“Denmark.” When it was announced that the Danes would be our opponents in the World Cup play-offs, most of us had already booked our tickets to Russia. This was a team in a similar situation to us: similar population size, a few, but not many, well-known players, and a team that haven’t played at the top level for quite some time; they weren’t even at the Euros two years ago. In other words, we fancied our chances.
Fast forward to Martin O’Neill’s post-match interview after a 5-1 trouncing at the hands of our supposedly easy opponents. O’Neill defends himself by spouting great results from our national side’s recent history, such as the 1-0 win against Germany and results against teams like Wales, Serbia, and Georgia.
In my mind, I could not help feeling that O’Neill was hinting at a conclusion that so many Irish teams make after an embarrassing defeat, a get-out clause used far too often: we did well, considering who we are.
My mind races back to exactly six years before that night in Dublin, at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Ireland have never made it past the quarter-finals in the tournament, with France, Australia and Argentina dumping us out on several occasions. This time, however, we were drawn against Wales, the most accessible tie we’ve ever had at this stage in the competition.
Our Gallic cousins are of a similar standard to us and will be tough all the same, but we did beat them in Cardiff to win the Grand Slam in 2009. In other words, we fancied our chances. Final score: Ireland 10, Wales 22.
What is it about being favourites that causes Irish teams to underperform so regularly? Why is it that when we start to string together a good run of form, our chance of actual glory is squandered by unforced errors, complacency and poor self-esteem?
How come our teams need to have their backs to the walls in order to pull the result out of nowhere? Call me pedantic, but I find it incredibly frustrating when the luck of the Irish is always neutralised by the bookies’ curse.
It seems that in order to prevail, the Irish must adopt a sly, mischievous approach. This dates back to our tactics in the War of Independence, where guerrilla warfare caught the British troops off-guard, and we realised that against the massive arsenal of the British Army, our greatest weapon was the element of surprise. However, I believe that our attitude to success is why prolonged success is so rare for our national sides.
Let’s look at Ireland as a whole. We are a small island nation off the Western coast of mainland Europe. We have a modest population of four million people. With a massive proportion favouring Gaelic football, hurling and camogie, the number of athletes eligible for elite international sports dwindles even further.
Simply put, we do not have a huge pool of talent from which to choose. Compare our situation to that of our European cousins, the UK, Russia and the USA, and we feel a whole lot smaller. It is therefore understandable that we may have low self-belief in this regard.
But we constantly defy the odds, pulling off massive results against opposition where there should be a gulf in quality between us and them. Most of us in Trinity are too young to remember Italia ’90, but seeing videos from that summer show us what we can do when we back our team. Moreover, our success in many sports proves just how good we can be.
Apart from soccer and rugby, our achievements in rowing, boxing, athletics, swimming, and golf show what a talented nation we are and that we can compete at the top level when we apply ourselves. When we triumph, the country is immersed in an overwhelming sense of national pride, as we chant, “You’ll never beat the Irish,” and constantly reminisce about those glorious days.
And that’s the problem. We have set the bar for success far too low, despite the knowledge that we are capable of far more. Any modicum of success is considered an achievement. This is what separates us from the other top countries. Elite sport runs on the idea of never being satisfied. Teams at the highest level have enormous appetites for success, to the point where they might never be truly content with their level of quality.
In doing so, they nullify the threat of complacency, something from which Irish teams could benefit. We do not have such a drive, and as a result, we cannot retain our place at the top table. Our form changes with the seasons.
Conversely, when we fail, and we do this far too often, we almost accept it as inevitable. Any angry or biting critiques are almost immediately quenched, with coaches and managers defending themselves through pessimistic comments. Typical comments include, “look, we did well considering,” or, “as a small nation, we punched above our weight by getting this far”.
When team leaders use these counter-arguments, my sympathy always goes to the players. These responses say to me that, ultimately, the coaches do not have much faith in their players. When the Irish public accept these comments, we demonstrate to our representative teams that we expect to be disappointed.
How, then, do we expect our teams to be successful when we have such a lack of faith in them? With this negative approach, the Irish become, as Joyce put it, the “gratefully oppressed,” constantly undermined by the bigger nations. Having lived in the shadows of our British colonisers for so long, I understand to a degree why we undermined ourselves and felt inadequate compared to our rivals, but it is unjustified today.
This is a sporting culture totally committed to the adage, “after pride cometh the fall”. When we put together a set of good results, we as fans get a little carried away. This prompts the team to become complacent and inevitably end up on the wrong side of an upset, most recently, Murrayfield in 2017. We despair about our national team, and the cycle begins again. Rags to riches, back to rags, every single time.
I still feel the need to stress that our attitude must change regarding our teams’ successes. Our expectations fluctuate between two extremes; certain victory or fated defeat. We should expect far more of our teams. Presumption is our worst enemy. A demand for consistency and progress is essential.
As sport at the top level becomes more and more technical, we too need to develop our strengths and become a much prouder sporting nation. Become realistic and strive for more. Never be satisfied. Shocking the big guns can be pleasurable, but it’s time to face facts: we have far more effective weapons in our arsenal than the element of surprise.