It’s easy sometimes, living in our little football bubble as we do, to think that the world as we know it has been turned upside down.
Starting with that thought, who would have expected Tim Cahill, at the age of 73, to still be scoring vital World Cup qualifying goals for Australia?
Who would have expected Argentina to be making such a Fray Bentos mess of qualifying, having come second last time and having some apparently half-decent players?
Who, including Duke Woy and Ray, would have expected Iceland to become the smallest nation – the first with a population of less than one million – to qualify for the World Cup Finals?
Who would have thought that England’s qualifying campaign would be as dull and uninspiring as a wet Wednesday evening at the Hawthorns?
Who would have thought that eating too many satsumas might cause The Netherlands to miss two major football tournaments in succession?
Who would have thought that wee Gordon Strachan would have been keen to reach for the stars while recognising that a) none of them was eligible to play for Scotland, and b) no stool has yet been invented that would enable a Scottish footballer to climb onto a level playing field.
Who would have thought that Shrewsbury Town would sit at the top of any league table other than the infamous ‘Small towns pretty close to Wales?’
And, finally, on the subject of the ‘Land of our Fathers,’ who would have thought that Wales would fail to qualify for Russia 2018? Well, maybe our grandfathers.
If some of the answers to the above are not that surprising after all, Mark Twain (wrongly attributed as it happens) had it right when he declared that “Nothing is certain except death, taxes and Wales failing to ever make it to the World Cup Finals again.”
Unbeaten since their improbable run to the Semi-final of Euro ’16, the singing was as wonderful at the Cardiff City Stadium beforehand as in the Republic of Ireland’s dressing room after the match. The Irish were led by goalscorer, James McClean, who has penned a few verses in his time including his famous ‘Ode to Chris Coleman’s broken dragons’
“Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
Or was that another McLean, who is just a year younger than Cahill? The Celtic ‘C’ can stand for Confusing, can’t it?
James also once lamented his move from Sunderland to Wigan Athletic in ‘From Wear to Pier’
“I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes
And make it go away…”
Or was that some other Irishman with branding issues?
Eventually, James – having played for the Northern Ireland under-21 team before deciding to play for the Republic – displayed a similar lack of ambition by joining Tony Pulis at the aforesaid Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion.
These are the kinds of players Tony needs, to ensure that West Brom don’t change their minds about anything, ever. Having told James off for turning his back on the English flag during a pre-season tour of Soccerland, two years ago, imagine then Tony’s apoplexy when James kept on running up and down the wing, rather than sitting on the edge of his own penalty area, penning depressing thoughts in song form.
The Republic’s manager, Martin O’Neill, seeks to differentiate himself from his namesake, Michael (who is closer to Derry than Dublin) by not getting caught with a drink when driving; the apparent use of prescription slimming pills; strange touchline jigs and the luck of the Irish when it comes to set pieces. He also gives James McClean even more space than the Welsh did.
Like Pulis, though, O’Neill can be defensive, as captured by another famous James McClean anthem – ‘Stop Joe Allen’
“I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while
But when I saw him last night, I could see he was up for the fight
And you know how I could tell?
He wore a poppy with pride for all those who have died:
The many for the few…”