Kevin Palmer: The good, the bad and the ugly from tonight's woeful Ireland performance
Ireland got their first win of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign tonight after seeing off Georgia 1-0 at the Aviva Stadium.
Here is the good, the bad and the ugly from an often uninspiring encounter.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH FROM IRELAND
The first 45 minutes of this World Cup qualifier may well be noted as the most lamentable of the Martin O’Neill era as Ireland boss and in truth, it didn’t get much better after the break.
Lacking in energy, enthusiasm and cohesion, this was an Ireland team stripped of the pride and passion that inspired them to credible performances at the Euro 2016 finals, with the Georgian minnows growing in confidence when they appreciated the lack of quality standing before them.
We have often lamented the inability to hang on to the ball for extended periods and it was a topic of conversation once again in the build up to this game, but to come second to Georgia in the possession stakes was a crime O’Neill needed to address at the interval.
The visitors should have been ahead long before O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane got the chance to rip into their players at the break, with the transformed body language of the men in green as they returned to the field for the second half evidence of a rallying cry that should not have been delivered with any half measures.
“This has been awful from Ireland,” was the verdict of Niall Quinn as he watched on in the Sky Sports studio and while the second half was better, this was still a performance that was underwhelming in the extreme.
With Euro 2016 star man Jeff Hendrick anonymous in midfield, Shane Long isolated up front and Robbie Brady and James McClean struggling to make an impact for most of this game, it needed a moment of magic from skipper Seamus Coleman to dig Ireland out of a hole.
The final statistics confirmed that a very average Georgia team had a 56 per-cent share of possession over the 98 minutes of action. What a shameful statistic.
WHAT WAS O’NEILL’S PLAN?
O’Neill and Keane have had more than enough time to develop a tactical master plan to unsettle the minnows of international football, but this Ireland team looked clueless as they staggered to victory against the nation perched at No.137 in the FIFA rankings.
What was Hendrick’s role in the centre of midfield? Why did McClean and Brady look shackled against opponents that started to offer Ireland space to thrive as they started to get forward in the opening 45 minutes? Can anyone understand why Jonathan Walters was not used in a more attacking role to support the isolated Long up front?
O’Neill will need to answer these questions in the coming days, but the truth is he may not be able to offer a coherent explanation to problems that he has failed to solve for far too long.
We all appreciate that O’Neill is working with a limited squad that was depleted by injuries, but that alarming reality means a more vivid and inventive game plan should have been devised for nights like this.
An away match in Moldova beckons on Sunday and on this evidence, Ireland will again struggle to find the attacking penetration to unsettle opponents who will be more than content to sit back and allow O’Neill’s men to take the initiative.
Not for the first time in recent years, this disjointed Ireland team seem incapable of doing just that.
THANK HEAVENS FOR SEAMUS COLEMAN
On a night when Ireland seemed determined to fluff their lines, their one shining star came to the recuse with the only moment of class in the match.
Martin O’Neill may have made some dubious decisions during his time as Ireland boss, but his move to appoint the Seamus Coleman as captain may be among his best decisions.
Coleman may appear to be quite, shy and apparently lacking in leadership skills, but qualities in Coleman many have overlooked during his rise up the Premier League ranks at Everton and his leadership was evident once again on a night when Ireland needed a talisman to announce himself.
His burst of pace down the flank and winning goal may well be noted as the most significant moment of this World Cup qualifying campaign if Ireland somehow manage to limp their way to Russia in the summer of 2018 as make no mistake, this game was heading for a draw until Coleman’s 56th minute burst of brilliance.
IRELAND NEED AN ARTIST NAMED HARRY
Jeff Hendrick’s encouraging displays at Euro 2016 may have fuelled belief that he could be the new star of Ireland’s midfield, but the Burnley man lacks the presence to boss a midfield battle consistently.
This was a night when his team needed a big performance from a player who was transferred for a massive £10.5m, but he was anonymous as Georgia bossed the midfield battle for long spells.
The same could be said of Ireland’s No.10 Robbie Brady, who struggled to have the impact his nation needs and his apparent concussion in the second half may well mean the Norwich man is absent for the trip to Moldova at the weekend.
What a shame that in-form Bournemouth midfielder Harry Arter was not available to convert his dynamic Premier League form onto the international stage. He was the player Ireland needed to kick down the Georgian doors, but injuries continue to stunt his international career.
It can only be hoped that this untimely injury does not add to the increasingly inflated rumours across the water suggesting England may be plotting an audacious bid to lure him away from Ireland before he plays his first competitive international match.
INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL UNDER THREAT
While the prospect of a major international tournament fills us with excitement every other summer, the fatigue surrounding qualifying fixtures of this nature have long since become tiresome.
FAI chiefs may have been relatively satisfied by the healthy crowd at the Aviva Stadium for the second visit of Georgia in a little over a year, with a publicity surge in the last few days succeeding in filling a few more seats that might have been expected.
Yet FIFA and UEFA need to devise a way to reignite qualifying games that no longer inspire fans because on the evidence of this snooze fest, the players taking part and the fans present give off all the vibes that these occasions have become little more than inconveniences disrupting the thrilling weekly diet of Premier League action.
Taking your kids to the Aviva Stadium on a chilly October night to watch a less than inspired Ireland team take on Georgia would not appeal to a huge audience in an era when you have a variety of television options to satisfy your needs, so the powers should remodel the qualifying set-up and trim down the size of groups pushing for World Cup qualification.
The obvious solution must be allowing Georgia, Moldova and the like to earn the right to take on Europe’s heavyweights in a pre-qualifying tournament, yet that will not happen so long as those running the game are relying on the votes of their national federations to hang on to their jobs.
The end result appears to be the inevitable demise of international football, but that painful story has been underway for a long time now.