Wednesday 18 September 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Swiss draw saves Mick's men from deeply unpleasant feeling'

David McGoldrick of Republic of Ireland celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's goal
David McGoldrick of Republic of Ireland celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's goal
Mick McCarthy
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Some waltzes take scant direction from the orchestra pit and this was one of them.

Irish spirit wrote its own, abrasive music in what became a Dublin bullpen, Mick McCarthy punching the air at the end. His men had come to extraordinary life after Switzerland shaped a 74th-minute goal of gorgeous refinement when the rest of the night had demanded only cold resilience.

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The impact of Fabian Schar's goal demands psychological study. Because it triggered something in Ireland that we had little reason to believe was looming.

It coaxed a defiant surge decanting, not just David McGoldrick's equaliser, but - seconds earlier - a Glenn Whelan pile-driver that almost snapped Yann Sommer's crossbar in two.

Until then, this had been a country dance effectively, sometimes linear and one-paced, two teams chugging back and forth through the night as if tugged each way by cables. Other times, frantic and unhinged, yet never conspicuously out of Swiss control.

We've seen worse in the silver bowl, it's true. But given that public Swiss expression of disdain for Ireland's "unpleasant" style beforehand, maybe a defeat here would have felt unbearably personal.

Resilient

Now it's hard to know how resilient a philosophy can be on this kind of night.

Some games have plainer imperatives than others and this one was all about not losing. About holding ground.

A table doesn't lie, but the Group D arithmetic did perpetrate a small white one before kick-off, Ireland in double-digits at the top, their obligations against Gibraltar already completed.

An Ireland win, in other words, would have resulted in the unpardonably rude event of depositing them nine points clear of Vladimir Petkovic's men.

So it didn't happen, but no one felt much pain in the end. These games are seldom fairground rides and, from kick-off, this one had a flintiness, a candour of expression that meant it would be no place for gentle blossoms. Midfield especially was a battlefield, each side essentially deploying a bank of five, albeit with the Swiss giving their outside pair the nuance of wing-back status when opportunity presented itself.

And the visitors were more decorous in possession, but only marginally so. The instinct to be practical - inevitably - prefaced everything.

Manuel Akanji conceded a needless early corner under pressure from Callum Robinson but, thereafter, Ireland looked the more nervous team.

Enda Stevens especially seemed a target of the visitors and the Sheffield United defender was in the Spanish referee's book inside 14 minutes, his high boot catching Kevin Mbabu on the right cheek.

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Just two minutes earlier, good work by Robinson and Jeff Hendrick almost got James McClean in, but the chance fell to the Derry man's right foot. A pity.

Shorn their most creative player - a man who struggles to merit even five-minute cameos these days at Liverpool - the Swiss didn't exactly look a team with the capacity to unlock too many secret doors here. But they had size in their ranks and a willingness to run.

And, as the game evolved, that willingness brought them down corridors that Ireland plainly didn't want them in. A surge by Schar drew an intemperate clip from Whelan that might have merited a booking. Denis Zakaria punched a shot straight at Darren Randolph.

Nothing entirely mesmerising, but momentum building ominously towards the Lansdowne Road end.

Sensing a need for adjustment, McCarthy switched to three at the back, pushing Seamus Coleman forward with Robinson encouraged to play closer to McGoldrick.

It's a jaw-dropping 23 years since he first took this job, instantly disabusing us all of any notion that he favoured Jack Charlton's taste for by-passing midfield with high, arcing deliveries to exhausted steeplejacks up front.

First time round, McCarthy's Ireland were actually prettier and more technical than his predecessor's. But they were also hamstrung by transition.

He did a fine job at a time when stocks of international calibre players with the desire to play for Ireland had thinned appreciably after the Charlton years.

And for a time, the Barnsley man found himself linked immutably to Irish football's most resilient grandee, someone still chasing cheap and even tasteless laughs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Tuesday night. McCarthy probably felt he'd have lost an election to Lucifer around the time of Saipan.

But that story belongs to another lifetime now and McCarthy's career path since has been testament to that fact.

But, on the edge of a Rugby World Cup and with Dublin and Kerry lining up another rumble in the jungle, he has a job on his hands to sell the romance of a Republic of Ireland team striving to reach Euro 2020, a tournament the FAI co-hosts.

In a sense, Irish football feels like two parallel worlds here. The team, honest and endlessly willing, striving to take our minds off a federation's Olympian dysfunction.

Shane Duffy has a physical presence not easily contained and it seemed strange that that early corner, taken by Coleman, was arrowed towards the near post as the big Brighton defender thundered towards the back.

Switzerland's three-goal collapse against Denmark had exposed such a fragility defending crosses, Petkovic might have been forgiven a few sleepless nights at the thought of what Duffy's unique aerial threat might bring. It never materialised here though. Irish deliveries just not finding that granite Derry forehead.

McGoldrick almost played Robinson in on the stroke of half-time, his delivery just carrying too much purchase.

But we still had no real story to write here, the idea slowly germinating that McCarthy might even be settling for what he already held.

Alan Judge replaced Robinson to buttress a struggling midfield and ironic cheers splashed through the stadium when Embolo lost his footing with a chance to score in in the 62nd minute.

But it was a shallow, unconvincing sound, Ireland were looking increasingly hurried and rescued only by a terrific intervention from Judge one minute later when the Swiss looked sure to score.

Soon after, it was Coleman's turn to save the day, but this was growing nervy now. And increasingly fractious.

It looked over then when the technical superiority of the visitors told finally with that beautiful Schar goal, but - in truth - a wild Irish spark was just being lit.

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