This week the inaugural Carling Nations Cup kicks off. The tournament is played on a league basis and features hosts the Republic of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will be held in one country on a rotational tournament-by-tournament basis and is a throwback to the days when the British Home Championship was a key part of the football calendar every summer. Looking back it provided some iconic encounters, none more so than Scotland’s 2-1 victory over England at Wembley in 1977 which prompted a pitch invasion from thousands of tartan-clad fans who tore up the pitch and broke one of the crossbars.
England’s absence from this new format straightaway raises questions over the box office value and interest in the tournament. The participating nations were keen to get England involved, but the FA’s search for more glamorous friendly fixtures – mainly to try to aid that 2018 World Cup bid – meant the Nations Cup wasn’t for them.
However the FA are hoping to reinstate the Home Internationals in the summer of 2013 to coincide with their 150th anniversary. That would seem more commercially lucrative with England involved than the matches taking place this week and when the Nations Cup comes to its conclusion in the middle of May. The fact it’s going to be spread out between February and May suggests that these tournaments create even more pile-ups on what is already a congested fixture calendar – but will it be worth it?
Essentially the matches are friendlies but what makes it them so different is that there will be a competitive edge to them. No one will want to lose to their nearest neighbours and with much pride at stake, they’ll be more than just routine international friendlies. As we’ve seen for years on end, England have been involved in some utterly dour, boring friendlies but games such as these will stoke up some of those old rivalries and provide an extra edge.
The matches will naturally be more competitive and provide a good test for the players involved. The atmosphere is one very different to a normal friendly and will be an environment in which coaches and fans can see how players perform in a game where pride is at stake. Rather than putting players into friendlies where teams just go through the motions and serve up uninspiring 90 minutes of football, these games will be a good place to blood players new to the international scene and can give them competitive experience ahead of qualifying matches and tournaments they wouldn’t get otherwise.
Since 1984 the nations from Britain and Ireland have met in tournaments and qualifiers, with some memorable moments. Gazza’s brilliant goal for England in their 2-0 defeat of Scotland at Euro ’96, David Healy securing a 1-0 win for Northern Ireland against the Three Lions in a World Cup qualifier in 2005 (left) and Wales’ 3-2 win at Windsor Park in the same qualifying group a year before.
Upon looking at the World Rankings one can see England’s reasoning for their lack of interest in being part of a Home Championship. For the best part of 20 years they’ve been occupying a slot in the top 10 alongside the other big hitters of world football while their nearest neighbours have been languishing between the places of 40-100. England currently lie in 6th, whilst the Republic of Ireland are 35th, Northern Ireland 38th, Scotland 53rd while Wales find themselves 116th, sandwiched between the Central African Republic and Suriname. The likes of Scotland and Northern Ireland it must be noted have improved greatly over the years since their years of struggle under Berti Vogts and Sammy McIlroy respectively.
Of course with bragging rights and national pride at stake it may not matter whether England are 6th or Scotland 53rd but as some of the home nations have gone through tough periods on the international stage, friendly fixtures between them could be seen as pointless. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, all the nations could boast great quality throughout their teams. Scotland had the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Steve Archibald, Graeme Souness and Joe Jordan. Wales could rely on Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Mickey Thomas and Mark Hughes and Northern Ireland had Gerry Armstrong, Sammy McIlroy and Pat Jennings in their ranks – top performers at the highest level. Such quality does not seem to exist amongst the countries now when you consider the names above were winning trophies and playing regularly in European club football.
This year’s offering takes place in Ireland and all matches – even ones not involving the hosts – will be played at the impressive Aviva Stadium in Dublin. However in a country where the recession is hitting hard, high ticket prices have meant crowds may be lower than expected. Tickets for the game with Wales were originally priced at €50 and €75 but these have since been lowered to €35 and €50 after just over 30,000 turned up to see the Republic play Norway in November.
The cup will throw up some intriguing games, the first coming as Wales’ new era under rookie manager Gary Speed begins with a match against the Republic of Ireland and their experienced coach Giovanni Trapattoni – who began his career in football management when Speed was just five years old. Meanwhile Northern Ireland meet Scotland the following day as Nigel Worthington’s side take on the Scots who themselves have a new man at the helm in Craig Levein.
The teams involved claim the tournament will go well and provide some great matches. The Republic hope to win as hosts but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have a chance. If the Nations Cup proves to be successful we could see the return of home nations facing each other on a more regular basis – and maybe that won’t be such a bad thing.
Some players to watch throughout the tournament
Seamus Coleman – Republic of Ireland
Everton’s right-back/right-winger has impressed so far this season, establishing himself in the team with some good performances. The Irishman first came to prominence during a loan spell with Blackpool last year where he helped them reach the Premier League. Since breaking into the Everton team this term his energy and attacking threat from the right side has caught the eye. He’s played for the Ireland under-23 side but is yet to get his first cap from Giovanni Trapattoni, he will make his debut in the match against Wales.
Barry Bannan – Scotland
One of the great names in football! The Aston Villa midfielder has played once for his country in a 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands and put in a display which won plaudits from manager Craig Levein and other observers. Club boss Gerard Houllier has given Bannan an extended run in the team due to injuries and claims he is in the mould of the likes of Xavi, Iniesta for his intelligence, passing ability and adaptability. Big praise indeed and it’ll be interesting to see how Bannan develops on the international stage.
Andy King – Wales
The goalscoring midfielder has become one of the brightest prospects outside the Premier League having established himself in the team at Leicester City with his performances and great goals. The 22-year-old was part of the club’s promotion from League One in 2009 and their Championship play-off appearance in 2010. His form has continued to improve under the stewardship of Sven-Goran Eriksson and he has played six times for Wales, scoring once against Luxembourg.
Niall McGinn – Northern Ireland
Nigel Worthington has been hit more than the other managers with injuries and withdrawals from his squad so he may place his faith in some of Northern Ireland’s younger players. Celtic winger Niall McGinn has made 10 appearances for his country and could find himself starting against Scotland. After some good performances for first club Derry City McGinn moved North of the Border to the Hoops and he has impressed with his quick wing play. National boss Worthington has praised the player for his pace and ability and he looks to have a bright future ahead.