Saturday 21 September 2019

'If Ireland come to defend, they will have a tough time'

An ageing squad and a lack of ambition could make life very difficult for Ireland, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

A fter decades of exhaustive research, Ireland found the perfect way to fail in Paris last November. A game which they were contriving to lose anyway was stolen from them by Thierry Henry's handball and a nation found its outraged voice again

The manner of defeat allowed Ireland to wallow in its endless misery. Players may still be asked if they have recovered from the result and one day we might all forget it, but not yet.

Between Ireland's squandered chances and Henry, Ireland blew a great chance to qualify for a tournament.

The World Cup proved that Italy and France were not fading, but gone and that an approach that had married some adventure to Giovanni Trapattoni's excellent organisation should have seen one or other defeated.

Ireland, it must be remembered, also failed to beat Montenegro and took six points off Cyprus by the narrowest of margins, although that may be seen as an improvement, so there are few reasons to be hopeful for this group.

Russia under Dick Advocaat are not Russia under Guus Hiddink but Slovakia discovered some vibrancy in the World Cup when they defeated Italy and they have a talented squad that could cause Ireland some problems.

Ireland's opening is, in some ways, daunting as they are never impressive on the road. While Andorra will be no test, except for those trying to fill Lansdowne Road, away journeys to Zilina -- where Chelsea will play a couple of weeks before -- and Yerevan will be much tougher.

The FAI were unimpressed by the manner in which the Slovakians moved the game from Bratislava at the last moment, something that is allowed under UEFA regulations.

But there can't be too much carping in Abbotstown. Ireland benefited in the last campaign from FIFA's decision to move the game out of Georgia. Ireland lobbied for the switch to neutral territory but ultimately they failed to take advantage of this and many other breaks. There is no point being pragmatic if you don't get your minimum requirements. You might as well be romantic then.

There was nothing romantic about the football played for most of Trapattoni's campaign, but there was nothing particularly successful either. Ireland should have beaten Bulgaria and Italy in Dublin and got three points in Sofia

When Ireland abandoned pragmatism in Paris, they showed that there is nothing to be afraid of in international football. Unfortunately, Trapattoni is likely to begin this campaign with the idea there is something to fear.

The unknown is all Ireland should fear from Armenia. In their last European Championship campaign, Armenia, under the late Ian Porterfield, made real progress. As well as a victory in Yerevan against Poland, they held a Portuguese side that included Ronaldo and Serbia to a draw. "We should have knocked ten past them," recalls Tom Jones, who was Porterfield's assistant before taking over the job himself as caretaker following Porterfield's sad death.

Armenia were a team that played with verve and hunger and jumped from 113 in the FIFA rankings to 78. Currently they are 96th.

Vardan Minaysyan is now their manager, having held the post with varying degrees of security before. Close observers wonder if he is the right man to lead Armenia forward after their series of good results.

Without star players, Armenia's success had come from well-drilled sides, knowing what they had to do after methodical hours spent on the training ground. Minaysyan is more impulsive and the feeling among some is that his more spontaneous approach is not what the national side needs.

"I would hope that Vardan carries on where we left off," Jones says. "We changed the system from sitting back on the edge of our own box and waiting for something to happen. We put in some players from the under 21 squad and that changed the mindset of the team. We pressed higher up the pitch and wouldn't let teams come across the half-way line unopposed."

Since Jones left, Jan Poulsen has been in charge and Armenia retained their defensive solidity but never came close to matching the results until Belgium, with an experimental side, arrived in Yerevan. "I think they were very disappointing in the last campaign and I think they've had a poor run of results," Jones says. "I wouldn't say it's a massively intimidating place but if the team start well and the supporters get behind them, then, like anywhere, it can be difficult."

While twins Arman Karamyan and Artavazd Karamyan play for Steaua Bucharest, most of the squad play with the eight sides that make up the Armenian league.

He thinks there is nothing to fear for Ireland but warns against a cautious approach.

"If Ireland decide to come and defend, then I think they could be in for a tough time. Armenia have pace in their side but what they lack is a goalscorer. It could be a tough game, if that's the approach Ireland take."

In Robbie Keane, Ireland have, at the very least, a goalscorer who thrives on trips to places like Yerevan. Keane is, once again, facing upheaval at club level but he has become used to that and it hasn't deflected him internationally.

Despite his goals and his hundred caps, he has always been a frustrating player in a green shirt but his performance in Paris was, arguably, his finest at international level. Perhaps as he loses some pace with age, he will also lose the jerks and starts that have given his game an unnecessarily hyperactive edge.

Ireland will be dependent on Keane and Kevin Doyle in this campaign unless there is the sudden, unexpected and miraculous arrival of an unknown talent.

For the time being, Trapattoni has to draft players like Cillian Sheridan into the squad. It was unfair to judge Sheridan on the basis of the game against Argentina as he had played for the under 21s the night before. He is a player who will appeal to Trapattoni as Caleb Folan did before him because of his physical presence.

This is Trapattoni's way. The midfield is a desert as he robs it of all creativity. Keith Fahey is a player who deserves to play, and with Liam Lawrence injured and Aiden McGeady short of match practice, he should get his cahnce in Yerevan. But Paul Green, who has arrived with honesty, honesty and then more honesty, will be selected more often.

These are admirable values and Trapattoni's desire to win may finally transfer to his squad who still make too many avoidable mistakes.

He returned to Milan following his spell in hospital but few expect him to rest. As he left the hospital, he was full of ideas and orders and he is said to have been on the phone constantly since he returned.

He is a man whose enthusiasm deserves a reward in a country that is desperate for football heroes. If he could believe in the heroic capability of this team -- or if some of them could demonstrate it a bit more -- then there would be a greater chance of adulation.

The squad may be settled but there is very little to excite about it. The generation that came through Brian Kerr's underage sides will all be over 30 by the time this campaign ends. They have lived life's disappointments on a football field. Damien Duff still excites for Fulham and Keane can have moments of brilliance. Right now, they are all Ireland has got.

Some have aged with achieving much wisdom while others like Richard Dunne have become leaders. But the wispy promise and fantasy of youth has calcified into something harder, more real and, as an unavoidable consequence, more disappointing.

Sunday Independent

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