Monday 20 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Ireland simply outgunned by far superior force in clash of cultures

Ireland's Shane Long in action against Belgium's Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Ireland's Shane Long in action against Belgium's Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It was a clash of footballing civilisations. A Space Age one against a Stone Age one. Belgium did their thing, passing and moving, combining well, doing things at pace, utilising their technical expertise and attempting to play constructive football at every opportunity. And Ireland did our thing, running and chasing, defending in depth, trying to stifle the opposition and hitting the long ball from the back in the hope of a lucky break.

When the latter style of football comes up against the former style, there should only be one result. Occasionally, as in Ireland's qualifying games against Germany, a combination of good fortune for the technically inferior side and lassitude on the part of their superiors can produce an upset.

But nine times out of 10 Space Age beats Stone Age.

There's no point in portraying this defeat as anything other than a disaster. Ireland's current assistant manager has been vocal in the past about his frustration with those who condescend to the national team and try to turn every defeat into a gallant one. He's right.

The old boiler plate phrases about character and willingness and desire and so on are grand when applied to the fans but they have little to do with what happens on the pitch. Every team at this tournament is full of players who are giving a 100 per cent for their country. Ireland have no monopoly on character. We do, however, have a terrible lack of technical ability which was exposed to the utmost by Belgium.

The jig is not up yet. Ireland have been lucky with the other results which mean we will finish off the group against a second-string Italian team with little to play for. We would not have had a chance against a full-strength Italy who needed a result but, though it seems unlikely at the moment, stranger things have happened than the win Ireland need to progress to the final stages.

For that to happen, though, there will need to be changes. The question of what Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy are supposed to achieve in the centre of midfield where they neither create nor destroy is as puzzling as that of how Jacobs get the figs into the fig rolls. McCarthy, as is his wont in the Irish jersey, achieved nothing yesterday. It was as though someone had reminded him that Scotland aren't playing in these championships. And when he failed to track Axel Witsel into the box and the Belgian midfielder duly put the clinching goal in the net, the Everton man's account nosedived into the negative. Perhaps embarrassed, Martin O'Neill subbed him immediately.

The favouring of Ciaran Clark over Richard Keogh continues to seem like the worst idea in Irish life since some politician said: "Do you know what people'd just love? Water charges."

There was a lot of talk before the championships about the potential for Shane Long to shine. But at the moment Long's task is as thankless and impossible as that of Sisyphus. And at least Sisyphus was getting on the ball regularly. Condemned to chase after balls hit in his general vicinity and labour without any significant support, Long might as well be watching the championships on TV in Tipperary. To see him and Wes Hoolahan, our two most talented attacking players, subbed by Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane, a never-was and a has-been, compounded the feel-bad factor by a significant amount.

You can make the excuse that the Belgians have better players than us and that we are a small country. But this disparity in talent did not arise by chance. Belgium have greater talent than us because of the footballing culture in that country. And Croatia, for example, have a smaller population than us but are light years ahead in terms of ability. Every national team embodies a national footballing culture, the decisions taken, the way of doing things, the philosophy adopted.

Yesterday Ireland showed the results of a culture where the investment is not made or the respect given to advanced coaching or underage facilities. Like the Polish cavalrymen taking on the German panzers in World War II, our men were sent out on to the battlefield hopelessly outgunned against a force enjoying absolute technical superiority. That's where we are.

Positives from this match?

None to speak of. The most positive thing that has happened for Ireland in the last couple of days has been the late Eder goal for Italy which means they'll be at half-cock when the play us in Lille. We need a win and a win has not been beyond Northern Ireland, Wales, Slovakia or Hungary, outsiders who've punched above their weight at this championships.

But whatever happens on Wednesday, this absolute eye-opener of a match should make us think about what has happened to Irish football since the days when our national team was full of players from the top English clubs. Brady, McGrath, Moran, O'Leary, Stapleton, Whelan et al. Back then we were where Belgium are now.

There must be more to us than there was in this game. There has to be. Over the past week it's become clear that this is the poorest European Championships since 1980. That's because there are too many teams in France who have no business being at a major finals.

It's time to prove we're not one of them.

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