Friday 27 April 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Deflated Ireland stuck in slow march to familiar conclusion

Ireland striker Daryl Murphy tries to get the better of Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ireland striker Daryl Murphy tries to get the better of Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There is a relentless optimism about football speak, even if the body language doesn't match the tone of the words.

Martin O'Neill was clearly deflated on Saturday evening as he attempted to put a positive slant on another draw in a game that Ireland needed to win.

"We're very disappointed," said the 63-year-old, when pressed on the mood in the dressing room. "This was our chance to go in front of Scotland and give us a real, real opportunity of doing something. But we're not out of it. Genuinely not out of the group."

Over time, when the various permutations are analysed, it is possible that the public will begin to believe those words.

A double-header in September that should yield six points means that Ireland will still be in contention heading into the final week in October and footballers will always believe they are capable of winning the next game, even if it's world champions Germany coming to town.

When the final whistle sounded on Saturday, there was a feeling that this draw represented the end of Ireland's Euro 2016 prospects. If this generation are incapable of winning against their main rivals, they will not qualify for tournaments. Progression to the Euros in Poland was helped by improbable favours from elsewhere.


In the glory days, fans revelled in the 'You'll never beat the Irish' reputation. At the moment, Ireland simply can't beat any opponent of consequence.

These are deeply troubling times, made worse by the realisation that the dressing room is increasingly populated by thirtysomethings and will be for the foreseeable future.

O'Neill took the job without realising there was such a dearth of talent coming through the ranks. "I didn't know this," he admitted. "And I think that's maybe for another day.

"But there are still one or two players who are coming through and I think, given time, being around the squad should stand them in decent stead when they eventually get the chance. It's late for Daryl Murphy, but I think his season probably suggested there was an opportunity."

Murphy turned 32 in March. Wes Hoolahan, who was ignored for so long that he still feels like a new addition, celebrated his 33rd birthday in the week before Norwich's play-off win at Wembley. The fresh blood is older than some of the individuals they've replaced.

The 'dream team' was hired to bring back the feel-good factor but harsh reality has prevented them from doing so. Sure, they've made a couple of curious decisions - withdrawing Hoolahan on Saturday is one such example.

O'Neill's preference for naming his team late has even taken his own players by surprise on occasion, a complete contrast from the strategy of his predecessor. He doesn't know what his best team is.

But Irish football's malaise runs deeper than simply pinpointing the manager as the problem.

The negative atmosphere is borne from a general air of discontent. Another bumbling fortnight for the Abbotstown hierarchy preceded the biggest game of 2015 and the hope was that football would serve as a welcome distraction from the chaos.

Instead, the unsatisfactory outcome adds another layer of misery to the broader picture. The revelation that a substantial sum of money was spent on shredding the original match programmes - to remove John Delaney's thoughts on the crisis at FIFA - has piled on the embarrassment.

Meanwhile, hardcore fans who want to protest are unhappy with the security staff in Ballsbridge keeping a close eye on their actions and frisking fans entering the stadium, while the plane that was set to fly overhead calling for the departure of Delaney never managed to get off the ground.

The CEO's regime still has vocal supporters, but he has become such a divisive figure that it could be argued that his retention is an obstacle to change.

It's not just the dressing room that requires an injection of youth. The boardroom could do with it too. That was the case before Saturday, but failing to make France will again bring debt right to the top of the agenda.

The next home match, a Monday night date with Georgia in September, will have a very different atmosphere to the Polish and Scottish carnivals.

O'Neill has a tough job on his hands to make it an occasion that will put bums on expensive seats. Before he finished up his media duties on Saturday, he was asked again about Jack Grealish.

It's understood that Irish management believe that Grealish - who tweeted from a summer holiday pool party during the game - will throw his lot in with England.

He has been encouraged by all sides to make a decision by September and the 63-year-old suggested that the Aston Villa teen could have a part to play in the rest of this campaign if he stayed in green.

"I really think that you'd have to ask Jack and the family themselves (about his decision)," said O'Neill, "What I've said to him is that he's got a fairly decent chance, a better chance, of getting into our team than he would have of getting into England in the foreseeable future."

Certainly, the 19-year-old has the attributes to address the weaknesses that O'Neill elaborated on.

"We have to try and become more creative," he stressed, "We have to improve our chance ratio. And not just have a final 15-minute burst where you put absolutely everything in the area."

Still, while there is a natural temptation to focus on exciting players outside the camp that could make things better, another dilemma for O'Neill heading into a summer of introspection is the performance of players that reach a higher bar with their clubs.

If the entire Irish squad were put up for sale tomorrow, Seamus Coleman (pictured) and James McCarthy would command the highest fees. But they've not managed to distinguish themselves in the French mission.

O'Neill did find a system to suit Coleman's strengths on Saturday and it was refreshing to see him tearing down the right side. Regrettably, his final ball was consistently poor throughout.

"Seamus got into some really great positions and you would have expected better and he'd have expected better from himself," said his manager. "But overall, he's still a class player and if we could get that delivery in, then we give ourselves a better chance."

There was actually a lot to like about aspects of McCarthy's first-half showing. Alas, his effectiveness waned in tandem with the collective performance. Some of the criticism of the Glaswegian has veered into pantomime territory, feeding a primitive desire for a scapegoat.

That said, he shouldn't be fading into the crowd in a team where he should be an outstanding performer. Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are 13 months younger and gearing up for Championship football next season, but they are playing with more confidence than McCarthy.

When the brightest lights are gripped by mediocrity, the outlook is far from encouraging. O'Neill inherited a squad with a mixture of players past their peak and youngsters who seem incapable of reaching theirs when they report for national service.

A rebuilding job is essential, but the FAI can't afford to write off a few years if they want to fill the ground. Saturday was the last opportunity to alter the script. Sadly, there is an ominous familiarity about what is coming down the tracks.

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