There was once a lion that would prowl stealthily around a green pasture where four oxen were grazing. The lion, as was his nature, wished to devour one, if not all, of the small herd. However, every time the lion attacked, the oxen would turn their tails to one another so that no matter what direction the attack came from the lion was always repelled by the horns of one or more of the beasts. Nevertheless, as time passed the proud oxen quarrelled about this and that until each went off to pasture alone, in a separate corner of the field. The lion attacked them one-by-one and soon made a meal of all four.
And so it came to pass that the four oxen never qualified for a major international football tournament again. For whatever reasons, they could not overcome their differences through intelligent and rational dialogue and chose instead to perish, becoming just another link in the food-chain for the apex predators to prey on. United they stood, divided they fell.
When looking at Aesop’s allegorical tale in the context of Irish international football, the message to be divined remains as clear as it ever was. If Irish football is to succeed, and by success I mean bring joy to the millions of football fans either side of the “border”, doesn’t it make sense that we unite under the one banner? That we put our cultural differences aside for the greater good? That we join together so that we can maximise the potential of the relatively small pool of talent that springs from the backstreets and football pitches of our green isle? As the memories of the troubles begin to fade out of the public consciousness and into the history books, more and more people, from Enda Kenny and Alan Shatter in the Irish government, to the Godfather of Irish football himself John “The Don” Delaney, are asking the question; is now the time for a United Ireland Football Team?
Firstly, it is necessary to outline why a re-unification of the island’s national team would be mutually beneficial. I say re-unification because from 1880 until 1921 there was only one governing body and one national team. Think how different things might have been for Irish football if we had remained united? GEORGE BEST COULD HAVE PLAYED FOR US!
He could have represented the whole of the Irish people instead of the million or so who happen to live in the north-west corner of the island, and who see themselves as a little different from the rest of us.
Now that’s fine for them. The fact that they see themselves as different from regular Irish south of the “border” is fine too but do they really need to hog their greatest footballers to themselves as well? Shouldn’t George Best have graced the world stage at an international tournament? Wouldn’t a united Ireland football team of that era had a much better chance of qualifying more regularly? Who would argue that the North’s 1982 team wouldn’t have been complemented by Liam Brady and Mark Lawrenson? Or that Giles and Best wouldn’t have formed a potent midfield combination capable of taking on any opposition? In the grand scheme of things many Northern Ireland fans seem to be cutting off their nose to spite their face, for wouldn’t they too get a chance to share in the joy of possible qualification for major tournaments as opposed to wallowing masochistically in the likely failure to qualify? The reality of the situation is that the footballing fraternity of Northern Ireland will find it very difficult to qualify for a major tournament again. The situation is compounded further by the recent increase over the years in the number of players eligible to play for the North declaring instead for the Republic. Do they know something that the Irish Football Association doesn’t?
There are obvious cultural reasons for some players preferring to represent the South, but if there wasn’t also the added incentive of the increased probability of playing at the Euro’s or the World Cup then maybe the influx of players of the calibre of James McLean and Darron Gibson wouldn’t be as consistent. The fact that, as recent history suggests, the Republic have a much greater chance than our Northern brethren of competing at the highest level of international football must make the decision of who to represent a little easier.James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady made similar decisions from across the Irish Sea, kissing goodbye to Caledonia to follow their hearts to Hibernia. However, the point is that these players shouldn’t have to make that decision. We are all Irish, north and south, and Irishmen should play for Ireland, North AND South, not Northern, or the Republic of, just Ireland.
If there are any staunchly Unionist readers of back-post.com you are no doubt spitting whatever beverage you’re enjoying all over your screen at the thought of jumping into bed with the fenians, but please read on. Firstly, I respect your political position. I don’t agree with you, but am more than willing to thrash it out in a relatively good-natured and reasoned verbal joust. Politics is almost as compelling as sport. Secondly, ponder on Rugby; and the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR).
There are some similarities between Northern Ireland and the former East Germany . . . in purely footballing terms of course. For example the GDR were never an international footballing heavyweight. Their most significant achievement came in beating their illustrious West-German neighbours in 1974 and qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, reaching the last eight. Northern Ireland have also had their famous victories, and have also had their single World Cup experience in 1982. Leaving aside the political and economic aspects, would you say that East German football has benefitted from reunification? I think Michael Ballack and the other 12.8 million Germans from the former communist block would say they have benefitted.
West Germany won the World Cup at Italia 90 and united with the GDR the following year. Since then they have enjoyed 100% qualification, runner up twice in the Euro’s, once in the World Cup, with two third place finishes in Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. Not to mention winning the Euro’s in 1996. Not bad eh? Now obviously Ireland is not capable of that level of sustained success but it is an example of how a smaller nation can profit from sticking with big brother. There is no doubt that families are stronger when they stick together, even when they don’t always see eye-to-eye. In fact, even when gouging each others eyes out, families will unite when confronted with a challenge to be overcome, or an enemy to be vanquished.
Finally, speaking of gouging, it is inevitable that the old Rugby comparison should rear is weary head from the depths of this age-old debate. It is inevitable because it is so obvious and devastating in its simplicity. It works. One island; one team. The best of proud Ulstermen and the cream of the Republic’s rugby crop united under one flag, one anthem. (Okay, you’ll probably see a number of flags and at least two anthems but things are never perfect and you get the point) Do you think that Northies take any less pleasure than we do when Brian O’Driscoll uses all his power and guile to steal another magnificent try form under the noses of various interchangeable goliaths?
Do Leinster, Connaught, or Munster supporters feel less pride when Stephen Ferris runs down the opposition in an unstoppable force of aggression, because he hails from north of the border? It is difficult for reasonable people to fathom why the same cannot be for the footballing faithful. Before shaking your head with mutterings about rugby fans being a different <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>class of people, and quietly sighing at the thought of moronic anti-British-Celtic-fans clashing with the equally mono-syllabic union-jack waving <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>Norn’ Irn’ element, think instead of those same fans, celebrating ecstatically in the newly re-christened Lansdowne Road, home of Irish Rugby and Football. They are celebrating because Johnny Evans has just scored a header from a James McLean corner that sends Ireland into the playoffs for the 2018 World Cup, after earlier goals from James McCarthy and Paddy McCourt give them a 3-2 victory over a mediocre French team. This vision may be fanciful, but is it really that crazy?
Sport has a capacity to unite that is often more powerful than politics or religion. It is time that sport once again leads the way in building a community of reasonable people on this island that has for too long been ignored. It’s time for the people of this small rock on the edge of Europe, this fertile land on the cusp of the Atlantic abyss, to put our petty differences aside and unite to provide a better, more successful footballing future. It is time that we all saw sense, shared the organisational and economic burdens and united the player pools to create a new incarnation of Irish international football. Because at the end of the day, regardless of the success that may or may not occur on the pitch or the financial dividends and savings that could plausibly be accrued, the real reason why we should have a reunified football team runs deeper.
It is in our blood, and for all of us it runs the same. Regardless of whether you’re descended from Viking or Norman or Celt or Scots Gael; whether your ancestors fought for William of Orange or the Catholic King James; or if your grandfather battled at the Somme under the flag of the 36th Ulster Division or the Royal Dublin Fusiliers; we all lay claim to the same title: Irishman. We come from a nation with a fierce and turbulent history, like a large Irish dysfunctional family of around 6.4 million people who constantly argue about what to watch on the telly. However, the most dysfunctional families, because of baggage they carry, often have something that larger and more affluent families find difficult to cultivate; strength through unity. United we stand; divided we fall. Just ask the four oxen.
by Paul Cahill