Tuesday 17 October 2017

Spirit won't cut it in time of confusion

We are in need of radical change on and off the pitch, writes Dion Fanning

Ireland midfielder Wes Hoolahan makes a tackle on Scotland's Matt Ritchie. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Ireland midfielder Wes Hoolahan makes a tackle on Scotland's Matt Ritchie. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Dion Fanning

As a bunch of Irish and Scottish journalists took a lift down to the press conference room at the Aviva yesterday, the talk turned to what Ireland needed to have a chance of making the European Championships.

Permutations were discussed and finally the truth of the desperate situation was reached. "So if Scotland lose to Gibraltar..." one Irish journalist joked. "You can laugh," one Scottish journalist replied, " but it's the kind of fucking thing we'd do."

Ireland are now in this position: depending on Scotland to be more like Scotland than Scotland have ever been while Ireland will have to be an Ireland that has rarely been seen in a generation.

Martin O'Neill has not located it. Ireland's manager insisted that his side remain in contention for a play-off spot and refused to be dismayed. Ireland should take six points in September when they play Gibraltar away and Georgia at home. They might even find themselves ahead of Scotland at that point but then Ireland will play Germany and Poland and there is no sign that Ireland are capable of winning either of those games.

The expansion of the competition was designed to help teams like Ireland reach the finals. Last summer John Delaney put Ireland's chances of qualifying at 80 per cent. "We don't appoint Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane just to make up the numbers," he said

Ireland might ask why they did appoint O'Neill who may have felt Ireland deserved to win yesterday but the team remains a confused cocktail, confusion summed up by the team selection yesterday and the substitution of Wes Hoolahan

In his rewritten programme notes for the game yesterday, Delaney referenced the National Development Plan which, he said, had been well received. Maybe this section was staying in even before the bit on FIFA resulted in the print run ending up at the shredding machine, but what was clear at the Aviva yesterday was that, whatever about being well-received, the plan needs to work because recruiting high-profile managers is not going to solve the problems of Irish football.

In fact, there probably needs to be a revolution in the Irish game that transforms it on every level, something that seemed to become more urgent as security moved in to take 'Delaney Out' posters from supporters in the crowd while the chance of victory and qualification slipped away on the pitch.

Irish football may have progressed in the past 15 years but there has been a loss of spontaneity and joy as games take place in an indebted ground in front of many supporters who have lost faith in the administration of Irish football while they support players who have never really connected with the public.

Yesterday was more of a spirited occasion. There was atmosphere in the stands and a sense of urgency on the pitch.

Yet Ireland were always trying to overcome more than the two-point deficit. O'Neill didn't want to elaborate on his post-match remark that Steven Naismith had refereed the game but it said something about the difference between the sides.

Scotland and Naismith had a cuteness while Ireland were naive in comparison and "asleep", in O'Neill's words, for the Scottish equaliser. O'Neill had said on Friday that his team would never be defeated by a team having more spirit than them, but there are things other than spirit and Ireland sacrificed them in the endgame yesterday.

Wes Hoolahan was the thing that was missing as well as more players who play and think like Wes Hoolahan. Irish football's problems go beyond the identity of the manager even if this campaign looks over just after the halfway stage.

O'Neill insisted Ireland can still qualify. It wasn't just "fighting talk," he said. Ireland have fight and they possess spirit to beat the band. But it turns out you need more than spirit if you want to beat anyone better than Georgia or Gibraltar.

Sunday Indo Sport

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