David Kelly: Absence of ball control not a passing phase for Ireland
Published 07/09/2016 | 02:30
Upon the cobbled stones of Belgrade's old town, the buskers' worth is weighed in beads of sweat.
Tips are only realised if the local dinar notes can be slapped forcefully upon their dripping pates and remain there; the more money that sticks, the more money they earn. If the note drifts dolefully to the floor? Well, my friend, a dry head means you are not working hard enough.
Ireland international soccer sides can never be guilty of not working hard enough. Often, such a character trait has been its sole offering to the world.
Industry has always trumped artistry in Paddy's eyes.
But many of us thought that, perhaps, having indulged their lesser-revealed football-playing talents on occasion during the summer, they may have decided to stick with such an approach.
The pointy-headed people who produce those stats which define too much of modern discourse revealed that Ireland had completed just one pass a minute; that neither of their goals came from the passes is neither here nor there.
Liechtenstein, whose progress in world football has been rapid since the mountain top's scoreless draw 21 years ago, shamed Ireland again on Monday evening.
They were credited with 157 passes and an extraordinary 75pc possession. Ireland are now outpassed by even mighty Liechtenstein? They did lose 8-0, though, to Spain. It would make one want to pass out.
Serbia completed 390 passes; quite a number of which crabbed sideways between the three central defenders as they awaited a long diagonal; 90pc possession seems impressive but can be illusive.
Euro 2016 wasn't necessarily an illusion for Ireland but neither was it the revolution in style that was widely acclaimed in some over-enthusiastic corners.
Ireland did establish a new identity - particularly with their relationship to its public - but Monday night in Belgrade demonstrated that even someone developing a new identity can easily harbour old insecurities.
If the numbers didn't add up, neither did the picture make sense.
"As players we need to address the fact that when score we sit back," admits new captain Seamus Coleman (below). "It kind of happened in France and we've done it a little bit again. We go behind and we bring the game back to them and we look good again.
"The manager is saying the same thing to us, that we're sitting back too much and it's something as players we need to address and get right on the pitch.
"In France we kind of changed our game in the last couple of games against Italy and France, we tried to play football and do it the right way. We tried to do it tonight but it was very difficult on that pitch. We had to play channel balls for Shane and Jon, it was a tough game for them up top but at least it's a positive point."
The leaden skies have long since ceased their weeping when his predecessor, John O'Shea, emerges to chew over a surreal night when Ireland could have won by one or two goals but just as easily could have lost by three.
Ireland finish with two big men up top to batter down the door while the only man who supposedly holds the key sits on the bench.
Others would argue that course conditions dictate racing tactics; the couple of acres of Serbian tillage was not a foundation upon which to build a thing of architectural grandeur. But elsewhere, sentimental folk see the world with the gentleness of fools.
And so O'Shea, unprompted, almost seems keen to dismiss any claims from comfy chairs on the other side of the continent.
"There's more to come," he says, anticipating the howls of anguish from afar.
"People will say could Wes come on. Not on that type of pitch. We were getting it long to Shane and Daryl when he came on. We still created chances. There are more games where we will have options to play better stuff."
Ireland's retreat from early bounty is not unusual; it is ever thus. So is their adherence to the Long - in both senses of that word - rather than the short of it.
Euro 2016 is already the victim of warped nostalgia. The defeat of a second-string Italy offered a mirage; Ireland's last truly significant away win was in Hampden Park nigh on 30 years ago.
And yet to listen to come commentary, it would appear that Ireland, an utterly dysfunctional soccer republic, are one step away from transformation.
Yes, the players must, if not indulge in pass mastery, at least control the ball better.
The ability to hold the ball and await support was seemingly beyond the gift of the Irish until the late charge of the height brigade.
Next month's challenges are less stern but O'Neill will be forced to change nevertheless; his central midfield was not fit for purpose in either personnel or shape.
Harry Arter did not convince the management against mighty Oman; he must do so in the weeks to come while James McCarthy will return to the position he forged for himself in France.
"We didn't have much possession but we'll park this and move on," says Walters, pointing the chat in a different direction, even though everyone knows we'll be back here again sooner rather than later.
Banging out the same old tunes as the Belgrade buskers.