Until the 1980s, England vs Northern Ireland was a calendar annual. Then the ‘Home’ championship was brutally abandoned. So to those of a certain generation last week’s soccer fixture seemed surreal. As surreal, I daresay, as the play which opens in Stockholm next Friday — British playwright Nick Grosso’s depiction of a randy Swedish coach of an England soccer team described, deadpan, by the theatre spokesman as ‘a relationship-comedy twisted into the realms of the absurd’. Methinks Nick will have to be on top form to ratchet any new ‘twist’ from our sexy Sven’s real-life relationship absurdities. England’s World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland was followed closely by another in Azerbaijan, which itself would once upon a time have been an irrationally conceptual notion. But there you are; reality moves on. As does surreality.
Before this latest batch of World Cuppers, ageing flame of a legend George Best renewed the call for an All-Ireland soccer team similar to its national rugby XV which embraces the whole island. Fact is, too many blazered committeemen, north and south, still enjoy their exes-paid footer trips around the world. One day soon, however, governing body Fifa will get wise and insist that for World Cup entry the five national sides in these islands become just one — and although a single British Isles XI would demolish the blazers’ freebies, it might at the same time create a team capable of actually winning the thing. In fact, would these islands ever have lost it had that been history’s yardstick? During the winter the Sunday Times reckoned en passant that an all-time Scottish XI would win at a canter any Brit Isles celestial tournament. It drew an appalled retort from a Dublin reader who asked how any tartan troupe could possibly ‘live’ with his from the Republic: Given; Carey, Cantwell, McGrath, Staunton; Houghton, Roy Keane, Giles, Brady; Stapleton, Aldridge? Dead right, I thought — then thought again and wondered how that fine team might manage against this old-time line-up of showstoppers from north of their border: Jennings; McMichael, J. Nicholl; D. Blanchflower, Hunter, J. McIlroy; Best, Doherty, Dougan, Whiteside, McParland?
Presuming the all-time Scotland team (please, only write in if I’ve forgotten someone superduper: Crerand and Souness, Steel and Reilly all came close) to read something like: Cowan; Gough, McGrain; Bremner, McNeill, Baxter; Johnstone, Gallacher, Dalglish, Law, Liddell. (For younger readers Hughie Gallacher was one of 1928’s ‘famous five’ who scored 24 goals in 20 internationals and, in all, 387 in 541 matches, on a par with Jimmy Greaves’s 357 in 527.) That penalty-area pickpocket Greaves did not manage Alf Ramsey’s crucial England team for the 1966 final, but he makes my Speccie dream-team here, along with: Shilton; Armfield, Cole; Bryan Robson, Moore, Edwards; Matthews, Greaves, Shearer, Charlton, Finney. Not bad, eh? Certainly not after turning down fairydust dares to include boy-wonder prodigies Gascoigne and Rooney, as well as too many latenight slurps summoning courage to tell such as Bloomer and Banks, Lawton and Haynes, Mannion and Morty that they had missed the cut.
I know they are on a high from the rugby but, genuinely, I’d fancy this all-time Wales XI to beat the lot: Southall; Barnes, Ratcliffe; Keenor, John Charles, Giggs; Cliff Jones, Ford, Rush, Allchurch, Meredith. Eleven boyos, red in tooth and claw. Grand-slammers: well, just repeat and relish that forward line.