Football/Soccer

The greatest Irish soccer XI of the past 40 years (probably)

The obvious first name on the team-sheet of 'the best Irish soccer XI of the past 40 years' - Pat Jennings.

THIS column was going to be a rant. A furious meditation on the irritating irony that my wish for people to just get along and be nice to each other is stymied so often by gobdaws who desperately need a kick in the scones. (Call me sexist, if you like, but they are mostly men).

Racists. Bigots. Hypocrites. Liars.

However, instead I decided to ignore politics and write a column about sport – but one that is still guaranteed to annoy many people; one that few, if any, will actually agree with.

It was prompted by a well-intentioned ‘Tweet’, pondering on Ray Houghton’s ranking among the ‘greatest Irish players’.

Never mind that he’d struggle to make my top 20 of Republic of Ireland players, he certainly wouldn’t make the top 20 of ‘greatest Irish players’.

It was the replies listing various ‘top fives’ which really got my goat, though.

All better players than Houghton, of course – but not one from a certain six counties…

I realise this may be construed as ‘political’, but the idea of having a list of ‘greatest Irish players’ which doesn’t include the actual best of them all, George Best, is ludicrous. Not least because he spoke in favour of a ‘United Ireland’ team.

If you’re going to pick a top 10, you may as well turn it up to 11 and pick a team.

My selection is limited to those I’ve actually seen in action (including sufficient video clips). That (partly) explains the omission of men such as Elisha Scott, Johnny Carey, Peter Doherty, Danny Blanchflower, Charlie Tully, and Jimmy Dunne. If I were just a little bit older I’d be considering players such as Johnny Giles, Derek Dougan, and Steve Heighway.

I pondered keeping the choices to those actually born on this island, but that would be too like the ‘thinking’ of those aforementioned fools who require kicking.

The first name on the team-sheet, the goalkeeper is a no-brainer.

Pat Jennings.

No further debate or explanation required (but he could make better saves with one of his massive hands than most ’keepers could with two. Or three).

Honourable mentions for two other Ulstermen, ‘Packie’ Bonner and Shay Given, but big Pat was better than them both.

There’s another cert at right-back, namely Denis Irwin, not least because he could also switch across to left-back if need be.

Yet another definite inclusion is another player who enjoyed his greatest days with Manchester United – Paul McGrath.

Proving my utter lack of bias in this selection is yet another Manchester United/ Republic of Ireland legend – Roy Keane. The Corkman could run the midfield on his own and would ensure that no one bullied this team.

There’d have to be a place for a man with a wand of a left foot, Liam ‘Chippy’ Brady. His expertise from free kicks and the penalty spot would be invaluable, on top of his general brilliance. If he’s not fit, Kevin Sheedy replaces him.

The rest of the team is up for debate; even I’ll allow that.

You might want a ‘stopper’ centre half alongside McGrath, so Richard Dunne and Gareth McAuley come under consideration, especially with the latter’s goal threat.

Two other Northern Irishmen are contenders for their versatility, both Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans able to play anywhere across a back-line. David O’Leary was a fabulous player.

However, enough impartiality, it’s time to get some Liverpool men into this side.

Mark Lawrenson was as versatile as any of those, and more able than any of them to bring the ball out from the back or even play in midfield if required.

My left back also played for the Reds – Steve Staunton, who could create, score, and also play further forward. Mal Donaghy and Pat Rice could easily have earned a number 2 or number 3 jersey.

With Roy Keane and Brady (Liam) in midfield, there’s enough combativeness and creativity already.

Just for the craic, I’ll add two more players who combined both those qualities: Ronnie Whelan and Norman Whiteside.

Whiteside was so good I didn’t care that he played for Manchester United and Everton. He was a force of nature, a footballing powerhouse whose prodigious talent was cruelly cut short by knee injuries. An attacking midfielder or a forward option.

Whelan is best remembered for several spectacular goals, but he’s still under-rated. I once had the pleasure of seeing him and Steve McMahon take turns in kicking Coventry City’s star player, David Speedie, around Highfield Road and into submission – and, with that part of the midfield job done, Whelan began to spray passes around. Best-known for playing left midfield, but he could easily play on the right or even slot into centre back if I felt the need to switch to 3-5-2. Martin O'Neill might mention his two European Cups but Ronnie was better,

Up front, Best could create and score plenty himself, but it’s always good to have a goal poacher. To avoid being lynched, the next time I go to Windsor Park, I’ll give a nod to ‘that man’ David Healy - but Robbie Keane scored many more international goals. Still, neither of them make this team – John Aldridge was a far finer finisher.

There may be complaints about a lack of width in this selection, suggestions that this team needs a winger like Damien Duff or Keith Gillespie, but there’d be enough ‘go-forward’ from my full-backs.

Besides, Best could play on the left, on the right, in behind the main striker, or up front on his own. Anywhere except in nets, because Big Pat was the best there.

The best Irish XI of the past 40 years (IMNSHO):

Jennings;

Irwin, McGrath, Lawrenson, Staunton;

R Whelan, Roy Keane, Whiteside, Liam Brady;

Best, Aldridge.

Substitutes: Given, O’Leary, A Hughes, J Evans, Davis, Robbie Keane, Archer (look, I could play anywhere, and this lot could carry me, OK?!). Alright then, Sheedy instead of me.

I know I’ve left out someone bleeding obvious, but this, my beloved readers, is my belated Christmas present to you (this column was to run last week but Manchester United inconsiderately sacked Jose Mourinho).

Set your own time-frame, pick your own formation, and get arguing with friends and family – but don’t even think about omitting Best.

Happy New Year, everyone. Even the gobdaws.

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