Thursday 17 August 2017

David Kelly: Romance takes a back seat on road to Russia

Talking Point

James McClean attempts to acrobatically clear away the danger. Photo: PA
James McClean attempts to acrobatically clear away the danger. Photo: PA
David Kelly

By David Kelly

There are no pictures on the scorecard. Probably just as well. This was the ugly side of the international game, one to which Irish teams seem to be so consummately wedded.

Ireland remain on course for the play-offs; like the last ten minutes of games like this, it is the arena they seem to thrive in more than most.

They are a team that thrive on such late, heart-stopping drama because neither their coaches nor players seem capable of conducting a competent script to avoid such a scenario.

The manager refers to early sloppiness persistently but the available evidence suggests that he has not learned to divine why that has been the case or, if he has, a more serious charge that he is not willing to address the reasons why.

"That's football," is not an appropriate response.

Once more, Martin O'Neill began a competitive international by seemingly second-guessing himself so often that he picked the wrong team, knowing that there was always the proviso that during the match he could have had another couple of attempts at it.

At the very best, he may have picked the wrong team but ordered them to play in a way that they were either unable to, or not coached well enough to do so.

Ireland simply couldn't depart from the bruising nature of an approach which they now seem dutifully deployed to adapt; summed up when Ireland may have had a winner only for Shane Duffy to literally elbow the judgement against his side.

Ropes

Half of Ireland's goals in this campaign - just eight in six games - have occurred beyond the 70th minute which may suggest that O'Neill's sides become better deeper into the contest and prefer life on the ropes than on the front foot.

Setting an agenda just doesn't suit them; at least, it rarely seems to be a luxury afforded to them.

Roy Keane, whose peppering of pre-match quotes remains crisper than his side's passing ever does, had promised a "war" in a clumsy clarion call which perhaps reflected what management's perception of their side's ability really is.

For they showed little respect to their own team, and too much to the opposition, with the manner in which they approached this game as opposed to all the cheap talk before it.

The lights went on early in the Aviva but for long, long periods there was nobody at home.

Ireland were rudely rudimentary and hence allowed Austria to dictate the pattern of play.

The visitors pushed their full-backs forward, Julian Baumgartlinger protecting and probing in front of unemployed centre-halves; Ireland, who had only learned their line-up at lunchtime, played as if unsure of what their approach should be.

Ireland had declared war but had decommissioned their weapons; Jeff Hendrick again failed to dominate, Harry Arter was busy but passing options were limited.

Robbie Brady was reluctant to receive and, after switching sides with Hendrick, at one stage beckoned Stephen Ward to fling in a deep cross; it hit an Austrian backside.

Austria were brave in possession; Ireland craven. Common sense dictated the best way to offset defensive vulnerability was by passing the ball to a team-mate, but Ireland fervently declined even this simple premise.

Their first decent passage of play, from Brady's 15th-minute blocked free-kick, offered an oasis of calm amidst a torrent of mis-placed passes and an alarming lack of urgency and tempo, even in pressing visitors who were allowed to grow in authority until annexing their deserved lead goal.

O'Neill switched Hendrick from another indifferent shift in the No 10 role, with Brady moving infield and McClean joining Jon Walters through the middle.

Hendrick immediately linked well with Arter and Cyrus Christie as Ireland created a rare sortie into the box.

The early portents in the second half were not so encouraging as Austria twice shredded Ireland out wide but Duffy's increasing interest in the opposition area hinted that Ireland's commitment to the direct route was becoming addictive.

Baumgartlinger was now faced with a rampant McClean, and suddenly Austria were losing their nerve as Ireland found their verve.

Wes Hoolahan's arrival ensured the tempo remained high and yet his influence was not necessarily integral to Ireland's approach which was now unashamedly one-dimensional; it had always meant to be so.

In either event, Hoolahan's involvement would not have been deemed an indispensable one to the manager. Austria remained brave but had less opportunity to do so as their defence crumbled under aerial pressure.

Their occasional forays forward, against a hesitant Irish defence, perhaps hinted at another valid reason why the hosts were so keen to hoof the ball as far away from them as practicable as soon as possible.

Ireland's approach demanded effort and honesty, undeniable qualities; but composure, as when McClean blazed over, was sorely lacking.

When the dam wall burst, so akin to Shane Long's goal against Germany on the other side of the penalty area, it derived from a familiar source, a long ball from Brady and Walters out-gunning Aleksandar Dragovic to finish superbly.

If Ireland get to Russia, few will cavil at the methods required; nobody will really care how ugly they look. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

Those who pine for a Romantic Ireland should know that it has been dead and gone for many, many years. The bottom line is all that matters.

Irish Independent

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