Ireland exposed and even Dunne can't hide naked truth
W hen Richard Dunne spoke, it was with the kind of moral authority that is built not on words but on a long legacy of heroic performances in an Irish jersey.
He was critical of his team-mates, possibly critical of the management too, but it didn't for a moment sound petulant or insubordinate or in any way inappropriate. Instead it carried all the integrity of a player who is right up there with the likes of O'Driscoll and O'Connell in terms of modern Irish sporting warriors.
He is the spiritual leader of the national football team and no one has questioned his right to speak with the candour he did after Russia had played Ireland off the park on Friday night. RTE's Tony O'Donoghue asked good questions and Dunne replied with honest answers.
"Why did we not seem to be on our game?"
"I dunno. We seemed to have one game plan and that was to go long and when that didn't work we were left wide open . . . For whatever reason, first half we just never got going, never looked like doing anything. It wasn't until we got the penalty that we started to give it a go."
"One game plan: that's not good enough is it?"
"It wasn't, no, not tonight."
"Is it good enough any night?"
"No. Well, we proved when we played France (in Paris) that we can pass the ball and we can play football and it's about being brave enough and we weren't brave enough tonight."
"Are you allowed pass the ball?"
"We are allowed. But for whatever reason, we just don't feel comfortable doing it. We've gotta have confidence and we've got to be braver when we have the ball. It's alright going long but it's probably the easy way out for players. We've got to get our foot on the ball and try and pass it and try and create chances . . . We've got to get control of the ball and try and control games a bit more rather than kicking it long all the time."
It's the issue that won't go away now, especially after the summer World Cup when the last illusions about British football were finally shattered. Irish players are products of the same culture and Russia exposed Ireland at the Aviva in much the same way that Germany exposed England in South Africa.
It's as pointless to blame Giovanni Trapattoni here as it is to blame Fabio Capello in England. The conspicuous deficiencies in ball skills and match intelligence were there before these managers took over and will be there after they've departed.
Trapattoni has deployed all his experience and coaching ability to build a competitive team but some of his material is an inferior version of the already inferior British standard. Where Capello has Lampard and Gerrard, even Barry and Milner, Trapattoni has to make do and mend with a desperately underskilled and under-powered central midfield.
Glenn Whelan and Paul Green were overrun to the point of embarrassment on Friday night. They were asked to do a job that they were manifestly unable to do. This is a problem that pre-dates Trapattoni too. We haven't had a player of real international class in this position since Roy Keane retired. Trapattoni has weighed up his options and decided to ask no more of his central midfielders than to protect the back four. And it almost worked in the last campaign: Whelan and Keith Andrews, playing to the limit of their abilities, just about managed to hold their own.
The manager's problem is that any two from this three is not equipped even to do a destructive job well; they lack the muscular strength and athletic power to break up attacks, cover the ground and impose a physical game on good opponents. Central midfield has been a chronic problem since Keane's heyday and a plausible solution is not in sight.
The manager continues to take flak for his conservative selections and strategy, and that famous performance last November in Paris is cited as a prime case for the prosecution. But that performance was delivered in unique circumstances: the Irish approached it much the same way as rank outsiders who find themselves in a cup final sometimes do.
They were trailing 1-0 from the first leg, their backs were to the wall and if they didn't come out fighting, they were facing a possible humiliation. France had
outclassed the same players in Dublin four days earlier; with nothing to lose, they threw caution to the wind and played superbly on the night. In fact, they played above themselves on the night. It would be unrealistic to expect them to produce performances of a similar emotional pitch over the course of a 12-month qualifying campaign.
Equally, as Dunne emphasised, they cannot continue lumping the ball long to Doyle and Robbie Keane. They have to try passing it and keeping it even if they are not trained to do so and don't feel "comfortable" trying. It's not their fault that they don't, and it's not Trapattoni's either.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Russia played on Friday like a team with its back to the wall too. They had to perform, otherwise their chance of qualification was in serious jeopardy. They might never be as good again in this campaign. And Ireland, one hopes -- or prays -- can hardly again be as bad.