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No wriggle room left after handing Scots three points


Anything less than qualification will be the greatest disaster in the history of Irish soccer. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Anything less than qualification will be the greatest disaster in the history of Irish soccer. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE


'For the last 13 years I have had the time of my life, lived the dream and have memories that will stay with me forever' Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

'For the last 13 years I have had the time of my life, lived the dream and have memories that will stay with me forever' Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE



Anything less than qualification will be the greatest disaster in the history of Irish soccer. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Well, how are we fixed now? Nine days on from the Celtic Park catastrophe the Irish team finds itself in a bit of a hole. The unexpected point earned in Germany has been negated by the defeat in Scotland. You could argue that we only ever expected one point from those two games but the problem is that while taking two points from Germany probably won't have much of an effect on the world champions, handing three to Scotland gives Gordon Strachan's team an enormous boost.

Forget all the nutty pre-qualifying talk about aiming to compete with Germany at the top of the group. Right now even second place looks an unlikely target. The probability is that Ireland will be scrapping with Scotland for third place and a play-off spot. And the Scots hold a slight edge in this battle.

Third place wouldn't be the end of the world. The fact that 24 teams - as opposed to the eight which made it back in 1988 - will be qualifying for the 2016 finals should mean that the play-offs won't be the shark-infested waters of past campaigns. True, Holland and Switzerland occupy third spots at the moment but they, like Germany, should move up as the campaign continues. It's far more likely that if we make third we'd be up against the likes of Hungary, Norway, Slovenia, Iceland and Israel.

So Martin O'Neill's first task is to at least make sure we make the play-offs. We are, after all, seeded second in the group. And with 24 teams to qualify, any country with pretensions to seriousness as a footballing power will be in France in 2016.

The bookies, God bless them, are predicting we won't make the top three in Group D. Do you know how big a failure that would be? Well, in our footballing history we have never finished lower than third in a European Championships qualifying group. Even during the Steve Staunton years, which were treated as some kind of laughable nadir, the Louth man still managed to steer the team into third place during the 2008 qualifying campaign. I can remember him being pilloried when Ireland only managed, thanks to the concession of a last-second goal, to draw against a Slovakian team who were at least as good as the current Scottish side.

So, by and large, the reaction to the Celtic Park debacle has been refreshingly restrained. People are inclined to give this team the benefit of the doubt. Which is fair enough because it's our next two games which will decide the course of Ireland's campaign. Poland come to Dublin on March 29 and if we don't halt their gallop they will probably cruise to the runners-up spot. The Polish match is followed on June 13 by a home game against the Scots which must be won.

The optimist in me foresees four points from those two games for Ireland, which would mean that we'd probably go into the final couple of matches needing four points from a home game against Germany and an away tie against Poland to make second or maybe even third.

So even the best possible scenario sees us needing to finish off by defeating a German team who'll need the points or a Polish team looking to qualify on their own soil. It's not impossible, but either result would require a performance of a quality which hasn't been seen from an Irish team for some years. In fact we'll need to up things a bit to even get that win over Scotland in Dublin.

Because, as DCI Jim Taggart would have put it, we were 'merdered' in Glasgow. I'm not sure anyone really expected a performance of such impoverishment and if it truly reflects the worth of the team then we've actually gone backwards since the Trapattoni years.

Those who believe Ireland have quite a bit left in the tank and will rise phoenix-like from the Parkhead ashes will have received some encouragement from the 4-1 defeat of the USA at the Aviva. True, we're often at our most impressive in meaningless friendlies, but at the very least the performance showed that the spirit in the camp seems good and that Robbie Brady, Anthony Pilkington, Cyrus Christie and David McGoldrick give O'Neill extra options for the two big matches coming up.

The return of James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan will do likewise. Even O'Neill's harshest critics will have to admit he was extremely unfortunate to be denuded of first-choice players in the area where Ireland could least afford it. A central midfield duo of Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson was always going to be something of a hostage to fortune at Celtic Park and neither player looked up to the demands of international football on the night. The fitness of McCarthy is going to be crucial for the rest of the campaign.

Getting the best out of Seamus Coleman could be just as vital. A team so bereft of gifted individuals can't afford to let its one top-class Premier League player languish in the kind of unhappy anonymity which was his lot in Glasgow. O'Neill pointed out after the match that Coleman plays further up the field for Everton. The thing about Coleman is that, and I say this having seen him play since his Sligo days, he's not particularly good at the traditional tasks of full-back play.

In this he mirrors Gareth Bale, who began at full-back and looked as uncomfortable when opponents ran at him as he looked irresistible when surging forward. Coleman is at his best when used as a kind of wing-back with licence to get forward. He is in the Dani Alves and Marcelo mould and can be every bit as exciting.

O'Neill needs to unleash him in Dublin. It may even be worth playing him on the right side of midfield with Marc Wilson, David Meyler or even Christie filling in at right-back. Coleman is important enough for his deployment to require a bit of thought and daring.

O'Neill has already shown his willingness to think outside the box by dropping Robbie Keane. There was a half-hearted attempt to stir up controversy about this after the game but it was telling how little concern there was among supporters. We all love to see Robbie cartwheeling as he puts the latest minnows to the sword but it's a long time since he made a meaningful contribution against top-class opposition. Shane Long has waited long enough to get a proper run up front and you'd hope O'Neill sticks with him for the next two games.

The team still retains the affection of a footballing public who are fed up with the carping of the past few years. But what the Scotland result does is remove any room for error. One more sub-standard display and, in a group as tight as this, it could be curtains. But should O'Neill secure second place from this position he will deserve credit for one of the great coaching performances in Irish sport. It's been said Poland are "not great," but right now they look a bit better than Ireland.

Qualification for a major tournament has never been so vital for an Irish team. Because if the supporters, who have continued to follow the side in numbers which would be the envy of most nations in Europe, have to sit at home in 2016 and watch England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do their thing on the big stage in our absence, it might well be the final straw.

A 24-team European Championships means Ireland have a great chance to qualify. But it also means that there will be no such thing as a gallant failure. In fact anything less than qualification will be the greatest disaster in the history of Irish soccer.

No pressure Martin.


Walsh hurled all out, all the time

In his retirement statement on Thursday Tommy Walsh said, "For the last 13 years I have had the time of my life, lived the dream and have memories that will stay with me forever."

To which the only reply is, "Tommy, we noticed."

Has there ever been a great player who was as much fun to watch as Tommy Walsh? Sure, he was incredibly efficient, his man usually got very little ball and, with the exception of Henry Shefflin, Walsh was the most important player on the greatest team in the history of the GAA.

At his peak, which probably came between 2007 and 2009, he may even have surpassed Shefflin.

But the appeal of Tommy Walsh had to do with more than the simple fact of that prodigious talent which made him good enough to make a huge contribution in a variety of positions. It also had to do with the way he seemed to display the possibilities of hurling as a form of self-expression. When Tommy Walsh got on the ball you knew he'd do something exciting and interesting with it.

There was a flair, a verve and an exuberance to his play which seemed almost gratuitous. He never showboated but he always put on a show. He really did seem like a man who was having the time of his life.

And the Kilkenny crowd fed off that. Walsh electrified them. The buzz you usually only hear when a forward closes in on goal ran through the ranks of the Cats fans every time the Tullaroan man turned things up a notch in the half-back line, usually when a game was in the balance.

During those spells Walsh was invincible, a force of nature propelling his team-mates to heights no other side could approach, let alone match.

At such times I used to think of Slaine, a Celtic warrior character from the great British comic 2000AD, who would erupt into a 'warp spasm' and scatter all opposition to the four winds. Walsh, as he became the only hurler in history to win nine All Stars in a row, had that kind of legendary quality about him.

Slaine sometimes had trouble controlling the 'warp spasm' and I'm sure would have identified with the moment in the 2011 All-Ireland final when Walsh split referee Brian Gavin with a stray pull. It was a moment which also seems a quintessential part of the Walsh legend, and there were plenty of opposition fans who constructed cases for the Kilkenny man's dismissal in big games over the years.

Yet I don't think it was ever fair to describe Walsh as a dirty player. The cliche 'plays close to the edge' is often used as a get-out clause for hatchet men but it genuinely applied to Walsh. Christy Ring, reminiscing about the epochal and occasionally blood-curdling clashes between the great Tipperary and Cork teams of the late 1940s to mid-'50s said, "The only team you can hurl all out against is Tipperary." Tommy Walsh hurled all out. All the time.

It says something about the magic of the GAA that a slightly built five foot ten bank official from a small rural parish in a small county has, for my money, been as compelling a figure over the past decade as anyone in professional sport.

A certain sadness must attend his retirement. Because, though Kilkenny will never have any shortage of great players, you don't see many like Tommy Walsh in a lifetime.

If any player has earned his retirement it's Tommy Walsh. Hopefully when he goes home to relax, Lar Corbett won't be following him around the kitchen.

English eejitry is no longer funny

I was talking to someone last week who'd been at the Scotland-Ireland game.

There was a great atmosphere at the game and between the two sets of fans, he told me, before making the point that some papers had actually hyped up the possibility of ill feeling to such an extent he'd half expected it to be like Windsor Park in 1994.

In the end it was all remarkably good humoured, and it would have been nice if the prophets of doom had admitted their mistake afterwards. The Irish and Scottish fans seem to have a far more healthy attitude towards each other than their respective FAs do.

Not to worry. When you need real ignorance, the English fan is always there to oblige. There was Gary going up to Scotland for a friendly match. And of course nothing would do Gary but to start with his usual . . . eejitry, I think we'll call it. Singing his silly songs backed by a band of saddos and generally annoying people and making a spectacle of himself as usual.

What's wrong with you Gary? Is there any need for this childish xenophobia and all this harping on about war when, to be honest, most of ye don't look in the shape for a walk never mind a war? Do you not know that people from more civilised countries, like Ireland and Scotland, are fed up looking at you by now? The joke, as the man says, isn't funny anymore.

Poor Gary with his UKIP and his union jack and his poppy and his aggression and his drunkenness and his, well, eejitry. What are we ever going to do with him?

Sunday Indo Sport