Wednesday 21 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Still a light to follow on road to Euro 2016

Moment of magic allows Ireland to gain points verdict in scrap with hard-working Georgians

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Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Not quite fires in the sky over Lansdowne then, but the lambent glow of a trembling candle that refuses to extinguish.

The single obligation of the night was duly honoured with one of those victories cut from the plainest of virtues like bloody-mindedness and resilience.

To be fair, the decisive goal was sprinkled with some gold-dust too, Jeff Hendrick's sublime footwork to set up John Walters positively Brazilian in provenance and execution.

And it was enough to keep Ireland on the road to France even if, at times, that road has had the qualities of a mirage. No matter, the team did what it was asked to do.

There is an unknowable quality to it. Not in terms of personality, that's always a given.

Irrespective of management, Irish players can be trusted to have competitive integrity. They will always scrap and battle. Ambivalence isn't in their DNA.

But what is the preferred shape, tempo or philosophy of O'Neill's Ireland? Indeed, do any of the above even exist?

Read more: Eamon Dunphy: It's a poor Germany team and we should be aiming for a win

If so, they are harder to identify than the hole in the ozone. And that's the lingering concern. Late goals by Aiden McGeady, John O'Shea and Shane Long have created the illusion of a team purposefully at the heart of this qualification race when, in reality, our Group D campaign has never quite gathered compelling impetus.

So we had the schizophrenic experience of celebrating a hard-working Georgian team as our friends on Friday night, then seeing in them some kind of treacherous obstacle three days later.


Perhaps that is simply life on the periphery of serious football business, the everyday reality for a team trapped in the cramped space of its own technical limitations. You chase the scraps falling from other tables. You scavenge. You pray.

But it doesn't make for high entertainment and the great swathes of empty seats last night spoke of a public largely unconvinced that even novenas will rescue this campaign from an underwhelming end.

For the players, that has to be deflating.

Read more: Relieved O’Shea switches focus to Germany clash as Ireland march on

They looked anxious from the start, Robbie Brady conceding a needless corner in the third minute by bizarrely attempting to volley a 40-yard cross-field delivery to his fellow full-back Seamus Coleman.

The Georgians were keen and muscular, the urgency in their voices audible above a chorus of general Irish impatience.

So this was a kind of clawing at the windpipe for Ireland. Georgia have no illusions about where they stand in the world game.

Their coach, Kakhaber Tskhadadze, worked the first six months of his tenure without a salary having been appointed on Christmas Day of 2014.

Last night, he paced the technical area in his charcoal suit, endlessly stoking the coals of his team.

On 20 minutes, Guram Kashia went bulldozing into the back of Walters and there was no mistaking the gesture as something more than an effort to win possession.

They were here to scrap, their shaven-headed captain, Jaba Kankava, directing operations from midfield with the authority of a field marshall.

Read more: Steven Reid: Glenn Whelan proves value to team and will be huge loss against Germany

It took Ireland 37 minutes to work the Georgian goalkeeper, a vicious Coleman strike surely stinging Nukri Revishvili's hands.

As the teams strolled off goal-less at half-time, a man on the tannoy - inexplicably - chose to announce the score. It was hard to imagine anyone had been struggling to keep up.

Graft was the only thing oiling the hinges of this game. That and the knowledge that a single goal

In some ways, Robbie Keane's pursuit of Gerd Muller's goal-scoring record did serve to impart a hint of theatre to the night. But O'Neill suspended that storyline by replacing the Irish captain with Shane Long for the second half. This was not a night for sentiment.

Tskhadadze had worried that fatigue might, ultimately, cost his team. After a seven-hour flight on Friday night, the only exertion he permitted his team on Saturday was a gentle stroll up Foster's Avenue.

Read more: 'Well done Roy for putting the pressure on' – Martin O'Neill unhappy with Hodgson comments on Jack Grealish

And, slowly, that became Ireland's most resilient hope. That our guests would tire.

Their high work rate was compressing the field to a degree that Ireland were not comfortable with.

But the Georgian coach's worst fears came to fruition when, having already emptied his bench, he lost another player to injury.

Still, we looked endlessly hurried and squeezed. Twice in a minute Coleman and Glenn Whelan snapped shots straight at the goalkeeper.

Read more: Walters settles nerves as Irish scrape vital win

Revishvili was palpably no mug, then dealing capably with a brace of shots that deflected wickedly to change flight-path.

But we could be sure that Ireland would not down tools and, sure enough, on 68 minutes that wizard's run from Hendrick along the Lansdowne Road end tramline set up Walters for a poacher's finish.

Ireland sought simply to protect then what they now held.

McClean did work the 'keeper again but, on a hard-hat night, one goal was beauty enough.

Irish Independent

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