Tuesday 26 September 2017

Comment - Martin O'Neill must find spark after damp squib in City of Fire

Martin O’Neill issues instructions to his players during Ireland’s draw against Georgia in Tbilisi. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill issues instructions to his players during Ireland’s draw against Georgia in Tbilisi. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
James Lawton

James Lawton

At least no-one could accuse Martin O'Neill's Ireland of leaving Tbilisi, the 'City of Fire', unaware that they might easily have been carrying rather more than first-degree burns.

Indeed, almost to a man they conceded they had come close to making their World Cup ambitions resemble nothing so much as a pile of ashes.

Maybe the sting of that harsh reality suffered against the football nation ranked 112 will produce a different, much more intense Ireland against Serbia in Dublin tomorrow night.

That certainly is now the imperative. Ireland, as is agreed often enough, have not for some time been equipped to play the higher reaches of the beautiful game.

Under O'Neill, however, they have from time to time produced superb passages of defiant achievement.

In place of the native craft of old master players, and the kind of selection options enjoyed by Jack Charlton, they have from time to time shown a heart-warming passion for the job in front of them.

Peaks

Unfortunately, on Saturday night such force was somewhere the other side of the Caucasus peaks that ring the city.

Georgia played football, much of it engaging and optimistic. Ireland, with just a few exceptions, were dull at their work bench.

Shane Long ran endlessly and not without hints of promise, but long before the end he wore the quizzical expression of someone wondering about the point of life, or certainly the most recent phase of it.

Perhaps, at what might prove a last World Cup call against Serbia, Ireland will remember that overachievers are only as good as their most committed and coherent effort - and that when this is mislaid there can be only one consequence.

We saw it in Tbilisi. We saw a slowing of the Irish pulse, a confusion of purpose. We saw just one team exert its belief in a right to win.

It wasn't Ireland.

No doubt O'Neill and Roy Keane have been hammering home the point from the moment Georgia left the field aggrieved they had not made more of their 69 per cent of possession - much of it significantly superior in creativity to that of the team they had again failed to beat at the ninth attempt.

Who knows, the management may also be reflecting on their own contribution to a crushing disappointment - a possibility not discouraged by O'Neill's agitated reaction to some post-game probing.

Crucially, though, he did concede that despite four good match-winning chances, his team had simply not played well enough.

What can he do against Serbia - and then finally the re-emerged threat of Gareth Bale's Wales?

He can start Aiden McGeady, who despite the betrayal of his best skills in a grotesque failure to seize on a late chance, had been a substitute of initiative and flair way beyond the powers of Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan.

O'Neill may also reflect that against Georgia his team's greatest deficit was a lack of both wit and competitive assurance, on a night when Wes Hoolahan was marooned on the bench.

The problem here is that chiding O'Neill on selection issues ignores the basis of his considerable success since taking over from Giovanni Trapattoni, who after the near miss in World Cup qualification in 2010 found himself a bewildered onlooker in the European Championships of 2012, when his team never began to suggest the possibility of a positive impact.

O'Neill did rather better than that at the Euros last summer and if McGeady had taken his chance on Saturday night, or James McLean and Long theirs, his pragmatism would no doubt have earned at least a passing pat on the head.

But then if we know defeat is an orphan, a deeply underwhelming draw against traditional whipping boys and a potentially devastating loss of momentum is never going to win much applause.

Shane Duffy's early goal, a gift bestowed by goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze, who later found his nerve, should have been the foundation of Irish belief that they were closing in on their nation's first World Cup appearance in 16 years.

Inventive

Instead, Georgia, and especially their impressively inventive playmaker Jano Ananidze, were allowed to take over the game.

Whether he and his team-mates also took over Ireland's destiny, by bringing Wales within range of second place with a home victory in the last qualifying game, is now the big and haunting question.

Maybe O'Neill needs to give the ageing Hoolahan one last run at glory. Perhaps he needs to make a leap of faith in the ability of McGeady, who did unfurl one run of genuine poise and authority as Ireland sought to turn back the flow of Georgian attack.

It was the briefest glimpse of braver possibilities. An expectant but troubled football nation needs to see a lot more of those at the Aviva stadium tomorrow night.

Serbia are menacing opponents, a cut above Georgia. The need is to apply the heat that Ireland never began to kindle in the City of Fire.

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