23 years ago this week Ireland played Croatia at Lansdowne Road. Croatia went into the game as slight favourites coming off the back of a narrow defeat to World Champions France in that summer’s World Cup semi final. Goals from the Man Utd duo of Irwin and Keane gave the boys in green a comfortable 2-0 victory. It marked a time when the lion’s share of the squad played week in week out in the Premier League with many of the starting XI also playing in mid week European competition. Just one player, Keith O’ Neill of Norwich, in the starting line-up that day played outside of the topflight. Despite this Ireland were competitive against the likes of Juventus’ Igor Tudor and Parma & later Chelsea’s Mario Stanic. My memory of the day is that we outplayed the Croats for large parts of the match.
Contrast this with the starting XI which played Portugal this week. With an average age of 25 Stephen Kenny’s men failed to hold on to a 1-0 lead away to Portugal with Ronaldo stepping up to end Irish hopes of a famous victory. Although Coleman & co. led for much of the second half, Portugal had most of the chances and possession.
What’s especially painful is that the future is looking bleak. As it stands the 11 players who kicked off in white shirts last night have a total of 59 games of European club competition appearances under their belts, most of which are Europa League preliminary round qualifiers. Dennis Irwin in his entire career had 75 European appearances, many of which were in the Champions League. Eddie McGoldrick (“who is he?” some younger readers may ask) managed 11 European club appearances and picked up a European Cup Winners Cup medal for Arsenal. 55% of the experience among the line up has been gained in the lower tiers of English football. Some have come in the form of SPFL
The table below demonstrates the collective experience of the starting line-up against Portugal. The numbers are worrying.
It’s a far cry from the days of home victories against Croatia and the Dutch – many of our players on the pitch either weren’t born or were too young to remember those days.