Pantomime villains aplenty, but Scots capture the golden egg, writes Aidan Smith.
SUCH had been the fuss and bother over nationality in the build-up to this match that you half-expected the players to take the field at Celtic Park armed with passports, birth certificates, family photo-albums, keepsakes from the homeland and their grannies, each carrying a plateful of scones baking according to Scottish or Irish tradition.
But finally at 7:45pm last night, after an exhausting week during which anyone and everyone and George Galloway has been pressed for their views on the issue, the Glasgow East End version of that popular TV genealogy show – which you’d have to call Who the F**k Do You Think You Are Bytheway? – could draw to a close and the football could begin.
If Aiden McGeady was of a nervous disposition he might have been harranguing James McCarthy before the match: “What do you mean you’re injured? What’s a hamstring problem when you’re about to confront the righteous mob? Now I’ve got to do it on my own.” But there was the winger, standing upright for the Irish anthem. And, a few minutes later, there he was taking delivery of his first pass. Cue boos. Cue an almighty rumble of them.
McGeady was formerly of this parish, of course. As was Martin O’Neill, five golden years, arms folded, looking older, like his pogo-ing days were well behind him. As was Roy Keane, five mostly unremarkable minutes, and skulking in the dugout after his latest kerfuffle. As was Gordon Strachan, four more cup-filled years, jumbo notebook in his hand. Could this game possibly have any more sideshow about it? More importantly, could it over-ride the hype and turn into a show?
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The first few minutes whizzed by. But they could have been as stodgy as overbaked scones and you sensed the sellout 59,239 would have devoured them anyway. Strachan had given the Tartan Army the big build-up. Rebuffing the suggestion the Republic would feel right at home at Celtic Park with its Irish heritage and plastic pop-up greenery, he said they would know “fine well” they were in Scotland. And anyway the ground would answer to the name Scotland Park – “It is Scottish territory and they are coming into Scottish territory.” His rallying cry was loud and it was Bravehearty, though he stopped short of saying: “They may take away our McGeadys and McCarthys but they’ll never take our freedom.”
Mind you it wasn’t jam-packed for the start. Traffic snarl-ups ruined that plan. But nearly everyone was seated more or less by the 13th minute, just in time to see McGeady’s booking for a winger’s tackle on Steven Fletcher. The home stands cat-called; the Irish chanted McGeady’s name.
For being born and bred as Scots but choosing to play for Ireland, Gordon McQueen hoped for a “horrible” welcome for the renegade pair. Strachan said it was okay to boo as long as it was for “football reasons” and that this was “pantomime humour”. Darren O’Dea said abuse wouldn’t bother his countrymen. Mick McCarthy said he hoped to hear some as recognition of the Irish boys being “bloody good”. Shay Given labelled boo-boys hypocritical given half the Scotland team were born elsewhere. Steven Naismith – who could have played for Wales – spoke the most truth. “This is just build-up,” he said.
Well McGeady, who’d challenged the Scottish audience knowing his threat all too well to “bring it on”, tried a mazy run through the middle only to disappear up a close. Loud cheers. Then boos. Andrew Robertson, this panto’s fresh-faced principal boy was coping well with the guy with the Fe-fi-fo-fum calling card.
There was still not a peep from one of football’s biggest villains but then on the half-hour Grant Hanley produced a thunderous tackle and Keane leaped from his cubbyhole to rant, even though the man himself would have surely have been proud to call it one of his own. A minute later he was at it again, wondering why Steven Whittaker was writhing on the turf. There then followed Scotland’s best ten minutes of the first 45, with the ever-inventive Fletcher attempting the most delicate of glass-slipper flicks from a Naismith cross.
Steve Staunton predicted as many as 20,000 Irishmen snaffling tickets for the game. There was nothing like, but the band of them in the corner – who’d had good cause to hoist the banner reading “Oh me nerves” earlier – suddenly had more to sing about with yer man McGeady producing a lovely controlled shot on the drop which fizzed narrowly past.
The Scots players tried to rally through Naismith, now without strike partner Fletcher. The Scots fans tried to rally with a chant of “McGeady’s a w****r”. But the twinkle-toed one was popping up in new and interesting places and was a definite threat.
The Scotland goal came when it was least expected, a beauty from one of our brightest players, Shaun Maloney – a true Scot, all the way from Miri, which as we all know is in Malaysia. And so the show ended. It had been an engrossing contest, wherever you came from and wherever you then decided to lay your hat. As a panto, with no sign of John Barrowman or the Krankies, it had been one of the best.
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