Friday 22 September 2017

Comment: It's time to face up to the harsh truths about this Ireland team

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill reacts at the final whistle
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill reacts at the final whistle
Ger Keville

Ger Keville

Martin O'Neill was surprisingly defiant in his post-match interview following Ireland's defeat to Serbia last night.

Fresh from the 1-0 home defeat to the table-topping Serbs – who played the final 26 minutes comfortably with 10 men – O'Neill summoned every ounce of positive energy to declare Ireland are very much still in with a shout of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia next summer.

"Absolutely not," was his robust response when asked by Tony O'Donoghue if Ireland had blown their chances by taking just one point from this double header against Georgia and Serbia. 

"No, we can win our last two games, we can still make it. After a performance like that tonight, I'm very confident that we can win both games.

"There are obviously a lot of disappointed players in there, particularly after the performance. It's not just big words, it's how I feel. I think we can win both games and that's what we have to do.

"Before a ball was kicked, if you'd said to me that you seriously had to win the last two games, one at home, one away in Cardiff to make the play-offs, I would definitely take it.

"I am right, that is the situation, isn't it? We can, 19 points can get you there."

O'Neill's attitude was "surprisingly defiant" because Ireland's World Cup fate is very much out of our own hands. And while he is "right" that 19 points "can get you there", it is by no means a formality when the points against the bottom team in each group are stripped away and nine runners up become eight. As it stands, Ireland's group is rock bottom in the runners up table. Read more on the permutations here.

Ireland are now reliant on a complex series of results playing out and the only thing in our own hands is winning our final two games at home to Moldova on October 6 and away top Wales three days later.

It seems incomprehensible that O'Neill was oblivious to the permutations following defeat to Serbia but this is the same manager who previously admitted that he was unaware friendly results counted towards world ranking points.

Roy Keane made a bizarre claim in the build-up to the Serbia clash that calls for Wes Hoolahan's inclusion was just "media spin".

It certainly didn't look that way for the hour Hoolahan was on the pitch last night, or previous starts like Germany at home, Austria away or Sweden in the Euros. Or any time our best footballer is on the pitch for that matter.  

Maybe last night was spin coming from the Ireland camp, like after the Georgia farce when O'Neill strongly emphasised the fact that Ireland were unbeaten in the group.

"We're in there fighting, that's what we're doing. We are unbeaten in the group at this moment. It's hard to believe, but we're unbeaten in the group."

Is it hardly believable that we drew 0-0 with Wales in the Aviva and 2-2 with Serbia in Belgrade?

What about our form coming into the business end of the qualification campaign.

Since that much-talked about victory in Vienna, this is how the formbook reads:

  • Ireland 0 Wales 0
  • Ireland 0 Iceland 1 (Friendly)
  • Mexico 3 Ireland 1 (Friendly)
  • Ireland 3 Uruguay 1 (Friendly)
  • Ireland 1 Austria 1
  • Georgia 1 Ireland 1
  • Ireland 0 Serbia 1

The harsh reality here is that we have managed to win three games – Moldova away, Georgia at home and Austria away - in a group bereft of any real world-class teams. While O'Neill and Keane deserve immense credit for what they achieved in not only getting the team to Euro 96 also the performances in France, this campaign must be thoroughly scrutinised.     

Irish football is in a precarious place right now.

For one hour last night, the Boys in Green put in an all-too-familiar brave performance that lacked any cutting edge.

Holding possession of the football is a minimum requirement in international football but, because we have had to occasionally witness performances akin to that in Tbilisi, we are then fooled into thinking bang-average performances like last night are to be lauded. 

Apart from one late effort from Dayrl Murphy, Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojković was called into action just once when he tipped over a speculative long–range effort from Shane Long.

Yes this was a far superior than what was served up in Georgia but Georgia is not a barometer for anything.

Another brave defeat and somewhat moral victory. 

It's quite plausible that a few of our senior players will bow out of international football when this campaign finishes. It's quite worrying trying to think of who will fill the void. 

That issue falls outside O'Neill's remit.

FAI CEO John Delaney recently revealed that the association will make a decision early next year on whether to go ahead and strive to be debt-free by 2020 or invest back into the game.

The stakes are high and the future of Irish football needs a swift decision.

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