Ireland Correspondent: Cahill leaves stamp on lacklustre friendly in Limerick

By Peter Lenaghan

The crowd’s response tells you a lot about a game of soccer, and the atmosphere inside a Dublin pub is as flat as it sounds at Limerick’s Thomond Park. It is all Tim Cahill’s fault, and the locals seem genuinely shocked. The small group of Australians around us can only smile and shrug. “Should be a nice day at work tomorrow,” one ex-pat wearing a Wallabies jersey whispers from behind his pint.

We have joined a group of friends at the Barge in Rathmines. It is a pub with big screens and bars on three storeys, and sits across the road from the canal and the tram line. The €55 tickets for tonight’s friendly international down in Limerick are too expensive for us, and many others, too. It is the first time Thomond Park has hosted an international soccer match, and the first time in almost 25 years the Republic has played a home game outside of Dublin, but plenty of seats are empty as the match starts. With the Gaelic games championships in their final stages and a new English Premier League season around the corner, attention in Dublin seems to be elsewhere, too. The streets are quiet and the pub is far from full.

Soccer in Ireland faces similar challenges to those posing problems in Australia. Almost all of Ireland’s best players are plying their trade in England and Scotland’s top divisions, while many youngsters also travel abroad to join academies run by some of Europe’s best known and biggest clubs.

The result is a domestic competition, much like Australia’s A-League, that plays second fiddle to other sports: in Ireland’s case it is the high-profile Gaelic games and rugby union. The financial pressure of competing in such a national soccer league – exacerbated by Ireland’s current financial woes – has been highlighted by Cork City. The club was pronounced dead before it managed to settle an outstanding tax bill last Wednesday and stay in business, just.

By comparison, the Republic’s national team is going through a relatively settled period, on and off the field. The appointment early last year of the veteran Italian coach, Giovanni Trappatoni, stabilised a team that had become a laughing stock under the previous manager, Steve Staunton. Ireland is now closing in on World Cup qualification, but will probably need to beat Italy at Croke Park in October to secure an automatic berth in South Africa. Tonight’s game is a friendly, but Trappatoni has picked a familiar and strong side that Irish pundits think will start the Republic’s next qualification match early next month against Cyprus.

Australia is already qualified for next year’s finals and can afford to experiment a little. Unfamiliar and fringe players, including Mile Jedinak, Rhys Williams and Patrick Kisnorbo, are being given a chance to press for a place in the World Cup squad. Pim Verbeek gets criticised for the Socceroos’ cautious disposition under his guidance, but early in the match his team is playing with the freedom a lack of pressure provides. Ireland looks edgy. Harry Kewell and Mark Bresciano are causing problems for the Irish defence and the Socceroos are dominating possession. Luke Wilkshire and Kewell have chances to score. The crowd and the pub are muted.

The noise levels in the stadium and the pub do rise at last when Ireland creates its first decent openings. The best chance comes when the captain, Robbie Keane, takes a pass from Aiden McGeady and jinks past Kisnorbo. Keane shoots from close range, but Mark Schwarzer makes a save low to his right.

But Australia continues to have the better of the match. Jedinak and Wilkshire are winning the ball in midfield, but the contest lacks intensity. The Socceroos clear the ball up field and Cahill knocks a pass to Scott McDonald. The Celtic striker holds the ball for a moment and draws three defenders towards him. The space left is filled by Cahill, who takes a return pass from McDonald and slides the ball past Ireland’s wrong-footed goalkeeper and into the net. An astonished cheer fills the pub. “How the bloody hell did he do that?” a couple of Australian fans ask. It is a brilliantly taken goal.

A few minutes later, Cahill is at it again. Williams dribbles the ball unchallenged deep in to the Republic’s defence and shoots. Shay Given saves for Ireland, but only parries the ball in to the path of the Everton midfielder. Again, he makes the difficult look bafflingly easy – 2-0. The half-time whistle is blown seconds later. The crowd raises a feeble cheer as the players leave the pitch. The ex-pats in the pub are smiling. If Australia is going to perform like this when it comes to the round ball, maybe it is a lucky thing for Ireland that International Rules is on hold for a while.

In many ‘friendlies’, the half-time whistle signals the end of any meaningful contest as both teams make a series of substitutions. This game is no different, and the replacements are gradually brought on to the pitch, disrupting any flow or patterns of play. The conversation drifts away from Cahill’s brilliance and attention turns, as it inevitably does in Ireland at the moment, to finance, the economy, joblessness. “Really tough times,” says one Aussie who has been living and working in Dublin for two years. “Heaps of people still working are being asked to take pay cuts.”

The Republic’s players recapture our attention with two late chances. A shot by Keith Andrews strikes the frame of the goal, and soon after Sean St Ledger directs a header straight at Schwarzer. Australia is lucky to still be in the lead. As the final seconds tick by, David Carney receives a pass under little pressure and strikes a shot in to the top corner of the Irish goal. It is a beautiful goal, but also highlights the relaxed nature of the contest.

Giovanni Trappatoni can only laugh at his team’s misfortune. The fans in Limerick can only wonder if they spent their hard-earned wisely. The Aussies in Dublin can only wonder at Tim Cahill.

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