We're a long-ball team, we should be used to it
Published 28/03/2011 | 05:00
IT'S impossible to know how many of the thousands who were in Lansdowne Road on Saturday night were present exactly 25 years earlier for Jack Charlton's first game in charge, but those that were would have had flashbacks within seconds of the opening whistle.
As always with international games, the noise built to a crescendo as the referee made a final check on the numbers of players, which gave the signal for those in the corporate section to clunk their cutlery and those who had paid too much for their tickets to throw their roars behind the team.
And then, like air being let out of a balloon, it all went quiet as Ireland tipped off and Darron Gibson launched a hoof from inside the centre circle into the goalkeeper's hands that even Usain Bolt wouldn't have reached.
Given the subsequent performance of Edin Nuredinoski, Gibson could make a case that he was enjoying his favourite hobby -- long-range shooting -- but even the most optimistic of statisticians wouldn't have counted it as a shot on target. The Manchester United midfielder almost certainly mis-hit the pass but, as regards setting the tone for a style of play, this took quite some beating.
And yet, for all the wailing that goes with Ireland's inability to keep possession, the cheers weren't any quieter when the goals went in for the fact that they both started as a result of Keiren Westwood's kicking.
The Coventry City goalkeeper has a ball-striking ability to make many outfield players envious, but when part of the pre-match analysis has one of the positives as a goalkeeper "who has a good kick on him", it's hardly surprising that the ball spends so much time in the air rather than on the floor.
After Gibson lashed the ball away in the opening seconds, the next Irish player to have any meaningful possession was Westwood, who caught a cross after the visitors had -- in setting their tone for their night -- strung together 10 passes and got nowhere.
Like a space-shuttle, Westwood's time in possession should be accompanied by a countdown as both teams get ready for a launch and, after the Macedonians failed to deal with his first one, Kevin Doyle battled to present the ball to Aiden McGeady to score.
Doyle's exit didn't particularly change the pattern and, after Shane Long was fouled from another Westwood launch, the subsequent free-kick was spilled by the hapless Nuredinoski and Robbie Keane pounced to make it 2-0.
As thoughts turned to running up a score, there was no mention that either goal had come from the type of put-them-under-pressure long-ball stuff that has been retrospectively criticised from the Charlton era.
The difference is that Charlton had players who had won league titles in England and Italy at his disposal; Giovanni Trapattoni now has a combination of players battling just to win their places in English football's top league, as well as a few who never will again.
As Ireland grew in confidence, Long managed to get on the end of a fine passing move but, while it was it was described by commentary as "just like watching Brazil", the reality is that it was really like watching any other team in world football outside of Ireland, Britain or Scandinavia, where giving away possession is a sin that can't be absolved simply by putting in a strong tackle.
The difference between Ireland's two goals and that of Macedonia could hardly have been greater, with one of Kevin Kilbane's many aimless, hopeful punts down the left wing ending up with the visitors in possession. They then took eight passes to get out of their own half before Goran Pandev's penetrative pass set up Ivan Trickovski to pull one back.
It was the sort of goal that it's impossible to see Ireland scoring, not so much because the players aren't capable of it if given the time and space which Macedonia were allowed, but because the appetite from the manager, the crowd and the culture is to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
It's revealing to listen to the increased murmurings in the crowd when Ireland keep the ball without actually going anywhere and the panic that then sets in among the players, one of whom eventually sends it long into the opposition territory.
After every game, Trapattoni's style and system come in for criticism, but we've been a team based around the long ball for so long that you'd think we'd be used to it by now.
Instead, the gnashing of teeth will continue into tomorrow night when, if we keep possession for any period in a game where two teams are going through the motions, it will be seen as a building block going into the white heat of Skopje.
The reality is that the same pattern from Saturday night will repeat when the only 'oles' from the crowd for Irish possession came in the dying minutes as Ireland moved from 25 yards from the Macedonian goal all the way back to Westwood, where another missile was launched.
If the result repeats itself, for Trapattoni and those hoping for a trip to Eastern Europe next summer, that will be all that matters.