Brian Kerr: We have a right to expect our national team to pass the ball
Debate about Irish football's DNA is both fascinating and frustrating - a bit like the O'Neill regime
Published 08/10/2016 | 14:00
All last week, I could have sworn I was listening to a political rather than a sporting debate. With extremists on both sides of the theoretical chamber discussing the finer points of their conflicting philosophies, the search for Irish football's DNA seemed to carry more importance than the search for three points against Georgia.
And after a World Cup qualifier where Ireland ended the evening with a five-man defence hacking the ball to safety and running the clock down in injury time, the purists who mourn the way the game has gone were screaming for reform.
The loudest of these critics tend to hark back to a golden age which never really existed - or, to put things more accurately, lasted for three games and seven months, from October 1974 until May 1975, when Ireland, managed by John Giles, impressively defeated the USSR, drew with Turkey and then beat the Swiss.
Thereafter the wheels came unstuck. Two defeats in three days ended their hopes of qualifying for the European Championships quarter-finals, and another 12 years would pass before an Irish team would reach that stage of a major tournament.
So the point is that we haven't got the richest tradition in the history of the footballing world.
But nonetheless, in spite of this reality, there are some basic things you would expect from your international side, and the possession of a clear, tactical element to our play is one of those.
Yet that does not seem to be there.
Instead you often get the impression from Martin O'Neill's Ireland that the team are asked to just go out and play off the cuff, with their frequent use of long, diagonal balls and occasional passes into midfield against Georgia on Thursday night providing evidence of a jumbled-up approach which was entirely different to what we saw in the European Championship finals, particularly against Italy (or Italy B) and then for the first hour of the game against France.
Those two matches provided what I feel is the best of Irishness, whereby our players got around the pitch quickly, unsettling the opposition in areas where it was most important to do so, preventing the French building from the back, while moving the ball with accuracy and creativity in midfield.
Yes, there were long balls too, but the mixture was effective.
If you were looking for a pair of performances to define our DNA, then these were the ones. They gave us hope that this would be the methodology used for the future.
But too often in the O'Neill regime it seems to be either one or the other.
Take Thursday as an example. The midfield line up of Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and James McCarthy looked promising, yet the team's style of play was turgid.
The point of having a midfielder is, by definition, to allow the team play through that area of the pitch. Ireland chose instead to bypass it, booting the ball up from back to front too frequently.
Was this the instruction? Surely it wasn't? Surely there can't have been a fear about Georgia?
But at the moment, this team's identity appears to revolve around the team going from back to front very quickly and using its threat from set-pieces. Otherwise it does not seem to have any recognisable patterns of play.
Hence there are so many discussions about the country's footballing DNA, which were prompted, two days after the draw with Serbia, by what Richard Dunne had to say.
"Any Ireland win against a good team always seems to have been a heroic performance with defenders and goalkeepers, everyone, throwing their bodies on the line," Dunne said.
"And I don't know why that is. Is it the mindset? Are Irish kids growing up watching these matches taking only one thing from them - basically the sight of players throwing themselves in front of the ball? Do they think Ireland can beat these teams only by being scrappers and throwing themselves around?"
For me, Richard's assessment was way too loose, and an unfair reflection of his experience under Mick McCarthy, whose teams played good, sensible football with Roy Keane at the heart of everything they did, given considerable help by the energy and excitement provided by a young Robbie Keane and a young Damien Duff.
It wasn't biff-bash-wallop stuff. Nor was it last-ditch defending when Richard played in my underage teams. Generally they played controlled, passing football, mixed with aggression.
Mick's personality was all over that team. They were good to watch. People were happy - much more so than when Giovanni Trapattoni was manager and the team's style was the opposite to what we feel an Irish team should be.
Under Trap, there were just these endless scraps for draws and 1-0 wins which was enough to get the team to Euro 2012, courtesy also of an easiest play-off draw available, when we were paired with Estonia.
In many ways, Trapattoni's time was a throwback to the Jack Charlton style of football, in that it was a systematically no-frills approach, where players had to work hard and chase back, and where defenders were told not to mess about at the back.
Most of it was awful, desperate stuff, and it didn't acknowledge what Irish footballers could do.
And while Trapattoni justified his approach by saying "well, we couldn't qualify under Brian Kerr or Steve Staunton" - the end didn't justify the means because we went to Poland in Euro 2012 and got embarrassed, largely because the manager failed to adapt tactically or get the best out of his players.
That most certainly isn't Irish football's DNA.
A better example stems from the Giles era. He was player- manager from 1973-80 and, from central midfield, he dictated the style of play.
Constantly the ball was played through either him, or Liam Brady, as impressive a midfield sidekick as he could wish to avail of.
I thought it was brilliant to watch. A lot of other people going to the Ireland games then were frustrated - their preference was to see the ball go forward quicker. But Giles' teams were the first Irish ones associated with style.
So too were Liam Tuohy's underage teams in the 1980s, sides who qualified for the finals of three successive European Championship finals and also a World Cup.
Niall Quinn, Denis Irwin, Terry Phelan and John Sheridan emerged in that era; Liam had a simple but clear mantra - 'Get the ball and give it to a green shirt'.
I was involved in the backroom staff in those years from 1982-86 and also in the underage set-up of the FAI from 1996-03.
Tellingly, nobody in authority ever talked to me about our style of play or DNA because nobody at the top was interested in how the game was played, solely in whether the team was winning or losing.
So when Charlton came along with his 'put em under pressure' philosophy, everyone was happy. Well, nearly everyone.
Eamon Dunphy was a noisy critic, and among football people like Tuohy, myself, and a good few others, there was a different view of what was achievable.
We were there throughout that era going 'Oh my God, this is hard to watch, but we better cheer along with the gang'.
Truthfully, though, I tended to be a little embarrassed whenever I went abroad and would chat to locals about Irish football.
"Ah, Ireland," they'd say. "Bang. Bang. Long balls." And I'd cringe a little that this was the stamp imposed on Irish football.
Those images of an unsophisticated style and a lack of respect towards sports science, rehydration and nutrition were epitomised by Tommy Coyne wilting in the heat of a New Jersey sun and falling ill after the victory over Italy in 1994.
That was one of Irish football's great days. But the next one, they wilted in the heat, couldn't keep hold of the ball and lost to Mexico.
"That's the thing, Irish teams have struggled with ball retention for the last 30 years, not just the last three months," Roy Keane said during the week.
While only partially true, it has been interesting to see the FAI's approach to this problem, with their two most recent appointments to the head of their technical department coming from Holland - Wim Koevermans and Ruud Dokter.
The aim appears to centre around developing better technical players in a Holland-lite style.
And yet one of those Dutch appointments was made during the Trapattoni era, which suggests there is no joined-up thinking between what the teams are doing at underage level with the senior set-up.
All of which makes me think of what Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny said on the eve of his team's impressive 1-0 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League.
"It is become part of the narrative that we cannot pass the ball," Kenny said. "But of course we can. We have got to have belief in ourselves."
Certainly he has belief in his players and has managed them, and his resources, so impressively over the last few years that I am almost in awe of what he and the team are doing.
Dundalk have shown it can be done, that Irish sides can pass the ball on a consistent basis and achieve results playing in that manner, although it must also be pointed out that they survived an onslaught away to BATE Borisov, when they didn't enjoy much possession or joy.
But what I like about them is what I like about Irish football: that mixture of natural aggression, which stems from our background playing street football and also other sports, with a willingness to allow creative players to flourish.
The game - in Ireland or anywhere - is not about one style being allowed to dominate over another. Sometimes you need an alternative tactical option. Dundalk have that with Ciaran Kilduff, a big target man who scored vital goals in their last two games.
In football, you need to mix graft with craft, passion with panache.
The best Irish teams always have. It's in our DNA.