Wednesday 23 January 2019

We know we're not Barcelona but we're not that bad, either

Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy look dejected after the Denmark game. Photo: Lee Smith
Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy look dejected after the Denmark game. Photo: Lee Smith
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It wasn't supposed to end like that.

A 1-5 shellacking at home to the very team we were hoping to get in the play-off draw.

Players turning on each other in a way that has never been witnessed before.

Fans leaving the ground with 20 minutes to go.

A tearful James McClean barely able to speak after the final whistle.

The manager peevishly flouncing out of his post-match interview with RTÉ's Tony O'Donoghue.

Tuesday night was a disaster for Irish football. We were utterly humiliated on a global stage. Rather infuriatingly, we seemed determined to live down to the low expectations of the English media, which had been their usual patronising, condescending selves, talking about how they wanted us to qualify because the fans are so great.

I was a kid when I went to the last memorable - for all the wrong reasons - match against Denmark in 1985.

On that grim occasion, they beat us 4-1 in the last group match for the World Cup in Mexico the following year. The skies were as grey as the mood in Lansdowne Road that afternoon, and the team played like a collection of 11 strangers. That result also marked Eoin Hand's last match as Irish manager.

Watching the wheels come off our World Cup hopes the other night, there was an unmistakable air of deja vu, even down to the fact that it looked like we still play in the style from that era, an era when people were still debating the merits of Betamax versus VHS video cassettes. The game, like the rest of the world, has gone digital but we're still mucking around with an obviously obsolete style of play.

Martin O'Neill is believed to have been 'shocked' by the level of criticism he has shipped this week. But even if he is shocked, can he really be surprised? He is, as he likes to remind us at every available opportunity, a smart guy. He must have known such a catastrophic collective nervous breakdown, which seemed to spread from the bench onto the pitch like a virus, would infuriate the fans.

It's not really a huge surprise that we lost. Nor is it a huge surprise that we lost so controversially.

What is surprising, however, is that the controversy that has raged for the last few days is not as a result of a dodgy refereeing call, a la the penalty that wasn't a penalty for Switzerland against Northern Ireland (fun fact, conspiracy fans - FIFA's headquarters are also in Switzerland, so don your tin foil helmet and theorise away).

No, the controversy was firmly centred on the management team and the players.

What made the whole thing so utterly sickening was the fact that this was a unit which prided itself on its defensive organisation and team spirit. In fact, these attributes were widely seen as the two biggest positives for a fairly limited group.

As we saw, when the Danes scored from a training-ground corner which they had already tried to execute in the first leg, there was little evidence of any actual organisation and the players ripping into each other would have been music to Danish ears.

What has been so teeth-grindingly irritating for the average fan is that they know we're not world-beaters.

They know that we're not going to be able to take the ball down and spread it around with the casual, languorous ease of the bigger teams. They know that we're not Barcelona and they are also well aware that our most creative player, Wes Hoolahan, is a thirtysomething squad player for a team in the English second tier.

In fact, to put things into perspective, while the big Spanish papers were speculating about Christian Eriksen's next destination, the first media report about Hoolahan that comes up on a Google news search is a piece from the Norfolk Eastern Daily Press, which I actually thought was a fictional paper read by Alan Partridge.

So the fans are actually well aware that we're not that good. But they also know that we're not that bad and that is where the frustration kicks in.

One of the most galling aspects of Trapattoni's turgid reign of caution was that he obviously thought the players were donkeys.

It's hard to escape the impression that O'Neill shares that view.

The fans aren't demanding champagne football. We don't mind if it's ugly football. But what we expect is, at least, effective football.

For God's sake, the Danes played the long ball game on Saturday - they just did it much better than we did.

The heady days of Lille seem far away now, as do the all those breathless reports linking Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick to clubs with Champion's League ambitions.

Instead, we're left with the smoking wreckage of a campaign where even though we exceeded our original seeding to reach a play-off, it feels like a disaster. For that, the coach has to shoulder the responsibility.

His behaviour towards Tony O'Donoghue has been shoddy to the point of obnoxious, but the fury directed towards O'Neill isn't a case of being wise after the fact - the goals we conceded the other night came from situations which had been widely flagged in advance of the game.

So where do we go from here? Well, not to Russia, that's for sure.

As for O'Neill? Would you walk away from a million a year? No, I didn't think so...

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