Vincent Hogan: Multiple regrets of a team that forgot to come out and play
O’Neill and his players struggle for explanations after Belgian hiding
Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30
Between sentences, Martin O'Neill's gaze always resettled on his own hands. His expression wary, rueful, it was as if he sought to keep his eyes where he could trust them to reveal the least, answering questions with the almost whispered politeness of a man whose soul had not quite accompanied him into this interview room.
Outside, the clean, manicured angles of Stade Matmut Atlantique, its outer skin resembling a white forest of stalagmites, echoed to the voices of Belgium's Rote Teufel. The Red Devils had, indeed, inflicted their worst upon Ireland.
Yet, O'Neill was at a loss to explain his team's role as accessories to their own slaughter. The players themselves sounded equally bemused. Somehow the gearing of the team had been askew in south west France and, against patently better footballers, that made for a game as one-sided as a village hall coming under aerial bombardment.
Ireland's game plan looked about as refined as pulling a mosquito net across a four-poster and hoping to find no tears. Their sole imperative seemed to be a slavish protection of defensive shape; the science of hanging in.
By the midpoint, their pass completion tally was a paltry 69 to Belgium's 216, a statistician's definition of one team almost refusing to play. This was either management pulling some kind of rope-a-dope gamble or accumulating evidence of a team still carrying Saint Denis in its legs.
Football is rarely a collision of equals. It is broadly ablaze with inequity, but that's where the romance resides. In the chase to be the Cinderella team, the one that steals a tournament's affection. You don't have to play beautiful football to secure that status, but you do have to play.
Ireland's failure to do that, to engage with the Belgians on anything but the most pessimistic of terms, damned them in Bordeaux. And eventually, inevitably, a team orchestrated by some of Europe's most coveted individual talents took ruthless advantage.
"I don't know," sighed Seamus Coleman when asked about this cowed engagement. "They have good players and we were under a bit of pressure. We are disappointed with ourselves that we did not keep the ball better.
"At half-time, we knew we needed to play better because we sat back and did not create anything."
It was an honourably candid assessment from the Donegal man who had himself been shunted almost blithely aside by Eden Hazard after trying to dip past the Belgian captain inside two minutes. Coleman spoke of the "hurt" that would have to carry Ireland to Lille, now where nothing less than victory against Italy will keep them in the tournament.
"Of course it's possible," he stressed in the mixed zone after.
But what precisely does O'Neill now do to reap that harvest? He made clear his view that Ireland's virtual refusal to play on Saturday was less a tactic than a human reflex to being pitted against better footballers. O'Neill spoke of his players looking "nervous" in possession, of them giving the ball away "too readily".
In the circumstances, Shane Long became so hopelessly isolated, he must have been experiencing some kind of sensory deprivation in attack. The Belgians shepherded him about without much in the way of scruple and an assortment of photographs would reveal the high boots of Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen making contact with separate parts of Long's anatomy just seconds before Belgium broke away to score the opening goal.
The injustice of it would have been more piercing had Ireland been more brave. But everything they did just seemed to have some kind of dilatory purpose. Within five minutes of kick-off, Belgians whistles assailed Irish ears as every kick-out, every throw-in, every restart was approached with the deliberation of bomb disposal experts dealing with a suspect package.
Ireland were ghosts in green compared to the team that had gone after Sweden five days earlier. Wes Hoolahan is Ireland's most skilful player, yet - here - he was surrounded by better ones.
It is no crime being under-talented at this level, but Ireland were left cursing a failure to embrace that challenge. In so doing, hope was all but revoked before they even got started. The possession stats after 25 minutes read 67-33pc in Belgium's favour. It felt the equivalent of leaving a ladder beneath an open upstairs window.
Much focus, inevitably, fell on O'Neill's recalibration of the team in Jon Walters' absence, introducing a specialist full-back (Stephen Ward) rather than an aggressive wide man (James McClean). But against a side stocked with talents like Hazard and Yannick Carrasco, was that really unforgivable?
True, Ward was at fault for allowing Kevin de Bruyne skip past him in the build-up to Romelu Lukaku's opening goal, but the defining narrative of the day was a failure of the Irish collective.
Ward himself rightly suggested "We have enough players to keep the ball in the team."
He'd had a bird's eye view of the assault on Long, revealing: "I said to the ref if it was anywhere else on the pitch, he gives it."
Yet, once Belgium had their breakthrough, the game ceased to be anything but a pitiless expression of world-class players running amok against journeymen.
And how Marc Wilmots fed off the spectacle.
Each Belgian goal sent their beleaguered manager down different avenues of celebration - running to meet Lukaku in a bear hug after the first; high-fiving his substitutes when Axel Witsel made it two; hugging his entire backroom staff after Lukaku rolled home the third.
That last goal encapsulated just how hopelessly Ireland had been undone.
McClean, now on as a substitute for the palpably troubled James McCarthy, lost possession to Thomas Meunier. As the ball went to Hazard on the right flank, Ciaran Clark materialised with more velocity than judgment and, against good players, that's seldom wise.
Hazard vaulted Clark's tackle as if he'd seen a crocodile in the grass, and his delivery to Lukaku was so measured, Darren Randolph might as well have left facing an army Saracen with a cudgel.
"It's not the end of the world," the goalkeeper sighed sanely later. "Today is done, it's over. We know what we have to do in the last game."
And Ireland clearly do, but how far will the knowledge carry them?