Thursday 29 September 2016

James Lawton: Feverish pursuit of Jack Grealish makes perfect sense now

Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30

Jack Grealish
Jack Grealish

Perhaps the fact that Johnny Giles was missing from RTE's analysis team carried for him at least one small passing mercy.

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At least he wasn't obliged to make his old point that, if football is a simple game, it takes both a hell of a lot of work and a degree of cleverness to make it so.

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill elicited the work, most effectively in the first half, but cleverness is something that tends to come in the cradle not the team talk.

Last week we had the octogenarian Jack Charlton enlivening, almost uniquely, the Aviva Stadium. On Saturday he could only have sighed when he thought of how many mediocre hands had been dealt most of his successors since the days when he drew cards of the quality that enabled him to create those days of World Cup glory in Italy and the United States.

The fountains of Rome and the watering holes of New York and Florida might have been in another life and on a distant planet.

For O'Neill, having fulfilled his first vital objective of sending out a team emitting full-bore commitment, it really wasn't worth thinking about.

Profitable

One of the most profitable tricks in life is understanding that you have to live in the world as it is and not how you would like it to be.

And that is one which O'Neill, bred on the outrageous projections of his hero and mentor Brian Clough, is having to embrace a little harder in his dwindling fight to hang on to the heels of Poland and Germany and, still, Gordon Strachan's revived Scotland.

Strachan's men did not exactly fill the place with their own conviction - or superior touch - but in the second half it seemed increasingly likely that they would preserve their advantage in the qualification race.

They seemed just that little bit sharper, and smarter and, when Strachan sent in Ikechi Anya, it was the registering of a more adventurous, freer spirit.

His nippy, skilled optimism was an element guaranteed to provoke yearning in O'Neill long before the end of the game he needed to win so badly.

The Irish manager's best hope of a late game-breaker rested between his substitutes Robbie Keane and James McClean but neither the grieving veteran nor the younger player in need of re-entrenching his reputation for decisive action could conjure the required impact.

It was certainly a formidable ask because by then Ireland were showing only a spasmodic capacity to take the game to the Scots.

In the first half, Wes Hoolahan, Daryl Murphy and Jon Walters responded manfully to O'Neill's call for aggressive action and, if Walters' enjoyed outrageous good fortune in scoring from a blatantly offside position, it was some kind of reward for a persistent heart.

Ireland, of course, do not lack for such an element in their play, even in their less convincing days, but the reality is that it can take you only so far.

The bitter truth is that it is not likely to be enough to carry O'Neill's team into the crucial third place. For O'Neill, the game plan remains as onerous as a Himalayan ascent in carpet slippers. This is not to insult the level of effort that went into this disappointing result - or the competitive character displayed by the Irish players. It is to address the reality that turned Ireland's quest to hang on to young Jack Grealish something resembling the pursuit of a Holy Grail - aka a player of genuine creativity.

In his absence, Ireland looked most hopefully for signs of strength and maturity in James McCarthy, who at times did manage to flash signals of some authority.

Meanwhile, we can only marvel again at the audacity of FAI chief John Delaney's withering attack on Sepp Blatter's failure of transparency - a piece of embarrassing hypocrisy which was turned into pulp with commendable alacrity.

Building a new football culture, with an eye to cultivating some of the old characteristic flair, unfortunately may take a little longer.

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