Sunday 11 December 2016

Vincent Hogan: Hoping for Euro 2016 glory against a din of endless ridicule

Only serious debate about Irish football’s shortcomings should focus on years of drift at underage levels

Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30

James McCarthy’s critics are quick to forget what he went through after declaring for the Republic of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
James McCarthy’s critics are quick to forget what he went through after declaring for the Republic of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Is it naive to hope for something less predictable on the corrugated mud of Stade Pierre-Mauroy tonight than the Punch-and-Judy noise decanted at home by that defeat in Bordeaux?

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The usual windbag ventilating outrage from a TV studio chair has become the seemingly eternal soundtrack to Ireland's poorer days and, frankly, it is a struggle to locate anyone expecting something other than a deadening reprise from this looming battle with Italy.

Ireland's difficulty is they must win tonight against opponents drilled from the cradle in how not to lose.

No matter how comprehensively Antonio Conte shuffles his pack in Lille, the Italians will surely follow the same philosophy articulated across generations remaining true to Annibale Frossi's famous contention that "zero-zero is the perfect game".

Frossi, a gold medallist at the Berlin Olympics and former Inter Milan winger, believed a scoreless draw represented the expression of total balance between attack and defence for two teams.

Conte's Italy have been strikingly unspectacular in this tournament, but they haven't conceded a goal and, for the Azzurri, that has always been the first principle of football.

Get things right at the back and, invariably, the attacking grace notes will take care of themselves.

So if you sensed some kind of tediously echoing charade to all that consternation triggered by Ireland being taken apart by a team rated number two in FIFA's rankings, just imagine what awaits us if they now bomb against Italy's skeleton crew?

It's eternally boom or bust with us, always riding a pendulum of extremes.

There is no playbook offering clear answers to tonight's puzzle for Martin O'Neill. With the onus to attack against more technically accomplished players, chances are that Ireland will get stretched in ways that corrupt the team's defensive structure.

To reference the victory over Germany last November as some kind of template to be followed again is to miss an essential point that it is more difficult to counter-attack against a counter-attacking team.

High-pressing

Unlike against the high-pressing Belgians, Ireland will - almost certainly - get room to play. The question is will they welcome it?

The suggestion, made on RTE by Eamon Dunphy, that "an Overmars tackle" might trigger something tumultuous akin to Roy Keane's famous intervention on the Dutch winger at Lansdowne Road 15 years ago (for which Roy should have been red-carded incidentally) probably shows how dubious some of the commentary has become.

An Italian team recoiling from a hard tackle?

There was a moment in Bordeaux, maybe ten minutes from the end, when a hurried Robbie Brady shot struck Jeff Hendrick in the face.

It was a brutally stark portrait of the team's manful, if chaotic, desperation to rescue something, even with the game already settled.

That kind of application has always been a given with Ireland teams, irrespective of the man in charge.

Yet, no Irish manager from Eoin Hand to Jack Charlton to Mick McCarthy to Brian Kerr to Giovanni Trapattoni has escaped public damnation from the RTE studio.

It seems we are always just a clever game-plan away from revolution when, in truth, the only serious debate about Irish football's shortcomings should focus on years of drift at underage levels.

The team picked against Belgium included just six players who were regular Premier League starters this season, two of whom play for a club that was relegated.

On some level, that team seemed to suffer a catastrophic loss of nerve on Saturday against some of Europe's most coveted stars. Perhaps it is management's job to over-ride such an occurrence, but it would probably help if the players did not feel the threat of ridicule in the event of making a mistake.

There was something especially joyless about James McCarthy's body language in Bordeaux, so much so you have to wonder had he come to regret the childhood promise made to his late grandfather, Paddy Coyle.

It is surely worth remembering what McCarthy put himself through to honour that promise - a child of the sprawling Castlemilk estate in Glasgow committing to play for a country other than that of his birth.

And it's surely worth considering the vicious anti-Irish abuse that assailed him as a teenage midfielder on away assignments with Hamilton Academical.

McCarthy's international career has, undoubtedly, not grown into what he would have hoped.

There is a theory about that the calibration of his partnership with Glenn Whelan lacks clarity and that perhaps he, more than Whelan, has been the one to suffer. Whatever the truth, as a partnership, they have endured quite wretched levels of criticism.

And watching McCarthy in Bordeaux, it was hard not to wonder if the personalised vitriol coming his way from the RTE studio after that 1-1 draw with Sweden ("a waste of space" or "strolling around like a traffic cop") had not, somehow, gotten under his skin.

Shell

He looked a physical and emotional shell walking through the 'mixed zone' afterwards, so much so it would be a surprise if McCarthy holds his place for tonight's match.

Chances are that, regardless of O'Neill's selection, the challenge of beating Conte's reshuffled Italy will prove beyond them.

If that proves the case, no doubt, the experiences of Wales and Northern Ireland at this tournament will be trumpeted as stark expressions of all the emotional and tactical coherence the Republic so palpably lacks.

If so, it will be just the kind of cheap, populist line that has blown so corrosively through Irish football for the past few decades.

Bottom line, Michael O'Neill was being tactically panned after an opening day defeat to Poland and, bottom line, the Republic did not have a team as weak as either the Ukraine or Russia in its group.

Bottom line too, the Republic's most potent creative force is an admittedly admirable 34-year-old Wes Hoolahan whilst Wales have call on the world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale, as well as Aaron Ramsey.

Italy arrive in Lille buttressed by the confidence of having topped Group E with a round of games to spare and firm in the belief that their football church practises a purer kind of worship than ours.

They will absolutely expect to win. Might we suspend the histrionics if they do?

Irish Independent

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