At a time when money not only talks but shouts cacophonously, how good it was to see unfancied Northern Ireland, without a victory for two years, humiliation in the last European Championship – though the odd brave draw, such as that away to Portugal, raised hopes of recovery – deservedly beat supposedly powerful Russia in Belfast.
Where the deep pessimism of Ulster fans was all too plain alas from the wretched attendance at Windows Park – once the scene of those marvellous triumphs in the remote Danny Blanchflower days – a mere and miserable 11,805.
For Fabio Capello, his international manager’s career supposedly resurrected – and certainly at heavy expense – after his World Cup failure with England, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Moreover the victory was deserved and the Irish score might even have been doubled. By comparison with the wealthy and celebrated Capello, Ireland’s Michael O’Neill is an obscure and peripheral figure, but he had much the better of the tactical battle this time.
Moreover this wasn’t even a full strength Northern Ireland team, with three of their best known players, that versatile winger Chris Brunt of West Bromwich, the Manchester United central defender Jonny Evans – who withdrew just before the start with stomach trouble – and the principal striker Kyle Lafferty, all absent. In their stead, Martin Paterson had an exceptional game up front and scored the winner with a fine header after excellent work on the by-line and a fine cross from Nial McGinn.
The Irish won’t qualify for the ensuing World Cup, the Russians still in this group have a chance of overhauling the similarly inconsistent Portugal. But this Irish success shows that football is still a democracy, rather than a plutocracy. At least at international level.
Was I hallucinating I asked myself the other day when I seemed to hear a voice on the radio pronounce that Qatar had acquired the 2022 World Cup “fair and square”? The words were attributed to someone called Brian, who turned out to be Brian Barwick, eliciting memories of the agonised cry of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!’
If I am wrong I can only apologise; if I am right, I am bewildered. Barwick, who now seems to be emerging from obscurity, was a successful television sports executive who as leader of the Football Association ineptly bequeathed to us as hapless England manager, the Wally With a Brolly,” Steve McLaren.
The flood of foreign players enlisted by Premiership clubs during the summer makes it harder than ever for young Englishmen to find places in all but the lesser teams; and by no means always in those.
Once upon a time a club like Sunderland or eternal North Eastern rivals Newcastle United for that matter – found riches on their doorstep. Though I do recall that as long ago as the 1940s, Sunderland’s two star inside-forwards were the Yorkshire man (“Clown Prince of Football”) Len Shackleton, and the Londoner Ivan Broadis. Always called Ivor owing to the illegibility of his signature on a transfer form.
And now? Paolo Di Canio had a ruthless summer clear out of the Sunderland team which had so narrowly escaped relegation, and has brought in a plenitude (not a plethora, one hoped) of players from abroad.
Against Fulham, lucky 1-0 winners it is true on Wearside but winners all the same) there were Emanuele Giaccherini, the late developer from Juventus who did so well for Italy in the European Championships in Italy’s attack. Valentini Roberto, ex Maritimo, who at least came for nothing, Jozy Altidore, the American international striker, from Alkmaar – hoping to do better than he did at Hull – and Cabral, a midfielder from Basel, a free transfer.
Giaccherini and Atidore cost £14.5 million between them. Plus Ondre Celustika, a defender, on loan from Turkey’s Trabanspor. And no room at all for the committed 25-year-old sometimes admittedly abrasive, Lee Cattermole, who was actually born not so far away at Stockton.
With all his iron discipline, can Di Canio mould all these elements into a successful team?
Meanwhile, there has been a new substantial gleam of light on the English horizon in the ebullient shape of the 19-year-old attacking midfielder Ross Barkley, scorer of a superb goal last Saturday for Everton against Norwich, crowning an all round display of outstanding technique and precocious confidence.
But then we have been hearing about him periodically for the past couple of years. That weathered warrior, Tim Cahill, in 2011 had called Barkley the most talented footballer he had worked with, and there has been nothing but praise from his senior team mates.
Last season he went out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. Somewhat surprisingly, since he had shown his prowess at Everton as a 17-year-old. But he has returned better than ever. Roy Hodgson, please note!