Irish give lessons in English

reliance on simple attributes is the way
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FOR THE first 20 minutes at Landsdowne Road last Wednesday night Portugal dictated the rhythm of the game to the Republic of Ireland. The visitors were composed, technically excellent, moving the ball effortlessly from man to man, threatening always to strike swiftly at the heart of the Irish defence. As we sat uneasily, the odd murmur of approval breaking the awed silence, mourning the ostensible difference between these two teams, we were forced to reflect and not for the first time on the gulf in sophistication between the British and European games.

The Portuguese, intelligent, swift, caressing the ball; the Irish ill at ease, clumsy, anxious, like adolescent lovers on their first date. Watching was painful. So often we have seen English teams at Wembley endure this same embarrassment: the earnest, muscular and naive in vain pursuit of swarthy sophistication. So often as the game progresses, the pursuer becomes exasperatingly inept, sophistication prevailing in a dazzling moment of individual brilliance.

There is, where English teams are concerned, a poignant paradox in this familiar scenario. Invariably in modern times, ever since Sir Alf Ramsey was dispatched after leading his country to World Cup glory, the English have failed while trying to moderate their natural style in an attempt to ape their tormentors. An inclination to "learn" from other football cultures, to experiment with various imported formations - the diamond shape, for example - and to promote players who are unEnglish - Matthew Le Tissier, for example - has caused innumerable English teams to lose their identity. In the end neither the England players nor the manager is quite sure what they are trying to do or who they are trying to be.

Conviction is the quality sacrificed in the above circumstances. The kind of conviction needed to prevail: belief in your own values, the qualities of physical and psychological endurance; intangible yet real competitive virtues like stomach for battle, resilience when your back is to the wall, in short the kind of things that enabled England to win the World Cup an age ago. An element of pigheadedness is necessary if convictions about the English virtues are to be successfully pursued; the kind of stubborn refusal to believe that there is in fact anything to learn from swarthy men who don't speak English that prompted Ramsey's most infamous stricture after England had been eliminated from the 1970 World Cup finals by West Germany.

Instead of staying in Mexico to review the rest of the tournament, and in the process celebrate Brazil, the greatest team in the history of the game, Ramsey returned home declaring imperiously that "we have nothing to learn". He was, as this remark revealed, more than a little contemptuous of foreign sophistication.

Sir Alf would have savoured Landsdowne Road last week where one of his most enthusiastic disciples, Jack Charlton, struck yet another blow for the conviction that underpins all real English convictions about football - and most other things - the belief that behind European sophistication there is, well, not very much worth worrying about, much less respecting. That, in fact, sophistication is an illusion and that if you persevere and get about them, the swarthy gents will bottle it and you will have your way.

That is precisely what happened in this wonderful European Championship match between two sides that, when everything that football is about was added together, were more or less evenly matched.

Had the opening 20 minutes been played at Wembley, an England team would have been embarrassed, an English crowd inhibited and probably would have turned against their players - and manager. The Irish players were not embarrassed, rather intent on battling through the crisis, and as tackles began to be won and a few probing sorties advanced into Portuguese territory, the Lansdowne Road crowd roared encouragement.

A palpable shiver ran down Portuguese spines, the illusion of composure quickly dissolved, the boot that once caressed now flailed desperately to hack the ball out of play. Pinto, Portugal's right-back and captain, so assured in the opening exchanges, was the first to crack. A long, hopeful ball into the Portuguese box, that could have been controlled and steered to safety was instead lashed for a corner. Panic had seeped into the sophisticate's soul. It had taken Ireland half an hour to force this first significant concession.

For Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, the glory days will soon be over. And when the going was roughest on Wednesday night those two magnificent veterans dug deep to deny time its inevitable triumph. When, after Pinto's declaration of panic, the tide had finally turned, it was Houghton, availing of a deft Aldridge manoeuvre, who smacked the ball against the foot of the Portuguese post to sow seeds of further doubt in the visitors' now vulnerable soul. Houghton was everywhere, prompting colleagues, harrying opponents, the personification of defiance. Aldridge foraged, a menacing mercenary waiting for his chance. But the list is long, preference for one hero over others inappropriate.

That the three points were won when Portugal's panic-stricken goalkeeper Baia, beset by anxiety, turned the ball into his own net on the stroke of half-time was above all a victory for sporting substance over style, a triumph for a rather unfashionable conviction about the virtues of the English game.

Portugal are useful, as they proved when they allied a measure of conviction to their skill in search of an equaliser. Sadly for them, they ran into one of the best back fours in the world and Alan Kelly, a sound if unspectacular goalkeeper. Buoyed by the goal, Ireland blended imagination with endeavour to illustrate that sweat and subtlety are not irreconcilable, rather the essence of our football at its most engaging. Strength of mind and body is, as Ramsey proclaimed, the thing.

Jack Charlton and others - he most pertinently and destructively - claim that this Irish squad is "limited". Watching them tear the heart out of a good Portuguese team, limitations were hard to see. Put Roy Keane in midfield in place of John Sheridan, place more faith in the creative talent of the players and Ireland will be concerned at the decisive stage of next summer's European Championship finals.

Sadly, Jack Charlton's Ireland only travel to the great football festivals for a good time. We should be going for the cup. The standard raised last week can be surpassed, a standard against which further adventures must be judged. And also the debacle of America last summer.