'This Ireland of valour, courage, decency and good humour… this Ireland of accomplishment. This Ireland is glorious.'

In every country the debate takes place. Even the Stalinist democracies allowed argument about the national soccer team; how it should play, who should be in it, who the coach/manager should be.

Debate is always intense. A national football team is like a national theatre, belonging to the people, all of whom feel it should reflect their values . . . the traditions of their region, town or city. Disagreement is inevitable.

Of course decisions must be made. That is the national team manager’s job. Here in Italy there are 24 managers. All are under pressure. All of them.

Azeglio Vicini of Italy was damned for not selecting Roberto Baggio, the world’s most expensive footballer, in their opening games. Sebastiao Lazaroni has rationalised Brazil’s traditional improvisation. Leo Beenhakker of Holland endures daily allegations of dissent in the Dutch camp. He answers patiently – in four languages – English, French, Spanish, and his own.

We all know about the vicious treatment meted out to England’s Bobby Robson. Andy Roxburgh has also had a rough time. So too Luis Suarez of Spain.

For an hour every day these men face their critics. Many of the questions are inane, some provocative. Dealing with the media is part of the job, an obligation international team mangers know they must fulfil. People are entitled to know about their team. So much emotion is invested, so much pride at stake, a nation identifies with its football team. People care. If they didn’t football would be meaningless. There would be no World Cup . . . no professional game.

Without the people’s passion, footballers, coaches and managers would have to get proper work, as indeed would the journalists, whose obligation is to serve those devoted to their team. Those who cannot ask questions, those who travel and pay lavish affection on what we all call ‘the game’.

The national team manager has a most trying job. He has to preside over all, reconcile various traditions, create harmony where none naturally exists. His is a thankless task, for international football teams are not really teams at all, rather coalitions of players, ideas and styles.

Creating from all of these singular factors a sense of unity and purpose, an identity, to which all can subscribe, that is the hardest task. Dealing with those who disagree, who would favour different players, another style of playing, is the relatively easy part of the job.

If you are successful there should be no difficulty presiding over the debate, however incessant it may seem at times.

You must, of course, understand why people care, why critics are obliged to ask the questions, otherwise you won’t understand your role in all of this. You must understand what the debate is about and respect the process, and those who, although their role is different to yours as manager, are obliged to serve the people for whom the game exists.

Respect comes from understanding that people care who plays and how the game is played. One had only to walk through the streets of Palermo this week listening to the Irish supporters speculating so intensely about Ronnie Whelan, Tony Cascarino, David O’Leary and John Aldridge to know how much they were engaged by the arguments. One had to be at the game against Holland in the stadium here to truly understand how deep those passions run, how much people care and how uniquely magnificent the supporters of this Irish team are.

When we were losing 1-0, and for a time all seemed lost, the Irish sang and cheered with good humour.

Their faith was very moving . . . faith not in victory, rather in an idea of themselves that was far more inspiring than victory. If we lost we would go graciously, gallantly with honour. This sense of how the conflict below them, being fought in their name, should be conducted got through to the players. The atmosphere was beyond football, it was deeply spiritual. The players responded to the mood. The Dutch, more worldly and gifted – and a goal ahead – dissolved.

Beside me an Italian looking around the stadium gestured towards the Irish fans. “They are magnificent. They have been good for Palermo.”

When Niall Quinn scored the equalising goal, this Sicilian rose to salute the moment. Valour had been rewarded, an unusual occurrence in Sicily.

The story of the Irish soccer team’s success is perhaps the most extraordinary in our national sporting history. The whole nation is involved, sensing that something which concerns us all is happening, something more than football matches, to do with our development as a people, our relationship with the world outside and, more profoundly, to do with our ideas about ourselves, about contemporary Ireland.

Ireland as understood through the IRA, its venal public men and the narrow minds of established churchmen and political parties, is not an inspiring place. Ireland as witnessed in Palermo on Thursday night is different. This Ireland is not just good for Palermo. This Ireland of valour, courage, decency and good humour . . . this Ireland of accomplishment . . . is good for Ireland. This Ireland is glorious. Thus the power of the story of the soccer team.

Every great story requires a hero. Jack Charlton is our hero. Conventional wisdom insists that Jack built the Irish team. That’s the way the Irish story is explained to the watching world and it is in terms of Jack that we have explained the story to ourselves; there is much evidence to suggest that Jack himself believes this version of events.

Jack Charlton is at heart a decent man of unshakable conviction. He has no conceit, no desire for heroism or the kind of national adulation bestowed on him. For those reasons he is a good man, human with a proper sense of perspective such as is rarely found in men who are elevated as he has been. The key to Jack is his conviction, which is about football and how it should be played.

Football should be played Jack’s way, that is the English way. Jack was a member of the English team that won the World Cup in 1966 playing English football which was uncompromisingly physical. Since then, English football has lost its way, denied its own identity, sought to be something it could never be, tried to compromise between its own natural instincts, which are essentially physical, and the more cerebral, imaginative, individualistic football admired by the more aesthetically-minded observers of the English game.

For Jack, the lesson of England’s decline is that compromise between what you are and what the critics would like you to be spells disaster. The word inflict means everything to Jack. You mustn’t try to become like the Brazilians, Italians and Dutch . . . you must inflict your game on them. This is the conviction Jack Charlton brought with him to the Irish job.

Jack had watched England lose its way. His analysis of how this happened was correct. He would love to have had the chance to manage England. Not for money or glory, but to prove his point about football . . . How it should be played in these islands and how it should not be played.

As a commentator in newspapers and television, Jack gave trenchant expression to his convictions in the 1970s when he had finished playing and England was losing its way. He was forthright where others were shy or disingenuous. His candour was admired; Jack called a spade a spade. It was probably for that reason that the Football Association never replied to his letter of application for the England job when they were looking for a manager in 1974, even though, playing their political games, the FA had invited Jack to apply for the job.

Others less convinced than Jack were awarded the prize. A prophet without honour in his own land, he would have to wait 12 years before Ireland gave him the opportunity to test his convictions.

Jack Charlton didn’t build the Irish team, he redesigned it in his own image to reflect his convictions. These were English convictions inflicted on an Irish team. Hence the greatest sporting story of our time is rendered complex, is not amenable to conventional wisdom as reflected on television screens or the pages of newspapers.

Nor can this story be easily explained to outsiders; people in Ireland who don’t know soccer, people abroad who know soccer but not Ireland. It is a tormenting ironic probability that the hero of popular renown belongs with the latter.

After years of unfulfilled promise, the Irish soccer team needed Jack’s conviction. Some sense of purpose and identity – any sense – was better than the squandering of talent that had gone before. Talent without conviction is wasted. Conviction without talent is ugly. The tension central to this story is between conviction – Jack Charlton’s – and talent – the imagination, wit and creativity of players like Liam Brady, David O’Leary, Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath.

Jack Charlton’s convictions are the product of his experience as an English football man. Thus one element of what we are bearing glorious witness to today, one element.

The Irish story cannot simply be understood in terms of one man’s contribution. There is more, infinitely more, to the drama we are watching than most who are in the audience – which is now no longer a football audience – can possibly appreciate.

Most who are celebrating have only the vaguest notion of what is really going on. For this reason I have constantly challenged the depiction of what has been achieved as some kind of miracle in which a God arrives to transform water into wine. Irish football people don’t need reminding. They know about their own tradition, they know from whence this ‘miracle’ came, they know what to celebrate.

I have often written here of Ronnie Whelan’s father, Ronnie Snr, and others like him . . . Paddy Coad, Kit Lawlor, John Giles and his father Dickie, Peter Farrell, Tommy Eglington . . . written of them because this is about them. The game they cherished and adored long before it became show business, an excuse for orgiastic indulgence, money-making, source of cult worship and the vulgar excesses of celebrity.

The conviction is English, the talent is Irish. Liam, Ronnie, David and Paul, the product of the Dublin Schoolboy League which only exists because of love lavished on it by others recently honoured on this page, forgotten heroes, Billy Behan, Jim Troy and Jem Kennedy. The debate about how the Irish team should play is their debate, they are voiceless amid the clamour of this day.

To acknowledge the man who contributed so much to our glorious contemporary reality is to complicate matters, to place the story of Jack Charlton’s Ireland beyond the comprehension of the vocal mob who, ringing into newspaper polls and RTé, all seemed representative of Irish public opinion.

Jack Charlton trusts football most when it is played the English way. Ireland have received what they have in world soccer because circumstances forced a compromise upon Jack, one he would not willingly have made between his way and ours. The squad of players he inherited was blessed with the talents of Brady, Whelan, O’Leary, McGrath, Moran, Houghton and Bonner. These men constitute a legacy bestowed on our hero by the Irishmen who went before him. Their values were not his, his strengths not theirs.

Jack Charlton does not know much of this. Nor does he want to know. As far as he is concerned, Ireland’s success is a justification of his analysis of international soccer.

Unlike his 23 international colleagues here, Charlton will not answer the people’s questions in a civil manner – if at all.

He has successfully applied his long-held convictions about soccer and cannot understand why anyone should want to criticise the means to a comparatively glorious end. Any dissenting voices within the camp or outside are silenced by one means or another.

Thus in the beginning David O’Leary was sent into exile. And with David, the critic who dared to raise his name. Injustice inflicted on one player, a small matter blithely ignored amidst the glory of the European Championship of 1988. A gain for conviction . . . a loss of talent . . . the legacy cast aside in wanton disregard.

Liam Brady was next for the treatment. All talent irreconcilable with the man’s will can be dismissed. The player must serve the Cause. This, is of course true. It is also true to say that in international football no Cause that denies self-expression to the gifted player can succeed, reach its real potential.

Brady was another sacrifice to conviction. Another denial of the Irish legacy. A talented player with an independent mind. Moved to the margins. There was some debate but the voice of reason was muted, stilled by the voice of the Cause which was now a bandwagon onto which all the vulgar and vocal chasers of glory wanted to hop.

That Brady accepted his fate with dignity, seeming to concur with Jack Charlton’s view that he had nothing more to contribute to the Cause, rendered this foolishness credible . . . and the debate was thus the more confusing.

The truth, the football truth, about the Cause was that it had all along depended for its success on the talents of men like O’Leary and Brady, Lawrenson and McGrath, Sheedy and Whelan.

Conviction was served by talent, the Englishman and his Irish legacy were reconciled, however uneasily, to constitute a unique force in international soccer.

And all of this was lent force far beyond the constituent parts by the genuine fans who travelled the world supporting the Cause. They are magnificent – the source of wonder on Thursday night to a darkly cynical Sicilian eye, as to so many other peoples – for their manners, humour and decency, their understanding of how to celebrate . . . and what to celebrate. All of that too is complex, far too much so for this occasion.

The Irishness we experienced here that night is best just felt for now. Walking to the match I was not abused, even though a false impression of something I had said had been mischievously conveyed to these men and women.

We cracked jokes and argued for a while. They wanted to argue, to debate the pros and cons of Brady, Whelan and O’Leary. They understand Jack, they understand his convictions, like all football people, all sports people, anybody who pauses to reflect. They also understand how players who are cast aside must feel, they understand that there is an equation of some complexity at the core of this story . . . an equation to do with conviction.

During last Sunday’s game against Egypt, I, knowing as much as one could from my vantage point, sensed that the story had taken a nasty twist. The unpleasantness was neither rational nor truly contrived nor fully thought through, it was rather the consequence of conviction’s triumph over talent.

Ronnie Whelan had been bullied – publicly rebuked for contradicting Jack. On the matter of his fitness to play, a view was inflicted on Ronnie. He was for a moment, it seemed, dispensable, as Liam and David had been before him. He was kept off the subs’ bench when he should, according to football reason, have been on it. This was wrong, the point where something had to be said to stop the bullying – or at least point out that conviction had got out of hand.

We tried to bully the Egyptians and failed. Without Ronnie Whelan, already missing Liam Brady and David O’Leary, the Irish team assumed a new identity, one that was repugnant and would still have been, even if it had succeeded in winning the day.

Jack Charlton hasn’t changed. His circumstances have. He is more powerful, the stage is larger, inflicting things on people, players, journalists, opponents, is no longer enough, no longer proper. There will be more glorious days before this story is complete. Last Sunday was not a good day for Irish soccer. If we had won without Ronnie Whelan it would have been even worse.

Conviction given too much rope will hang itself. You can’t play football without good footballers, nor enjoy it without debate, argument, the kind of thing the other 23 managers here have been willing to engage in even with the sternest of their critics.

Those willing to indulge Jack Charlton now would screw him in an instant, for they put success before everything. For some of us, most football people, the price of being what we are must be right. Without Whelan, Brady and O’Leary, glory would be more diminished than it has to some extent already been.

Previewing this tournament a fortnight ago, I proposed that Italy would be the ultimate test of one man’s narrow conviction. Off the field Charlton has behaved like an idiot, abusing journalists from the host nation Italy, his own country, Egypt and Holland. Most Irish journalists don’t have to be abused. The ranks of Decentskinsmanship are swollen now, regard for readers and professional self-respect exchanged for access, the congeniality of the camp, a place on the bus that will travel gloriously down O’Connell Street.

The real heroes are on the pitch and on the bench and, most inspiringly, in the stands and on the terraces. Others are dead and gone or old, grey and forgotten. But not by those of us who belong to the tradition which begot the wonder of today.

Conviction, bloated and swaggering, can be an ugly brute. For 90 minutes last Sunday this was Irish football. Yes, I was angry as I reflected on the fundamental shift that seemed to have taken place. I might have been more skilful, more sober in expressing my feelings. Strike out the might. But not the anger which I know is understood and shared by people who loved our game when it used to be played in Dalymount and Tolka. When Opel were selling cars (and fruity sweets) and Jack Charlton was a critic blasting anyone he cared to on the famous ITV panel of a decade and a half ago.

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