There are few things more predictable than a failure of both Irish international football teams being met with a chorus of suggestions that an all-Ireland team would do a lot better. This is a fake, misleading and erroneous argument which, like so many, fails to define the problem and thus offers a nonsensical solution. After all, faced with a complex problem, it is much easier to deny it is complex than to come up with the necessary complex solution…
It is worth going through why the argument is fake, misleading and erroneous.
1. We should have an all-Ireland team because the two are too small to have their own team…
A) Iceland (pop 300,000) and Montenegro (pop 600,000, having just broken away from Serbia) are still in with a chance of qualifying for the World Cup from a UEFA group. So, plainly, small countries can and do qualify (Slovenia frequently did so at the turn of the century; Latvia did in 2004; Estonia reached the playoffs last time around; all with similar populations to Northern Ireland’s and much larger than Iceland’s or Montenegro’s). So the problem is NOT size!
B) A team drawn from a unit of 6.3 million people will not be noticeably superior to one drawn from 4.5 million people (as the Republic of Ireland is). So that doesn’t solve the problem anyway.
2. We should have one team because rugby does…
A) The all-Ireland rugby team has the worst record of all the “Home Unions”; it has a losing record against all the others, and the worst record (except Italy’s) in the Home/Five/Six Nations Championship. All-Ireland teams are quite often pretty hopeless too!
B) Rugby also has a “British Isles” team, which really does give you a lot to choose from (approaching 70 million). Why does no one suggest this?!
3. We should have one team to be better…
A) This assumes that being “better” is the only thing which matters. It isn’t! On the same basis, lots of countries should merge teams – perhaps a single Scandinavian team, a single Baltic team, dare I say a single Belgium-Luxembourg team (they had a single currency for long enough)? Even at club level, try suggesting to Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United fans that there should be a single Sheffield team, or indeed to Crusaders and Cliftonville fans that there should be a single North Belfast side? Football teams, at international and even club level, are to do with identity, not just “being good”.
B) The real devious side to the argument is again the notion that the “one team” would be “one Ireland”. Why not “one UK” or “one British Isles”? Actually, the argument for a united Ireland team is essentially the same as for a united Ireland state – just admit it!
Here is the biggest problem with all of this: it completely ignores the problem!
The problem is that Ireland (both jurisdictions), and indeed the British Isles as a whole, are not producing enough good players to compete – even with smaller countries like Croatia (v Republic of Ireland) or Estonia (Northern Ireland). Across the British Isles, a ludicrous premium is put on player size, eleven-a-side competition and gaining ground from an early age, where more successful countries focus on player technique, small-team games (encouraging creativity and not worrying too much about results) and tactics/teamwork. This requires big changes across the board – re-training coaches, adapting youth competitions, renovating pitches/leisure facilities and so on.
Frankly, an all-British Isles team – selecting from a population similar to Germany’s and nearly double Spain’s – would still fail to compete for major honours because British and Irish players are not good enough (i.e. not skilled enough and not knowledgeable enough). You can come up with all the excuses you like about too many foreigners in the Premier League or selecting from too small a pool, but until you can say that an all-British Isles team could compete, the rest of it is all noise and no signal.