Saturday 18 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Little art, but Glenn Whelan offers abundant grit

Stand-in captain puts in a typically disciplined and selfless shift - to little acclaim

Glenn Whelan of Republic of Ireland in action against David Alaba, left, and Julian Baumgartlinger of Austria yesterday
Glenn Whelan of Republic of Ireland in action against David Alaba, left, and Julian Baumgartlinger of Austria yesterday
Aleksandar Dragovic gets to the ball just ahead of Jonathan Walters to deny the Irish striker. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was a big night for the invisible man that, sadly, will have passed without much softening of the prejudice that assails him. Glenn Whelan put in a terrific, selfless shift, he always does.

Yet his departure just after 7.30pm barely registered in the stands, Ireland now chasing the game on a field trellised with shadows from late evening sun. Whelan is, philosophically, a gate-keeper, a devout curmudgeon, innately set in his ways.

His job is to marshal space and problem-solve, to protect shape at those moments that others get lost abroad on safari. Captain for the night, he had to be the ice then to Harry Arter's fire here. An unromantic role for an unromantic man.

Ultimately, Martin O'Neill's hand was forced by time and, once that happened, Whelan would always be disposable.

For much of the night, Ireland looked faintly at odds with the ball, and the argument goes that, too often, that happens when Whelan is midfield anchor.

Denigration

He is hardened to that denigration of pundits now, seldom interacting with the Irish media. Too many depict him as an impediment to creative flow, a player conditioned always to turn back rather than forward.

Yet O'Neill, like Giovanni Trapattoni before him, patently sees something more. Whelan, after all, is now the tenth most capped player in Irish football history.

And any fair-minded audit of last night's game will recognise the worthiness of a 77-minute contribution that was infinitely more rounded and controlled than so much of what was unspooling around him.

Trouble is, Ireland created more when Whelan was off the field than on. Not his fault, simply a product of the hard-gambling hand that O'Neill had to eventually toss on the table, Austria still leading through Martin Hinteregger's 31st-minute goal.

Until that closing frenzy, from which Jonathan Walters sniped a splendid late equaliser, the game laboured with a faintly strained, anodyne quality.

How could it be any other way, especially for those of us gifted a broad, catholic work pass? After the moonshine of Wexford Park on Saturday night, this could only be milky tea. Barely warm.

And for many of its protagonists, their season having ended a month back, worries about fatigue became supplanted by concern with match sharpness. The games against Mexico and Uruguay probably supplied O'Neill with conflicting prognoses in that regard. So he was largely powerless but to come to this one guessing.

Worse, he had to contend with a depiction of Austria as a group so depleted, they'd have difficulty negotiating a heavy dressing-room door, never mind an Irish team scenting opportunity.

It's never a good thing for us to be fed that kind of sedative, the native electrical wiring malfunctioning in any close proximity to a favourites' tag. Hence Roy Keane invoking that pre-match metaphor of war. He knew the danger lurking.

And Whelan would have been central to the Irish management's view that here was a night to side with hard professional instinct over creative whimsy.

Austria were better than Ireland, that much was inarguable. Time and again, they found early purchase down our right flank, where Robbie Brady looked uncomfortable tracking the arched-back runs of an impressive Hinteregger.

And with David Alaba deployed in a free-moving central role, Whelan's policing was critical.

O'Neill lamented afterwards that Ireland's failure to get on the front foot early flew in the face of everything they had planned. That failure, he suggested, was largely responsible for "taking the crowd out of the scenario".

If so, it wasn't for want of Whelan trying. In the 20th minute, his interception created an opening for Brady, but the Burnley man crossed weakly, spurning an opportunity to go past the full-back. That was largely the tenor of business. Whelan winning possession but, just as quickly, Austria reclaiming it.

Then, in the 41st minute, a moment to re-arm all of the Stoke man's critics. Playing a one-two with Walters, the return arrived to Whelan on the edge of the box, yet he wheeled away, siding with a conservative pass. In 81 international appearances, he has scored just twice for Ireland. And Whelan's critics would suggest that moment captured his career in microcosm.

The groans will certainly have been a familiar sound to him, yet he has never been inclined to buckle under that kind of invitation.

In fact, there seemed something pointed in his return to action for the second half, striding back onto the field a good 30 yards in advance of his colleagues, as if laying down some kind of psychological marker.

And, within five minutes of the resumption, he'd pounced on a labouring Sebastian Prodl in possession, prodding the ball forward to Waltersm who was duly flattened by Aleksandar Dragovic.

Seconds later, only a marvellous Whelan interception on Alaba spiked a lightning Austrian break.

You see, his discipline always gave Ireland structure when Arter was snapping between the lines with all that dervish energy. And it seemed somewhat pointed that, compelled to try to rescue things from the threshold of disaster, O'Neill still withdrew the Bournemouth player before Whelan.

"I thought he did very well for us," the manager said of his 33-year-old captain. "Obviously age is catching up and maybe he got a little bit tired."

If so, Whelan was entitled to be. True, he'd stuck to his unglamorous ways and, true, he was sitting in the stand as Ireland found late, thrilling momentum with that cascade of wild attacks. But Glenn Whelan had been decent, even if some chose not to see.

Irish Independent

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