Ireland were solid if decidedly unspectacular in beating Georgia last Saturday. The winning result is obviously of paramount importance but one would have hoped for a slightly more impressive performance from Trap’s men. It is somewhat chastening to realise that Glenn Whelan’s flukey goal via his speculative shot ultimately proved decisive. Georgia created chances that Italy and Bulgaria will put away and more is expected of defenders who play in the Premiership.
Despite these misgivings, it is clear that a new all-improved Ireland is developing under Trapattoni’s leadership. To begin with, the mindset going into the Georgia game was right. Trap made it known that he expected Ireland to secure 6 points from the first two qualifiers and that anything less would be a major disappointment. Gone are the platitudes of the Staunton era where every game was prefaced by press conferences highlighting Ireland’s potential difficulties with minnow opposition. Let’s be clear, if Ireland can’t beat Georgia and Montenegro, we have no right to think of ourselves as worthy of the World Cup finals.
That is not to say that Georgia, Montenegro and Cyprus should be treated with arrogant contempt. Indeed, Montenegro were unfortunate to concede a late equaliser to Bulgaria, a result that already puts the Bulgarians under pressure. It is imperative that Ireland take a fearless attitude into these ‘banana-skin’ games. The group standings will ultimately be decided by the games involving Italy, Bulgaria and ourselves but a cool 18 points from 18 against the minnows would place us in an enviable position.
Let’s not kid ourselves; Italy have won 4 World Cups and have qualified for every finals since 1962. It would be churlish to think we have a realistic chance of topping the group. Second place, however, is a realistic proposition and gives a fighting chance of booking our tickets to South Africa. On the basis of last Saturday’s game, I’d look to next year’s Lions Tour as a more likely vehicle for Ireland’s top sportsmen. At least with Trapattoni at the helm, we face the future with genuine hope; the gallows humour of Steve Staunton’s reign is well and truly behind us.
On the Premiership front, it will be fascinating to see the impact of Manchester City’s millions (billions?) on a league that has been dominated by the same four teams year after year. Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim appears to have access to more money than God and has made it clear that he is more than willing to buy success, whatever the cost. Mark Hughes’ ability to handle the riches at his disposal will either mark him out as the new Mourihno or forever taint him as the reincarnation of Claudio Ranieri. He can afford any player he wants but will he create a team to compete with United and Chelsea?
In the meantime, Arsene Wenger decides that he doesn’t need to sign any new players as he’s confident that he can win the league with his coterie of spotty teenagers. Why can’t a Sheikh buy Arsenal?
Amidst all the hyperbole and effusive praise, Kilkenny’s demolition of Waterford in Sunday’s All-Ireland Hurling final has dealt a hammer blow to competitive inter-County Hurling. The Cats played only four Championship games and dealt out sound thrashings to Offaly and Wexford, a clear-cut victory over Cork and a callous and frankly cruel dismemberment of na Déise. Galway, Clare and Tipperary may well be disappointed at their failure to reach the All-Ireland Final but at least they avoided the Black-and-Amber juggernaut.
Kilkenny stand bestride the hurling world like a Colossus and no team looks likely to mount a challenge for years to come. At this juncture, a four-in-a-row for Brian Cody’s charges looks to be a formality and the totemic five-in-a-row that eluded Cork in hurling and Wexford and Kerry in football looks likely for September 2010. Galway and Tipperary show promise but lack the killer instinct that will be required to stop what appears to be the greatest team in the sport’s history.
How can hurling in Wexford, Dublin or Offaly thrive when their seasons will be defined by a masochistic defeat by Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship? Galway’s likely move into Leinster hurling will probably lead to yet more beatings for the province’s hurling underclass. The Munster Championship remains competitive but Kilkenny remain a class above the South’s finest.
The provincial system has served the GAA well on an administrative level but the Provincial championships are holding Gaelic Football and in particularly, Hurling back. The malaise in Hurling could be terminal unless visionaries overcome traditionalists soon. The League and Championship should be merged into one summer competition with round-robin and knockout elements so that all teams face a relatively level playing field. Geography should no longer dictate the ease or difficulty of a county’s passage to Croke Park in September.
All this doom and gloom should not detract from Kilkenny’s special achievement in securing three consecutive All-Irelands. Whereas both Kerry and Tyrone could legitimately lay claim to the mantle of Gaelic Football’s team of the decade, that accolade is undeniably Kilkenny’s in Hurling. Some Cork, Tipperary and Wexford fans will doubtless beg to differ but I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent to this Wexford supporter that the Kilkenny team of the early 21st Century is the best team in the history of Hurling.
Michael Clark is a former Vice-Auditor of the UCD Law Society