Tuesday, 5 June 2012

EURO 2012: Boro's Own Irishmen

As the countdown to the European Championships gets closer – and I, for one, can’t wait – it’s a sad realization that none of our current squad will be donning an international shirt in the final this summer.

On the other hand, the occasion, not to mention Ireland’s qualification, has left me thinking of Boro players who have been fortunate enough to represent the “boys in green” over the years.

Like our very own “Wolfman” and legendary pundit, Bernie Slaven. No need to question his ability on the pitch, or indeed, off it – although some things are best not talked about. I mean, there’s hitting bottom and then there’s hitting bottom (in Binns' window!), right Bernie? But his international career, yeah. Well, he may sound a bit like Ray Houghton, but he never had anywhere near the same international fortunes. Seven caps and one goal was as good as it got.

Okay, not quite...as a member of Big Jack Charlton’s Italia 90 squad, he also got to meet the Pope. As did then-future Boro man Chris Morris, Ireland’s first choice right-back in both Euro ‘88 and Italia 90. Described by Big Jack as "one of (his) best and most dependable players" in the early Charlton years, he remained so until a certain Denis Irwin (in this writer's opinion, one of the best full backs ever seen on a football field) emerged. His international career wound down as his time with Boro began, in late 1992. It's tempting to say that he was past his best when he started playing for Boro - and in truth, he wasn't a crowd favourite at either Ayresome or the Riverside -  but he still had a big job to do for us, and he did it well, as evidenced by his part in our promotion to and (supposed) consolidation in the Premier League in the mid-90's. That is, until age and injuries caught up with him and forced him to retire.

If only Alan Moore had been half as dependable! The Dubliner won only eight caps for Ireland, all during the very dodgy early Mick McCarthy years. And it's not difficult to see why. A solid performer in the lower leagues, once we returned to the Premiership in 1995, he was exposed at being out of his depth. I have to admit that I never really looked forward to him taking to the pitch, as I found him a very uninspiring presence in the team. That we actually thought of him as "the Ryan Giggs of the North East" during his time at Boro is a little dispiriting. He's more reminiscent of Carlos Marinelli.

Happily, I can speak much better about one Alan Kernaghan. Or should I say that Big Jack can? Prior to his competitive debut, Charlton had good words to say about the Bangor-born lad with an Irish grandmother, describing him as “strong and authorative in the air." He went on to become a mainstay in the Irish backline, usually alongside Paul McGrath or Kevin Moran, throughout Ireland's successful qualifying campaign for USA '94, scoring once against Lithuania. Unfortunately for us, by that point we'd been relegated to the old Division One, and he'd moved on to Manchester City. But such a move didn't have quite the effect on his international career he was hoping for. Big Jack had also commented on Kernaghan’s lack of pace, and when Charlton discovered the much quicker Phil Babb, poor Alan found himself sitting around in America waiting for a big chance that never came. After his international career, and spell at City, fizzled out, he found somewhat more success north of the English border.

I don't find it very easy to talk positively of Andy Townsend these days. He hasn't made too many positive comments about Boro during his time as a pundit, after all, and by the time he'd joined us, he was way past his best. However, he did play a major part in getting us back into the Premiership in 1998, forming a great partnership with Robbie Mustoe in the centre. Maybe he's best remembered for that.

Or his international career, which pretty much speaks for itself. A vital anchorman for Ireland in two World Cups, and captain in one, he did score some memorable international goals – even if two of them were against Northern Ireland.

What can you say about Curtis Fleming that hasn’t been said before? Over 250 Boro appearances, more than ten years in the red and white… there were few club servants more dependable than he. Alas, he was only capped ten times in a green shirt, although considering the quality of Irish full backs from the mid 90’s to early ‘00’s (Gary Kelly, Denis Irwin and Steve Finnan, to name but a few), he should be admired for making his presence felt.

One ex-Boro man who will definitely be making his presence felt this summer is Sean St. Ledger. Now, he's not the most popular player among Boro fans (indeed, one fan told me that he had "heart attacks" when the ball came into our penalty area), but, lest we forget, he was more than capable of the odd moment of magic when coming forward. Remember his important goals against Coventry and Reading, and his defence-splitting pass in that 5-1 win over QPR? Not to mention his first ever Ireland goal against the Italians, which, but for an even later equaliser, would have given him a perfect Ray Houghton moment?

I'm probably being a bit myopic, in that I prefer to remember his forward play rather than his defensive prowess, or lack of it. But I think the real problem was this - he's the kind of ball playing centre half that needs a defensive strongman, like Robert Huth or Richard Dunne, to get the best out of him. And David Wheater just wasn't the answer.

Will Euro 2012 bring out the best in him? Not to mention the whole of the Irish squad?

No comments: