For Roy Keane yesterday it was a case of the game and nothing else. As Martin O’Neill’s assistant put it: “I’m not thinking about family, holidays, ye lads, my dogs, I’m thinking about the game on Sunday. That’s my job.”
The reality for Ireland, though, is that the first visit of England in 20 years is a timely distraction from the much more serious issues that are swirling around the national team this week.
Ireland’s friendly against Roy Hodgson’s team was always the warm-up to the real event, when Scotland play at the Aviva Stadium a week today in a Euro 2016 qualifier that will set the mood for the final four games of the Irish campaign. And that was before the revelations that the Football Association of Ireland had accepted €5m from Fifa to drop their legal case over Thierry Henry’s handball in the 2010 World Cup play-off qualifier.
The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, yesterday demanded that the FAI’s chief executive John Delaney explain the deal, meaning that, bar any English FA-related Fifa disclosures, the England team will arrive in Dublin today amid someone else’s crisis rather than their own. There is concern at the English FA that the game passes off peacefully, hence the careful preparations over ticketing. Given the events at Lansdowne Road in 1995, when visiting fans caused mayhem, that feels like the priority on the English side.
Then, finally, comes the football. This time last year England were mid-World Cup pre-camp in Miami, one underwhelming draw against Ecuador out the way, another against Honduras to come. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had been injured, Raheem Sterling had been sent off and there were signs that their part in Brazil 2014 was not going to be front and centre in the post-tournament montages.
Hodgson is coming to the end of his post-Brazil 12 months and, given where he was at the end of June last year, it is probably enough that nobody is mentioning Brazil much these days. England have won seven games and drawn one since and if they beat Slovenia a week tomorrow in Ljubljana, they will be nine points clear at the top of Euro 2016 qualifying Group E with four matches to play. Hodgson has made no apologies for talking about qualification as a certainty, rather than applying the usual caveats.
The game against Ireland is the return favour to the FAI for the Wembley friendly two years ago that ended 1-1, and a necessary step to exorcising those bad memories of 1995. In fact, a successful event should as good as wipe clean the list of places that the England team could not play, an embarrassment to the FA for years.
Like many other European football nations, Ireland have beaten England in a major tournament so it would be wrong to quibble over the opposition’s pedigree.
Even so, from now on, the FA will ramp up the quality with games against Germany and France and possibly the Netherlands and Spain in the build-up to next summer’s tournament. This time, the prioritising of the Under-21s means that, with Harry Kane and Saido Berahino missing, and Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck ruled out, there is an end-of-season feel to Hodgson’s squad, but he knows that every minute is crucial and this time next year he will be on the brink of his third and possibly last tournament.
Having experimented with Phil Jones as a holding midfielder against Italy in Turin in March, Hodgson is considering a 4-3-3 formation with Sterling and Adam Lallana the two wide players alongside Wayne Rooney in attack. Jack Wilshere could come back into the team for the first time since the 3-1 win over Scotland in November. Tom Cleverley, who passed a medical at Everton yesterday, was called up to replace the injured Ryan Mason.
The mood from Keane yesterday was that Ireland had, in all likelihood, lost their chance of making Jack Grealish their man in the long term. It is not turning into the greatest week for the Irish, and they have opted for a much tougher build-up to the Scotland game than their opponents, who played Qatar last night. Tomorrow will be historic, but the defining moment for the Irish comes in a week’s time. Hodgson will have to wait another year for his.