Friday 20 October 2017

Irish get job done but have far bigger fish to fry

Catching Wales - not filleting minnows - will decide fate

Ireland’s Callum O’Dowda rides the challenge of Moldova’s Alexandru Gatcan during last night’s qualifier. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s Callum O’Dowda rides the challenge of Moldova’s Alexandru Gatcan during last night’s qualifier. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Strange how the quirks of fate can change a lifetime.

When Gary Mackay became an honorary Irishman 30 years ago, his unique feat in securing a legitimate goal beyond the benighted Iron Curtain irrevocably transformed the soccer landscape in this country.

The pre-match blast of 'Put 'em under Pressure', amplifying a moderate attendance, served as a reminder.

Fast forward a generation and on Friday, a Scottish man did not score a goal but a Slovakian did score one for them.

The subsequent effect may not be quite as transformative but could prove crucial to the immediate health of the sport in this country, or, at least, that sector of the game that seems to matter most to some of the people in this country.

And the effect on Martin O'Neill could also be rather cathartic, too.

After all, when the 1987 version of Ireland were awaiting news from Sofia, their manager was undergoing a fair degree of coursing from some sections of a doubting press who hadn't exactly performed cartwheels when he was appointed in the first place.

And so, as Charlton often did, he sought solace at a lake with his trusty rod. Thirty years on, as O'Neill faces a similar line of inquisition from equally sceptic scribes, and many more supporters, he decided to do the same thing.

A spot of fishing.

Casting the bait with the expertise of a seasoned fly-fisher, he reeled in the FAI on Thursday with what many felt was a premature pitch to extend a tenure which has, in the last ten months, regressed dramatically.

Although, of course, now was not the time to talk of such matters.

The FAI - and John Delaney, who had long demurred against such talk - were left reeling. Quick as a flash, however, O'Neill was bustled into the PR equivalent of Bin Laden's cave to announce to all and sundry that the FAI board - not just Delaney, wouldn't you know, collective responsibility and all that - had wholeheartedly agreed to sign a contract extension.

Fair play to the canny Derryman, who spent all week cautioning against looking beyond this game before suddenly casting an eagle eye towards 2020. And people say he lacks vision.

Now they just have to find a pen which, given the length of the previous saga, could take several months.

Or, of course, the unwritten script could be ripped to shreds if O'Neill's fitful outfit couldn't remember their lines this weekend, initially against the mighty Moldova.

That Ireland's destiny remains out of their hands - despite topping the group less than a year ago - seemed to have escaped most of the smart men in Abbotstown and Ireland required a host of permutations merely to stake their place to a play-off berth next week.

So many and varied, in fact that, aside from wanting the Jocks to win last Thursday, Ireland also now require them to lose this weekend.

Not that the players would have filled their heads with such matters; given O'Neill's habit of letting his players know they are in the team only an hour before kick-off, without necessarily telling them what their role in it might be, they have enough headaches as it is.

A diamond formation was unfurled again last night but all that glitters has not always been gold where this team is concerned.

Then again, this was Moldova. Then again, Georgia, so recent in the memory, illustrated the mess that the management and team can conspire to produce.

This line-up pledged adventure and, with Wes Hoolahan starting at least, the promise that passing gulls would not be relentlessly terrorised.

Hoolahan, of course, is deemed such a figure of decrepitude that he cannot be risked twice in four days; the return of suspended players for Monday's game, where football may, like their previous meeting, be at a premium, also shadowed this eminently bankable fixture.

Conductor

As always, the little conductor set the tone; rather than players losing their heads, they lifted them. Hearts were lifted by an opportunistic third-minute poach from Daryl Murphy as Ireland started with a keenness that matched the Moldovan's mustard-coloured shirts.

It was only Ireland's third goal in this stadium during this campaign and first in an opening half.

That's entertainment, one guesses.

Which is probably why O'Neill's elaborate sales pitch had mentioned the vast increase of season ticket holders, although it often seems many of them don't bother to show up or spend their time milling around the concourse seeking expensive, flat beer.

Hoolahan remains this team's heartbeat; a free-kick in a deep, wide position is not hoofed into the box because he demands it is played short.

The worry is that his colleagues don't share a similar strength of conviction - or ambition - when he is not in the team.

Which, when Murphy added a looping, headed second goal in the 20th minute, begged one to suggest would it not be wise to withdraw the diminutive playmaker in order to reprise his role on Monday?

Ireland's worst of many enemies in this group has been their reaction to early leads but, where often comatose, they remained roused here even if, as the game naturally stretched, Moldova found some joy in rare forays.

It seemed a night for Shane Long to end his personal famine, now stretching back to February. So often he seems like a faithful dog wildly chasing an empty crisp packet around a field.

He missed two glorious early chances for redemption here against a creaking defence. It said much about their respective careers that Murphy was the superior partner of the two, even without his goals.

Long left it late in the last qualifying campaign to strike for glory; Cardiff would represent a suitable occasion for deliverance.

So too for the manager, who left here, much like the crowd, with the feeling that they've almost reached the end of a novel only to find the last page has been ripped out.

Irish Independent

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