Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Gareth Southgate (file pic).
# talking point
Watching English media cover their team through Irish eyes can be baffling - but it's far from an anomaly
Gareth Southgate has endured strong criticism of late for his approach to games.

IN INTERNATIONAL football, there is often an odd disconnect between the opinion of people from a particular country who follow that team and those who view events from the outside.

At the 2014 World Cup, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was roundly condemned for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini by virtually everyone apart from Uruguayan media, who defended their star player.

One of the pet peeves of Irish football fans during major tournaments is the perceived hyperbolic way in which the English media sometimes cover their team, epitomised by the “it’s coming home” mentality that frequently dominates the discourse.

Yet perhaps it has not occurred to many of those complainants how strange media coverage of the Irish team might seem to outside eyes.

For example, take what is widely seen as Ireland’s greatest achievement on the international stage — Italia ’90.

To most foreigners, Ireland getting to the quarter-finals of the World Cup would have been viewed in a similar manner to Saudi Arabia beating Argentina or Japan overcoming Germany at Qatar 2022.

Basically, an incredible achievement. An uncomplicated 10/10 from players, coaching staff, and all concerned.

And there was certainly plenty of euphoria at home as Jack Charlton’s Ireland qualified for a first-ever World Cup and hit unprecedented heights.

Yet was the joy and praise for the team unequivocal? No.

Outsiders might have been baffled to see Eamon Dunphy throwing his pen across an RTÉ studio in disgust as Ireland drew 0-0 against Egypt — a result that, in the end, helped them progress from their group.

But Dunphy was not the only one who had some reservations about Ireland’s style of play under Charlton. There were similar feelings among other football purists, including Stephen Kenny, who has said he stopped going to see Ireland play under the Englishman because of the unattractive style.

Yet to most people from England and beyond who watched Ireland play at Italia ’90 and indeed for much of the Charlton era, the question of the style of play would have barely registered — they simply would have seen a small country punching hugely above their weight and however they were doing it would have been assumed to be correct owing to the remarkable results generated.

There was a similar contrast in the Martin O’Neill era, particularly as it drew to a close.

There was a palpable frustration in large portions of the Irish media coverage and fanbase with the team’s somewhat Charlton-esque direct style that was arguably outdated by then, as well as on account of the perceived conservatism in many of the team selections.

The grumbling grew more audible as O’Neill’s approach led to diminishing returns — reaching the round of 16 at the Euros was followed up by a disappointing climax to the World Cup qualifying campaign amid a 5-1 hammering by Denmark in the play-offs.

But there was a noticeable chasm between how many of the Irish journalists and fans viewed the team and the perception of British media who covered O’Neill’s men to varying degrees.

There were basically two camps: those who believed Ireland should be playing a better brand of football even with somewhat limited players (closer to what Stephen Kenny is doing now) and those who felt O’Neill was more or less faultless and simply making the best of a bad situation.

After all, the former Celtic boss had overseen qualification to the Euros knockout stages with no obvious world-class stars in the team. What more could be expected? This certainly was the view of O’Neill himself if recent extracts of the manager’s autobiography are anything to go by.

The lively debate on BBC Radio Five Live between ex-Celtic player Chris Sutton and Ken Early of Second Captains perhaps is the aptest standalone example of these two differing assessments on O’Neill’s legacy with Ireland clashing.

Yet Irish journalists will conversely often see media expectations surrounding the English football team as unreasonably high.

The Gareth Southgate criticism that seems particularly vociferous at Qatar 2022 will be baffling to some.

The former Aston Villa defender is England’s most successful manager in decades.

He came very close to guiding the Three Lions to the World Cup final in Russia four years ago and was a penalty shootout away from triumphing at Euro 2020, having guided England to a first major final since 1966.

An outsider might naively presume that Southgate, on the back of those two considerable achievements, would be granted serious leeway with future decisions.

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Yet in shades of Italia ’90 with Ireland, sections of the English media have been highly critical of Southgate and his team in recent months, and throughout his reign to an extent, primarily owing to the style of play.

One of the main narratives that have emerged is that Southgate is supposedly ‘afraid to take the handbrakes off’.

England, with their enviable wealth of talent, should be playing in a more attacking, exciting way in the eyes of these naysayers.

And there is no doubt that the team’s approach is cautious — at Euro 2020, the Three Lions scored just twice from three games in the group stages and with the exception of the 4-0 quarter-final defeat of Ukraine, were similarly conservative in the knockout stages.

But has this somewhat negative approach not been working extremely well for them?

Perhaps, they played with greater freedom under Roy Hodgson, but that led to some fairly ignominious and hasty tournament exits.

Yet especially after what has been largely described as a boring 0-0 draw with USA on Friday night, the knives appear to be out for Southgate, despite the fact that the result has all but guaranteed England’s progression to the round of 16.

Many have called for the inclusion of Phil Foden in the starting XI — but Southgate kept the Man City star on the bench last night and gave him a paltry 19 minutes of action against Iran.

Consequently, Foden is fast becoming the cause celebre of the agitators. The 22-year-old is the inevitable Liam Brady/Wes Hoolahan-type figure in this scenario — the supreme creative talent whose absence supposedly encapsulates the rigidity of a bankrupt system and whose presence would somehow magically transform everything.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m alone on these shores in finding the increasing anti-Southgate sentiment across the water a little strange, but then an English journalist might be similarly bemused by the tone of some of my reporting towards the final days of the O’Neill era.

In the end, it all seemingly comes down to a simple footballing truth. People who follow a sports team with an intensity bordering on obsession are so invested that they nearly always assume they should be doing better somehow. To more neutral and less impassioned observers, though, they are often performing about as well as can be expected. 

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