New home, same old problems
Republic of Ireland 1 - 0 WalesIn a week when the shadow of Roy Keane hovered over Ireland's international squad once again, it was fitting that a boy hailing from county Cork etched his name in history as the first soccer player to score at Croke Park.
His latest blast in the direction of Irish football administrators was all too predictable and probably justified, yet his accusation that players picked purely on their reputations and star names have let their country down in recent internationals rattled more than a few cages within the Ireland squad.
However, it was his claims that natives of his own county, the shoulder-chip outpost know as Cork, are not picked for the national team as a point of geographic principle that hit a raw nerve. The argument that Dubliners are favoured ahead of others at international level may have been true in yesteryear, but as Stephen Ireland waltzed through the Wales defence to open the scoring after 37 minutes, Keane's theory went up in smoke.
It was a classy goal to interrupt a truly awful international that summed up the demise suffered by the Welsh and Irish national teams in the last few years. Long gone are the days when these two sides sent a shiver of fear down the spines of the most illustrious of opponents as their recent slump in the FIFA rankings was reflected in this second rate game.
The first half an hour was a little like a training match between two sides who had been given the chance to play a friendly game to open a new stadium. Fine, Croke Park was making its debut as a soccer venue, but as this Euro 2008 qualifier was a must win game for both, the lack of urgency shown by the players was bizarre.
There were a few exceptions. Manchester City midfielder Ireland did his best to lift the tempo with a bustling display, while Irish captain Robbie Keane showed the sort of energy Damien Duff and Kevin Kilbane lacked.
Hated by many in the Irish media, Spurs hitman Keane did his best to lift his side with a whole hearted display and he was creator-in-chief for the game's only goal, as his perfect through ball set up Ireland for the a great winner.
A yellow card means Keane misses Wednesday night's qualifier against Slovakia and it brought plenty of sniping comments from those around me in the press box. One poison pen pusher was quick to claim the 'little upstart' had picked up the caution so that he could nip off to Dubai for a few days in the sun, but such abuse is harsh.
Keane was far from Ireland's worst player and hapless manager Staunton was the first to admit his team need to do much better if they are to have any hopes of forcing their way back into contention for a place in the Euro 2008 finals.
'It's a pleasing result, but I'm not going to pretend it was a great performance,' stated the nervy manager whose inability to handle a press conference with even a hint of charm was in evidence once again.
'We can hold onto the ball much better than that and we gave it away far too much in the second half, but we were comfortable at the back and have picked up a great win.
'The winning goal was fantastic and we just have to hope that the little knock Stephen Ireland picked up in the second half doesn't keep him out of the game on Wednesday night. He has been great for us in the last few games and the cool composure he showed in taking his goal was impressive.'
The Dublin media have been against Staunton from the start of his ill-judged reign as Ireland boss, so it's hardly surprising that more than a few had come to Croke Park ready to hammer the final nail into his creaking coffin. The 5-2 defeat in Cyprus and the near calamity as they scrambled victory against San Marino last month has left few in any doubt that the manager without an ounce of personality is the wrong man for the job, but he seems determined to carry on.
'I don't expect people to stop criticising me just because we have won a game,' added Staunton with a nervy smile.
'Everyone thinks they are an expert and likes to have an opinion of what I should or shouldn't be doing. We just have to win the home games and see where that takes us. We have a few points in the bag now and the table is looking a little bit better for us, but there is a hell of a long way to go in this qualifying campaign.'
Even in victory, Staunton looked to be struggling to take much satisfaction after game that failed to catch fire and his opposite number seemed equally uninspired.
'The first half was as bad as we have performed in my time in charge,' said John Toshack.
'I couldn't really explain what I was seeing and we could have no complaints about going in a goal behind. Ireland took his goal very well, so credit to him for that.
'We did better after the break, but if I'm being honest, it was difficult to see how we were going to score a goal. We lacked the invention required to open up sides at this level.'
Perhaps the biggest winner on a day when the beautiful game was nowhere to be seen was the magnificent venue staging the game.
Some ancient grievances needed to be overcome before rugby and soccer could be played at Croke Park and it was well worthwhile as this stadium is a jewel in the Irish crown. With this immaculate stadium situated in the heart of Dublin, there should be no need to redevelop the creaking wreck that was their old home at Lansdowne Road.
It's something of a tragedy that Ireland's brief stay at Croker comes at a time when the nation cannot provide a soccer team or a manager fit to grace this fine stage, but you can't have everything in life.
As Roy Keane never tires of reminding us, this is one national team who specialise in settling for second best.