SportSoccer

Liverpool legend's plan to rejuvenate international football

SoccerBy John Aldridge
The Ireland Georgia game was not pretty on the eye
The Ireland Georgia game was not pretty on the eye

INTERNATIONAL football has become very stale in its current format - and I wonder whether the time has come to rip it up and start again.

We all get excited when the World Cup or Euro fi­nals come around every couple of years, but the prospect of watching Eng­land play Malta at Wembley or Ireland v Georgia at the Aviva Stadium has lost some of its appeal.

To be fair to the Irish fans, they are among the most passionate in world football and they continue to back their national team even if we are lacking the star names that draw the crowds.

Yet there must be a concern that the international game is drifting in a dangerously aimless fashion and this is why I’m suggesting we could look at a bold change of direction.

There is a gap in the football schedule every other summer, so why not look at playing a bulk of a qualifying competition in the month of June?

It would be a little mini-tourna­ment in its own right and maybe you could trim down the group sizes and play all qualifiers in a three-week period.

That would free up weeks in the Premier League calendar that could even open up the prospect of including a winter break.

There would still be space for a couple of high-profile international friendlies over the course of the sea­son, as they are important to keep the money rolling in for national associations.

TV companies will have the final call on whether they want that kind of format, but we need to think out of the box on this.

Something has to change be­cause I get the impression that most football fans would rather settle down to watch an afternoon of Premier League football than an international match.

Also, I’m sure Premier League managers dread these two-week breaks that always tend to crop up an difficult times in a season, when you are either in great form and don’t want the disruption or you are under pressure and des­perate for a match to dig yourself out of a hole.

FIFA and UEFA realise they need to do something to change the international format because they are now spacing out these qualifiers over a long weekend, in an effort that ensures television has games to show every day.

What you don’t want is a succes­sion of matches that are not very enjoyable and leave a lasting im­pression that international football is in decline.

This is why I believe the time has come to make some more radical changes and the idea of playing a bulk of qualifiers every other June may be an option to spice things up a little.

While international football will always be part of the foot­ball calendar, I wonder whether some players (not the Irish lads by the way) now look at it as an inconvenience rather than the pinnacle of their career.

From the first time I pulled on an Ireland shirt in 1986 to my final appearance a decade later, the novelty never wore off and yet I look at some England players and wonder whether they have the same emotions.

The massive criticism they get when they come up short in major tournaments has to dampen their enthusiasm, but that accusation can never be directed at the Ireland boys.

There has been a bit of criticism flying around for Martin O’Neill and his players in the media over the last few days, but let’s get to grips with reality here.

This Ireland manager and his staff are doing all they can with this set of players at their dis­posal and if you think a new man calling the shots on the touchline would make a big difference, they you know little or nothing about this game.

No disrespect to the lads, but we simply don’t have the players to produce world-beating displays any more.

You look at the game against Georgia the other night and while the performance was not great, the three points arrived at the end and that was all important.

James McCarthy was battling away even though he appeared to be a long way from being match fit and the same could be said of Jonathan Walters, who has not been getting much game time at Stoke and looked off the pace.

Shane Long didn’t get any de­cent service up front, but I know how that feels playing the lead striker’s role in an Ireland team.

There’s no point in moaning about the negatives because you are in a very privileged position to be playing for your country and you need to do everything possible to make the most of it.

Having beaten Moldova, Ireland are in great shape heading into the tough game in Austria next month.

Who knows what the future of international football holds, but we have to get on with the current format for now.