Sunday 24 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Familiar feelings, familiar failings for Ireland

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Great, rasping sighs of relief by the Dodder then on a night that could have been trawled out of a hundred yellowed newspaper cuttings.

Maybe sometimes games find their own truth, but this was uncomfortable for Ireland in a way that felt familiar. One parched of romance, for sure, yet distinguished by virtues like honesty and selflessness and, maybe above all, the character of men committed to making a scruffy occasion work.

There was a purity to Ireland's doggedness encapsulated by the captain's 55th-minute goal that delivered escape from what, for a time, had most in the stadium palpably stiff with anxiety.

Just as we had begun to pine for a past captain's cold, machine-gunner eyes against quarrelsome opposition, up stepped Seamus Coleman with a one-man sundance in along Georgia's left flank to push home a goal that didn't have to be pretty to feel priceless.

Maybe France fed the conceit that we could be a beautiful team. We certainly made a mark at that great and diverse gathering, albeit the scale of that mark might have been exaggerated slightly by the breadth of our own imaginations.

Gift

We didn't do a Wales after all. We didn't go to the business end of the tournament, nurturing momentary thoughts that it might even be in our gift to replicate the past Euro miracles of Denmark and Greece.

But what we did do was play football. How? By constructing a midfield designed for more than destruction. Everything seemed to work more fluidly with James McCarthy as the holding anchor and Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick running bold lines.

That memory surely informed Martin O'Neill's selection here. There will be games in this qualifying tournament when the status of opposition might demand a tactical obduracy, but last night's wasn't one of them.

So, if there was mild disappointment at Wes Hoolahan's omission, it was probably tempered by an expectation that Ireland would have enough supportive bodies getting close to Shane Long without them having to deploy our most natural No 10 too.

But quickly old habits began to re-form and settle here. After a bright start, Ireland looked too anxious to play bold football.

Solomon Kverkvella was Long's earliest jailer and he looked a man inclined to dangle the prison keys carelessly from his trouser belt. Just four minutes in, the ball flew off his instep at an unintentional angle and, as the Tipperary man lasered a low cross towards James McClean, Kverkvella scythed Long down. The crowd convulsed in hope of a penalty but it was too soon for Mister Chapron.

Georgia hold a place in our lives that maybe once belonged to Poland. Familiar opponents yet ones with whom we have never fostered anything but a superficial relationship. Vladimir Weiss, their Slovakian manager, is new to the rivalry but he already references the men in his charge as "our team as I can now call it".

He stood just the width of a living-room away from O'Neill throughout, pointedly pacing his technical area as if to communicate to the Irish manager that this would be no exercise in genuflection or curtsy.

And when, in the sixteenth minute, a swivelling Valeri Kazaishvili fired narrowly past Darren Randolph's right-hand post, Weiss's animation was - you sensed - that of a man hoping to be noticed.

There was a muscularity to his team, from the lumbering Kverkella to the scrum-cap-wearing Murtaz Daushvilli that, gradually, made everything seem a little constipated from Ireland, one forced step after another against a side set up to be resilient.

Little by little the fabric was beginning to fray and consternation registered around the stadium when, 26 minutes in, Coleman essayed an unnecessary back-pass towards Randolph from halfway.

Suddenly all that noise over the aesthetics of our draw in Serbia seemed ever so faintly delusional. Our football, historically, has been less about art than about energy and cardio-respiratory fitness.

And here a realisation slowly dawned that we would maybe always need those qualities more urgently than finesse.

The Aviva was rattling like a tea trolley on cobbles when, in the 37th minute, consecutive Georgian headers rebounded to safety from Randolph's woodwork and, seconds later, Coleman's hurried back-pass ricocheted off the goalkeeper's chest after Kazaishvilli threatened to get behind the Irish cover.

Little was working for O'Neill.

McClean looked to have met his match in full-back Otar Kakabadze (albeit he would gradually change that impression) and, if Kverkvella still had the look of a man who might yet bear unintentional gifts, Ireland's transparent ploy of sending up Shane Duffy to unsettle goalkeeper Giorgi Loria on set-pieces just reaped an endless concession of frees.

There were issues all over the park for Ireland who just could not work Loria in anything but the rudiments of ball retrieval from behind his goal.

On the stroke of half-time, Randolph had to push a Levan Mchedlidze effort away for a corner, the stadium humming now with open disapproval. Hoolahan, we imagined, would be called to the dressing-room at half-time but, no, O'Neill wasn't yet ready to shuffle cards.

The thought struck, too, that a fit Aiden McGeady could have offered something, albeit he might as well have turned into a moth ever since that spectacular double in Tbilisi two years ago last month.

But then the captain's intervention, just roller-coasting past an assortment of would-be Georgian tacklers and, suddenly, you could feel the air lighten.

Moments later, McClean had the ball in Loria's net with a smart far-post header but was deemed to have moved fractionally too soon by a linesman and, seconds later, Loria almost spilled the Derry man's dipping 25-yarder across his own goal-line.

Trouble is it becomes a kind of highwire act when one goal can dismantle it all and the threat of a concession was always there for Ireland too. They needed a second to settle dancing pulses.

It might have come too in the 92nd minute but McClean's firm header from a Jon Walters cross snapped back down to safety off Loria's crossbar.

Nails were being bitten now, the fourth official having indicated seven additional minutes for a delay caused by a sickening clash of heads between Brady and Kverkvella.

No matter, they saw the last, tortured seconds home, O'Neill throwing his arms around Weiss in an embrace that spoke of relief and relief alone.

Irish Independent

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