The Carling Nations Cup: A good idea on paper...?
At the conclusion of the Uefa Euro 2008 qualifying stages, an overhanging sense of gloom radiated across all of the British Isles. None of the Home Nations, nor the Republic of Ireland had managed to reach these finals which would be taking place in Austria & Switzerland over of the course of the following summer.
The biggest surprise was of course England. Missing out on a place at the hands of red-hot Croatia and dark horses Russia, the Three Lions who were World Cup quarter-finalists just two years prior, proceeded to have a disastrous campaign under head coach Steve McClaren, who saw his short-lived managerial term come to a crashing end, with media outlets across the country slating him from every angle. That umbrella might have been the final nail in the coffin.''The Wally with the Brolly'', he was dubbed.
The Republic of Ireland and Wales, who were both drawn into Group D had a similar faith. Giving their fans little hope for a future golden generation, Wales placed 5th and Ireland just ahead in 3rd, however, most Irish fans are haunted by another abysmal managerial appointment in Steve Staunton, who led Ireland to such glorious results such as 5-2 hammering at the hands of Cyprus, and a confident 2-1 victory over San Marino, with less said about that last-minute the better.
The Scots and the Northern Irish faired much better with the Tartan Army narrowly missing out on a place in the finals, even picking up a historic win against France along the way, a side who had marginally tipped them to 2nd place. The Men from Ulster could also keep their heads held high, as manager Lawrie Sanchez, and goals from an in-form David Healy, who had finished as overall top goalscorer in the whole of these qualifying stages with 13, guided Northern Ireland to a 3rd place finish. Healy will remain a hero to the fans for another reason, as his hat-trick against mighty Spain, eventual winners of the tournament, saw Northern Ireland pick up one of their greatest achievements in history, up there with the famous World Cup squads of the past.
With this failure came a sense of confusion. Who were we going laugh at for their eventual failure in this upcoming European Championships? It was this man Lawrie Sanchez who got the ball rolling, as he called for the development of a new Celtic Nations Tournament, stating to the BBC that, "It would be much more beneficial than playing non-interesting friendlies." One may argue that he did have a point.
In the past, we did in fact see a very similar round-robin tournament to the one Sanchez proposed in the 'British Home Championship' which featured England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (who competed as just Ireland for the early years of the tournament's history). Abolished in 1984, citing lack of interest and the rise of hooliganism as the main reasons, these championships weathered the storm for 100 years before fading into distant memory.
Fixture congestion nipped Sanchez's 2007 proposition in the bud, but nonetheless, skip forward just 4 years later, and this plan got the go-ahead. 'The 2011 Carling Nations Cup'. There was just one problem! Money disputes, and generally the lack of glamour surrounding the tournament meant there was to be no English appearance after correspondence between all of the governing football bodies from the British Isles. Step forward the FAI, who more or less took the reins on this new project, after being announced as hosts, we saw the Republic of Ireland enter the tournament, alongside their Northern counterparts, Wales and Scotland.
A good idea on paper? Possibly yes. Take Rugby's equivalent, the annual 'Six Nations Championships' for example. Played since 1883, every year this tournament attracts passionate support from thousands of fans across the British Isles and Italy and France alike, with many more tuning in across the globe as the tournament is broadcast from Fiji to the Middle East. Thunderous crowds, inebriated patriots, this competition never fails to bring the noise.
So when a measly 19,783 turned up to watch the opening game of the Carling Nations Cup between Ireland and Wales on a cold Tuesday evening in Dublin's Aviva Stadium, a ground which has the capacity for 51,700 spectators might I add, it could be argued that this tournament was doomed from the start. Ireland ran riot in the inaugural match, coming away 3-0 winners against the Welsh, a game that was marked by the late Gary Speed who was taking charge for the first time after his appointment in December.
18,000 onlookers witnessed a confident-looking Scotland side drub Northern Ireland by the same scoreline just 24 hours later, and with that Matchday 1 came to a close. Apart from the attendances, nothing really looked out of place. The standard of football was decent, and young players such as Ireland's Seamus Coleman and Stuart Dallas from up North, two key members of their current international sides were getting valuable minutes in the early stages of their international careers The tournament would return in May. This is when things got 'ugly'.
Matchday 2 began with probably the most anticipated of all the fixtures that would take place in the tournament with the Republic of Ireland taking on their Northern Irish counterparts in the sides first meeting in 12 years. Much more than a football game, this clash between the two noisy neighbours was rooted in politics. Infamous games of the past included the World Cup Qualifier in November 1993 which came just off the back of two infamous events in Irish history; the Shankhill Road bombing and the Greysteel murders, which resulted in the FAI deciding to not sell any of their small allocation of away tickets, no Irish flag being flown, nor the National Anthem being played. A sad day in Irish footballing history.
The times had changed and people hoped this game could take place without incident, however, this was not to be the case. A row had stemmed between the two nations, not related to the troubles of the past, but rather a new-found problem, that of player eligability. With the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 allowing Northern Ireland-born people to claim either British or Irish nationality, Belfast born and highly rated youngster Daniel Devine had chosen the latter, striking anger from the Northern Irish fans at what they judged to be the poaching of players by the FAI. As a result, only 200 Northern Irish fans made the 100 mile trip to see their side take on the Republic as a means of protest against what they believed to be unfair and injustice.
I'm sure many of them counted their blessings that they stayed at home as the Republic cruised to an emphatic 5-0 victory over the 10 men of Northern Ireland in front of only 15,000 at the Aviva. Those who were in attendance witnessed the biggest margin of victory ever between the two sides as a Robbie Keane brace, Simon Cox, Stephen Ward and a Craig Cathcart own goal sealed the deal for Trappatoni's men. What also didn't help was the booing of National Anthems between the 2 sides leaving another sour note to the game.
A day later, Scotland entertained Wales. Just 6036 people showed up to watch. The lowest attendance in the new Aviva Stadiums history. Surely it couldn't get worse than this. Scotland eased to a 3-1 victory, but for some reason it was like nobody even cared. The fixtures were coming thick and fast in the month of May for these 4 sides. It was like they just wanted to get it finished, sweep it under the rug and move on, as on Matchday 3 just 48 hours later tournament officials and organizers would have been holding their heads in their hands as a meagre 529 fans (yes you read that correctly 529!) turned out to witness Wales defeat the Ulstermen 2-0. A new low for the Aviva Stadium. An attendance which resembled what was closer to a League of Ireland First Division game than an International fixture. A far cry from what Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy and Gareth McAuley had been used to every week of the 2010/11 Premier League season.
One could argue this was the straw that broke the camel's back, sparking rumours on whether the first edition of this competition would also be its last. The FAI also had another problem on its hands. A lot of angry fans, managers and players, on what was starting to feel like a pointless exercise at this stage. A number of factors played into these low attendances whether it be protests, lack of interest as Northern Irish manager Nigel Worthington questioned the validity of the tournament or fixture congestion which was blasted by Wales manager Gary Speed. Whatever it may be, there was something about the Carling Nations Cup which could not keep fans in seats.
Yet, when it came to the final crunch game of Matchday 3 between the two unbeaten sides of Ireland and Scotland, many fans, sponsors and tournament officials had hoped for a sell-out, this was not to be the case. The FAI continued to sell tickets at the extortionate price of €30, something which they had been called out on at beginning stages of the tournament due to its exhibition game type nature. A lot of fans argued that they wouldn't even pay that for a qualifying game nevermind a friendly, and they did have a point!
An anti-climactic game saw a classy 23rd minute strike from tournament top goalscorer Robbie Keane pip Ireland to a 1-0 victory over the Scots and thus cementing their name as tournament winners in what is probably the only time the Republic of Ireland National team will lift a piece of silverware. For Ireland fans, it was a bitter-sweet ending to a tournament which had hoped for so much but failed to deliver.
The accumulation of trouble, forlorn crowd attendances and abortive gameplay saw this tournaments potential future come to a crashing end. Even after its conclusion it was still without controversy as a financial dispute between the 4 associations regarding the distribution of revenue began to take place. The North decided the opt out of a potential future tournament, with the Scottish body claiming to be owed £1.2m for their participation in the tournament according to the BBC. This resulted in ''negotiations with the Scottish FA seeking a downward adjustment of their fee" in order to ''give a more equitable share of the profits" according to this same article. A matter which has since been resolved in private.
And that was it for the Carling Nations Cup, gone in a flash! A good idea on paper, however, the lack of preparation and other defining factors ultimately shined through, and in January 2012 FAI president Jim Shaw stated that ''he did not envisage a second tournament being staged'', and thus came an end to one of the many international tournaments established throughout the years.