championship will be determined by attitude. If tomorrow's match against Holland in Orlando is approached positively, Ireland are well capable of winning. If Ireland perform as confidently as they did against Norway in Giants Stadium last Tuesday, Orlando will see a different team to the one which timidly conceded the early psychological advantage to Mexico in the process of losing here nine days ago.
The difference between the two Irelands we have seen in the United States is easily defined: the effective team play football, passing crisply and supporting each other in possession, as in the second half of the opening game against Italy and for 90 minutes in New Jersey on Tuesday. The other team attempt to implement a game plan drawn up by Jack Charlton, the back-to-Packie-lash-it-long- and-forward style so incompatible with his players' talents.
Charlton rationalised these tactics as a means of overcoming the humidity of Orlando. The ball knocked back to Bonner, often from as far out as the centre-circle, enabled the Irish players to take a breather, he claimed. This is true. The problem was the energy expended winning back possession, chasing the elusive Mexicans in the midday sun. This tactic presents good footballers with another undermining problem. The sureness of touch you need to play your way into the game is never acquired. Five minutes into last week's game against Norway it was equally obvious that Ireland were going to play and leave Bonner to keep goal.
Tomorrow in Orlando, watch the opening phase of the game. The signals are easy to read. Charlton's attitude is what matters. This time the dead heat of Florida does not offer an acceptable excuse for dispensing with the gifts of the players. If Ireland's first resort is anything other than composed possession football, the coach will be guilty of error.
Charlton picked the wrong team in the first two games and designed seriously flawed tactics. The back-to-Packie trick, exposed as the crude nonsense it is in Orlando, was actually in the script for the opening game. Ray Houghton's goal after 10 minutes changed everything that day. Our perception of the victory over Italy, which was in my view a triumph of magnificent players over cowardly tactics, was further altered by Jason McAteer's exuberant entrance 20 minutes from the end. His infectious brio lifted his colleagues who forgot the game-plan and began to enjoy themselves. Houghton and McAteer drew a veil over the sorry tactical reality.
But on that memorable day it was Paul McGrath who towered above proceedings, a great footballer in his finest hour, composing an epic poem in honour of sport's most cherished virtues: grace, imagination, athleticism and unfathomable depths of will-power. McGrath produced his greatest performance in response to an unpleasant whispering campaign which sought to cast doubt on his fitness and character. Those rumours emanated from Charlton.
Last week, in a squalid little footnote to Ireland's triumphant passage to the decisive phase of these finals, to which McGrath's contribution was once more inestimable, Charlton informed the Sun that he had 'conned' McGrath to do the business for Ireland. More fuel for his legend. The fact is that McGrath does not need to be slyly prompted by Charlton. He has been a great player for a decade. Charlton's growing conceit is matched by an unseemly belligerence, glimpsed by the public during his altercation with Fifa and always menacingly present in his off-camera dealings with journalists pursuing their craft. Hence, perhaps, the absence of rigour in the copy: victory is down to Jack, defeat or disappointment due to the failings of others - Fifa; players; the heat. And always when the serious challenges arise the best excuse of all: Ireland is a small place and expectations should be commensurately modest.
The truth is that Charlton is blessed to manage magnificent players who are Irish, not as his tabloid pals would have it, 'Irish', young men who possess pride, vitality, confidence and talent, characteristics more commonly associated with the Irish than the British these days. Charlton's significant contribution is welcome, his mythic pre-eminence is a joke.
In Orlando, John Aldridge scored the goal that confirmed Ireland's place in the knock-out phase of the tournament. Tommy Coyne, Charlton's original choice to lead the Irish attack, struggled badly and was substituted. Preferring Coyne to Aldridge - or David Kelly - was a mistake. Aldridge is a more experienced, imposing character than Coyne and should have been in the side from the start of this tournament.
That error has been redeemed, but in midfield John Sheridan still has the call over Ronnie Whelan. Like Coyne, Sheridan is, on evidence of the past three games, in over his head. For two reasons, a change here would significantly enhance Ireland's prospects tomorrow and beyond. In the first place, Whelan with his heightened defensive instincts would be a much more effective midfield anchor-man. Sheridan is a lightweight, a flickering rather than glowing presence, in the most demanding circumstances. Another reason for playing Whelan is the effect his reassuring presence would have on Andy Townsend and Roy Keane. A huge benefit will accrue to those two players, who love to thrust forward into attacking positions if a measure of defensive responsibility is lifted off their shoulders. This Whelan can do. Sheridan palpably cannot.
The issue here, as in all other matters to do with Ireland's progress in the tournament, cannot clearly be defined in footballing terms. Ronnie Whelan is not favoured by the leader of the Irish expedition. In Italy four years ago, Whelan had the temerity to confront Charlton, seeking, as was his due, an explanation for his omission from the team. That crime is remembered. As he demonstrated when called to duty with 20 minutes remaining on Tuesday, Whelan is a commanding character, familiar with the demands of the great occasion. If that experience is condemned to the sidelines tomorrow it will be a damning indictment of Charlton. A prejudice, purely personal, will have coloured the selection of the team.
The unfortunate Tony Cascarino apart, Charlton has a full squad of players to choose from tomorrow. Veterans like Houghton, McGrath, Bonner and Aldridge have been magnificent in this championship which will probably be their last. Young men like Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer, Steve Staunton and Phil Babb have matured, testimony to Charlton's ability to allow tender souls some shelter in the shadows of his large, yet curiously uneasy, spirit.
Although Charlton strives to project an image of sturdy conviction, one senses, at critical moments, that he, more than anyone else, is overawed by this extraordinary Irish adventure which has propelled him into the folklore of a nation. Content with the tabloid image, the mythology which proposes that he transformed a squad of ordinary players into a force in the international game, Charlton does not behave like the lucky man he is. The errors of this tournament, errors of judgement concerning team selection and tactics, betray a certain confusion which seems uncharacteristic at first glance. The last time Ireland played in Orlando, it was evident after 10 minutes that Denis Irwin could not pick his legs up. Had Charlton been commenting in a television studio, or sitting detached and objective in the stand, he would have identified this problem. In reality, he did not act as he should have done by substituting Gary Kelly for Irwin. Mexico's second goal was the inevitable consequence of Irwin's fatigue. Upon such bread-and-butter decisions Ireland's fate now depends.
This is reality, not myth, a set of circumstances this formidable coach, freed of doubt and confusion, is well capable of exploiting. We know enough about Holland, what we do not know is whether Charlton can pull himself together, stop snarling at people and do justice to himself and the wonderful team he has created. If he gathers his thoughts and comes to terms with the hand he has been dealt, Charlton may yet be worthy of the legend created in his name.
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