Playing for your country should not be hard work

 

If national characteristics are reflected in various aspects of a country's football, differing English and Irish attitudes have tended to conform to stereotype when on the road. Whether in South Africa or St Albans, England shut themselves away in a luxurious hotel, country club or castle with security on the door, and only recently opted for a central location in Krakow – albeit in a country where they are not playing and in a city where no football is actually taking place.

In contrast, a vivid personal memory is visiting the Republic of Ireland team hotel to find one of the country's most celebrated players standing on a table leading the singing of rebel songs to family, fans, journalists and all who cared to join in. In Florida at the 1994 World Cup, the "three amigos" – Jason McAteer, Gary Kelly and Phil Babb – frolicked in the pool with supporters, and a barrel of Guinness was on tap in the manager's room.

The Irish captain at that tournament was Andy Townsend, then of Aston Villa, whose take on the difference between representing the two countries is interesting; not least because as a Londoner born and bred he was still supporting England as late as the 1988 European Championship when the teams met in Stuttgart.

"The spontaneity that I enjoyed and the relaxed nature around that [Ireland] squad was part of the reason why we had as good a time as we did," Townsend said. "I know it used to get on Roy's nerves a bit, but I think it was part of the reason why we were as difficult to beat as we were."

The Roy in question is, of course, Keane, who found much of the preparation in the United States underwhelming and eight years later walked out of the Irish camp before the tournament, raging about what he perceived to be an amateurish approach and telling Mick McCarthy in front of the whole squad exactly what he thought of him "as a player... a manager... and a person".

Where the former captains, who will be colleagues in ITV's coverage of Euro 2012, agree is that there is a spirit among the Irish players of every generation that England struggle to match.

"When I watch England, one of the things is that it appears hard work," Townsend says. "It appears like an ordeal, that actually they would rather be somewhere else – some players. It has been one of Ireland's strengths that it has always been a pleasure to play. It's always been fun to meet up and be with the rest of the guys."

Fabio Capello was surprised by how often England "played with fear", without reflecting that his martinet approach contributed to it. The Ireland coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, may be a compatriot of Capello's but seems more relaxed.

"What Trapattoni has to get right," Townsend said, "is that it is vitally important in these tournaments that the players enjoy it and are looking forward to it, pumped up and ready. That is crucial. It's wrong for the Irish team to ever lose the free spirit we have around the camp. It is far more disciplined nowadays but there has to be freedom for the players to enjoy it. He has got to give players breathing space and find the right ways to do that."

He does accept that times have changed: "Social networks and all the media nowadays will just pick holes in anything that is seen to be different. You can't do what we did, being seen out and about and having a drink with the fans and being given a night off here and there and told, 'Off you go'. You can't do that any more."

What does not change is the nature of tournament football, where Ireland have traditionally made sure of a good start; they must do so again on Saturday week in Poznan against Croatia, "We have an exceptionally tough group. It's all about the first game for us," Townsend says. "If we get a result in the first game we will give ourselves an opportunity to rattle the other two cages.

"We have never come up short in those games – England [in 1988], England [1990], Italy [1994], Cameroon [2002]. The players will be absolutely aware of the importance of not getting beat in the first game. I keep my fingers crossed that if we score first against Croatia, they will find us very, very difficult to break down.

"I don't think that Italian team is a special side, it's not an Italian team that would strike fear into you. It has nothing like the players they have had in recent years, particularly at the back. I can see our boys giving Italy a serious run for their money.

"I am more worried about the first game than the last game. That's why we have to get a result against Croatia because I don't fancy us against the Spanish. But I tell you what, in the third game if we needed something to get through going in against Italy I think we would have a great opportunity. I really do."

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