Brave share of spoils keeps the dream alive
O’Neill’s selection gamble on utilising Hoolahan’s sorcery almost comes unstuck against savvy Poland until late, late escape act
He packed a gambler’s suitcase and last night Martin O’Neill almost paid an unromantic price for his boldness.
We can be hopelessly mixed-up football people and this game, maybe, arrowed to the heart of that confusion. Endlessly, we ache for a team of imagination and beauty, yet – deep down – sense it is not in our DNA to play that way. Against a tough, industrial-strength Polish team, O’Neill went for the quick feet and creative guile of diminutive figures like Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady.
And then reality intruded.
Shane Long’s 90th-minute equaliser would profoundly change how we recalled this night by the Dodder, but – truth to tell – it was a goal that concealed a multitude.
Any argument about philosophy is, essentially, an argument about Hoolahan (below). You either build a team around a talent like his or you mistrust it. O’Neill seems drawn to the former. He likes Hoolahan’s understanding of space, his ability to buy a yard, then thread a needle with his pass. And strikers love having Wes behind them because of his vision, his awareness, the sense that he can read their minds.
Yet, he was 26 when he won his first cap and 30 by the time he got a second. In fact, until O’Neill’s arrival, Wes just seemed too ornate a figure for the hard-hat football in vogue with successive Irish managers.
There has always been an islanded quality about Hoolahan, but not last night. Polish midfielder, Krychowwiak, seemed tethered to him by an invisible cable at times. Wes’s game slips into bronchial difficulty if the opposition choose to pay him the compliment of a man-marker. And last night Adam Nawalka paid that compliment.
So 25 minutes in, O’Neill’s gamble was floundering, Hoolahan already on a booking after scything down Szukala who had intercepted his misplaced pass and Brady’s error having allowed Peszko fire Poland in front.
The problem was one of structure and physicality. The Poles were simply too big, too aggressive for Ireland to find those little air-pockets of space in which Hoolahan especially thrives.
Swamped by dint of numbers in midfield, O’Neill’s men struggled to impose control on a game contested fiercely and, on occasion, without scruple. Hoolahan, thus, was marginalised. On the good days, his movement can seem as effortless as water filling space. On the bad? His talent can seem hopelessly exotic, a conceit of sorts.
Growing up in St Mary’s Mansions and Portland Row, playing five-a-sides in Liberty House and on then to Belvedere, he spent most of his life hearing people celebrate his skill but lament his size.
And over to England where rejection came in a steady stream from clubs with a plain view of the game. They didn’t say as much,of course, but the assumption stuck that Wes simply looked like he might fall over in a stiff wind.
He has made a good career for himself in Scotland and, now, in East Anglia, yet the physical, helter-skelter games remain a personal trial.
This was one of them. He did dig out one, lovely, dinked 14th minute pass that almost got James McCarthy but, by and large, he was being squeezed and muscled into the shadows. A microcosm, if you like, of Ireland’s story.
The team struggles to be loved because it has yet to convey an identifiable personality.
If trust comes from knowledge, we are still – plainly – in the foothills of that journey with Martin O’Neill. His obvious charisma has not yet been brought to vivid colour in one game, one performance. The draw in Germany was a reward for honest toil but, one month later, the team went to Glasgow and, essentially, deferred to a mediocre team.
So they have yet to build a rhythm that we can categorise as momentum.
The tactical conservatism of the Trapattoni era hasn’t exactly been replaced by football played to the massed string of Montovani. Every game just seems the ultimate confrontation between will and worry. A high-wire act. It can all feel oddly intrusive when the big, silver bowl on Lansdowne Road grows quiet and reticent for a team still, palpably, unsure of itself.
Last night O’Neill’s formation was designed, you sensed, to ramp things up. But the Poles were here to scrap, their collective work ethic embodied by the hard-running Lewandowski, endlessly chasing the most unpromising of scraps like someone late for a train.
The more the contest unspooled, the deeper the realisation that – tactically – Poland just had our number.
Our history with them is a kind of joyless repository of forgettable games played in forgettable towns for forgettable reasons. Ray Treacy’s famous quote about winning 43 caps for Ireland, “probably about 40 of them against Poland” harks back to a time when, it seemed, the national team made almost annual visits to glamorous outposts like Katowice, Poznan and Bydgoszcz.
They looked better than us last night, technically slicker and equipped with a clearer view of their likely destination. Yet, this Irish team will never fails through a deficit of heart and, boy, did they chase the game.
Twice only the woodwork stood between them and an equaliser you sensed we almost had no right to consider. And with eleven minutes remaining, Robbie Keane almost got Hoolahan with a little spooned pass that, sadly, was read by his Polish jailer.
He kept running though, kept chasing, kept trying to do the right things in the right places no matter the discouragement. That defiance was beautiful in its way, an essay almost on his life in football.
The crowd were running out of noise and patience now, O’Neill frantically waving bodies forward.
The fourth official had just put up his board for five additional minutes when Brady’s corner fell to Hoolahan’s quicksilver feet and he prodded the ball back for Shane Long to equalise almost in slow motion. A beautiful, beautiful moment.
The Lilliputians had found their magic.