A few weeks ago I watched a re-run of The Big Match, ITV’s highlights show from the 1970s. Covering football then was an art form; there wasn’t blanket coverage of every game, so schedulers would have to pick the games they thought would bring the most entertainment. It’s one of the reasons great players seem greater than now, you don’t see their rubbish games, just the iconic ones which happened to be captured on film.
The headline that particular week was Fulham v Charlton featuring George Best and Rodney Marsh in the second division. Both faded superstars, they treated the game as though it were a testimonial.
It’s rare now that top players drift down the divisions once they are past their prime – the increasingly well trodden route is that once you’re no longer good enough for one of the elite teams you either retire a rich man, take up punditry or go abroad for some insane last pay day.
In 2014, the Oxford juggernaut that had propelled us back into the Football League four years earlier was grinding to a halt. Ian Lenagan couldn’t maintain the funding to get us out of the division and the lack of apparent progress was driving a rift between Chris Wilder and the fans. Even star striker, James Constable’s goals were drying up and club was going nowhere.
To alleviate the problem, Wilder dipped into the loan market and plucked David Connolly from Portsmouth. Connolly was 37 and clearly running out of steam, but he scored on his debut and showed in fleeting moments of the class that had seen him play in the top flight and at the World Cup.
In 2002 he was a member of the Republic of Ireland’s squad that played in Japan and Korea. He was 24 and playing for Wimbledon, so at his peak, but down the pecking order behind Robbie Keane and Niall Quinn.
Ireland had a problem, they’d built a reputation of being a ramshackle happy-go-lucky team bumbling from one triumphant failure to another. In 1990, they’d made the quarter-finals, in 1994 they’d beaten Italy, they’d just missed out on qualification in 1998, so in 2002 they were a new refreshed squad with an old-fashioned mind-set under Mick McCarthy, an ex-player from Jack Charlton’s years.
Captain was Roy Keane, ultra competitive and ultra professional. He was used to success leading Manchester United. Things had moved on, the Premier League had brought in new definitions of professionalism and the squad included a few players of genuine international class. Along with Keane, Ireland boasted Robbie Keane and Gary Kelly from Leeds and Damien Duff of Blackburn.
Roy Keane couldn’t hack the lack of professionalism and flounced out of the tournament just before it started. Ireland, it seemed, were in disarray.
In what already looked like it would be a play-off for second place in the group, they started with a dogged 1-1 draw with Cameroon. Next came the ominous Germans who had destroyed Saudi Arabia 8-0 in their first game. Predictably, Germany led 1-0, but the Republic pulled themselves back into the game and in the last-minute Robbie Keane bundled in an equaliser. It was a point that saw the Irish finish second in their group.
Next up was Spain, not quite the all-conquering team they’d become, but still formidable. Again, Ireland conceded early, but slowly they clawed themselves back into it. Spain had a second goal ruled offside before Gary Kelly missed a penalty to bring Ireland level. With time ticking on, McCarthy brought on David Connolly to join the attack and salvage something from the game. In the 90th minute, Ireland were awarded a second penalty and Robbie Keane popped up to equalise and take the game into Extra-Time.
Extra-time was brutal with both teams coming close to breaking the deadlock. But with the game locked at 1-1, the tie was to be decided by penalties. Connolly stepped up for the third, fluffing the first of four consecutive kicks that were missed. Ireland were out.
Once again and Ireland were subject to a stereotypically heroic exit in which they won just one game. As much as Roy Keane wanted a new dawn of professionalism from his country, it was really just the same old Ireland.