Republic of Ireland – a rivalry at last?

In this joint-blog Buzz Boncath and Russell Todd look at Wales’s burgeoning rivalry with the Republic of Ireland

It had to happen, didn’t it?

Buzz said in his previous guest blog for Podcast Pêl-droed that it was statistically likely that Wales would draw the Republic of Ireland and/or Northern Ireland in the Nations League draw back in January. Even as he wrote that sentence he knew he was tempting fate, and almost inevitably we were drawn with the Republic and Denmark for the inaugural competition.

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But even before that, a bit like Theresa May, he’d been thinking a lot about Ireland.

And in a way, it is international relations that have been concerning us both. Not the impossible technicalities of Brexit though, it is the footballing relationship between Wales and the Republic of Ireland that has been the concern.

Obviously apart from the English, the Irish are our nearest neighbours. For Buzz growing up in Pembrokeshire in the 80s and 90s, the Irish were omnipresent. They are just the other side of the sea after all. The twice-daily ferry traffic dominated the roads; and does still – at least for now. You could pick up their TV & radio stations, if you pointed your aerial the right way, and we had a smattering of Irish kids in school. We studied Irish history, Irish poets and writers in English lessons, and listened to music from Irish bands like U2 and Thin Lizzy and the long-term political issues on the island of Ireland and their sad, violent consequences were all over the nightly TV news.

So Ireland loomed just over the horizon, a tangible presence in everything – except in sport. Sporting relations between Wales and Ireland were bizarre for two near neighbours. Other countries in such geographical proximity anywhere else in Europe would be knocking seven bells out of each other in every possible game, but not Wales and Ireland.

We just played them every year at rugby with the away team seemingly always winning, as if there was a courteous gentleman’s agreement. The Irish didn’t even seem to take the rugby too seriously. Both our countries’ sporting enmity was portrayed as aimed towards that lot the other side of Offa’s Dyke. Besides, the bitter disappointments of 1977 and 1985 at the hands of Scotland had burnished us with an alternative footballing rivalry, albeit a largely unrequited one.

Why weren’t the Irish on the radar? They played sport, of course. They’d invented plenty of their own. But perhaps that is the point: no-one else played them.

They were largely nowhere at the Olympics and obviously absent in the Commonwealth Games. It was only really boxing and horse racing in which they had a proud heritage. And so other than that annual rugby match they had a far lower profile in sport compared to their obvious presence in other strands of life. I suspect, though, they may say the same about us.

And in football, the global game, where were they? They weren’t part of the Home Internationals, something I’d always thought was a political choice, until I recently learned that Ireland had made repeated requests to join. Despite having produced talent of the calibre of Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Paul McGrath, Ireland had a minimal profile as a football nation.

But that changed towards the end of the 1980s. The Republic’s football team rose from long-term mediocrity and qualified for major championships under Jack Charlton: Euro 88, Italia 90 and USA 94, as well as missing out narrowly to Euro 92.

Their role as plucky underdogs struck a chord with us Welsh. I can certainly remember feeling both admiration and jealousy! Russell has argued elsewhere that for all the Russia 2018 disappointment at the hands of the Irish, theirs is the blueprint that Wales need to emulate to convert persistent qualification failure to regular qualification success; there are many footballing parallels between the nations.

Ireland, too, had to endure rotten luck and qualification near misses before finally reaching an international tournament. And more broadly within its society and polity football has been seen as a secondary sport: un-Irish or un-Welsh, culturally impoverished, a threat to cultural, civic or social orders. In Ireland this manifested itself along cultural and political lines with the partition of its football assocations marking far more than mere administrative boundaries.

Where Italia 90 marked a watershed in Ireland embracing a more inclusive and secular identity, Euro 2016 for Wales potentially can emulate it; perhaps it already has. Laura McAllister called the Euros “the biggest national confidence boost that Wales has received in living memory”, and only this week called for Wales’s political and diplomatic leaders to “prioritise football as our prize national asset with most potential for economic and other dividends”. That sound you have been hearing all week is the upsetting of apple carts across Wales.

For all the post-partition parallels and proximity we were barely on each others’ footballing radars. Indeed, until the 1990s we seldom played each other.

Here’s a short history lesson: Ireland was partitioned in 1921. Prior to the creation of what is now the Republic of Ireland, the Belfast-based Irish Football Association selected an international team for the whole of Ireland. After the Irish War of Independence, the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland was set-up and joined FIFA in 1924, a year after the Home Nation associations reluctantly recognised the FAI, albeit with dominion status.

The Dublin’s FAI didn’t pick players from Northern Ireland but Belfast’s IFA continued to select an international team that it claimed represented the whole of Ireland. It was only after World War II, when the IFA itself rejoined FIFA that it conceded its sides only represented Northern Ireland. But the IFA continued to rebuff the FAI’s requests to join the Home Internationals.

Wales played Northern Ireland regularly in the Home International Championship before and straight after World War II, but largely avoided the Republic. The FAW’s conservatism and loyalty to the other Home Nations saw that it did not wish to upset the IFA by playing their southern neighbours. The perceived lower standard of Irish football at that time could also have been a factor. As a result, we didn’t play the Republic at all until 1960 – 34 years after Ireland played its inaugural international as the Irish Free State in Turin versus Italy in 1926 – and didn’t play them a second time until 1979!

Since 1960, we’ve played them 15 times (5 wins, 6 losses and 4 draws) with 11 of those games after 1990. 10 of those 15 games have been friendlies. Compare that to our 107 games against Scotland and 102 games against England, most which have been competitive internationals. It’s very difficult to build a rivalry with a team you rarely play, particularly if there’s nothing riding on it.

Had the two Irish FAs merged as they almost did on more than one occasion until the 1980s – by which point tournament success for both justified the status quo – then an all-Ireland team in the Home Championship would have probably burnished the Wales-(all) Ireland fixture with the competitive edge it otherwise lacked.

An edge the fixture most definitely has these days. The Nations League will be our third competitive pair of fixtures against Ireland in eleven years and controversial incidents in the last campaign – on the field and in the stands – preceded the crushing home loss in November. Welsh fans I speak to would have much preferred we had drawn someone else, but since we have got to play them, there’ll be plenty on it later this year.

As Hywel said on Podcast Pêl-Droed #66, what better way to get the Welsh fans behind Ryan Giggs than giving the Irish a booting at home!

The Irish seem to see it in a similar way. The FAI did a Twitter poll on potential opponents before the Nations League draw in which we were by far their preferred option. They may think that they have the beating of us; and other than Jason Koumas’s brace in the 2007 home Euro qualifier we haven’t scored against Ireland, let alone beaten them, since 1991. It may be that that they enjoyed their last trip to Cardiff so much that they want to come back. Or perhaps they still harbour Shawcross-esque grudge across Neil Taylor for Seamus Coleman’s leg break and want to give us a dig back? Quite possibly, all three.

Whilst it has taken getting on for a century to happen, it feels like Wales v Republic of Ireland is now the fixture it probably always should’ve been. I’ll end this blog as I started, with another prediction – the two games this autumn will cement a rivalry that was a long time in the making, but is here to stay.

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