Thursday 19 April 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Carey's letter proof that Irish game's issues keep repeating

If there was a football version of 'Reeling in the Years' our inability to keep the ball would feature every time

Republic of Ireland's James McClean celebrates scoring their second goal with Stephen Ward
Picture: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
Republic of Ireland's James McClean celebrates scoring their second goal with Stephen Ward Picture: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

One of the many great things about the Reeling In The Years programme is how brilliantly it illustrates that history repeats itself.

Take any show roughly 15 years apart and there'll be issues around unhappiness at a newly-implemented government policy, some international disaster, emigration, a booming/busting economy and politicians assuring us that things will be fine this time. The music, thankfully, is the only thing that's ever-changing, meaning Mary Black isn't the final voice you hear every 15 years, even though she probably could be.

If there was a Reeling in the Irish Football Years, the theme of an unchosen player would repeat regularly but it's our ability to keep possession, or rather not keep it, that would be ever-present.


On Thursday, it only took about five minutes for that familiar feeling of technical inferiority to dawn upon the Aviva Stadium. It's the one that comes when Ireland play against virtually every team outside of the British Isles or Scandinavia but perhaps because Georgia are ranked more than 100 places below Ireland, that we may have expected better.

There was always the feeling that Ireland would find a way to win but as the visitors shimmied, flicked and deftly created space, this column re-read an old letter between Irish management before an international fixture, which could have been written at virtually any point in Ireland's football history.

"The Continental players are extremely good when they are given plenty of room to work. Therefore it is most important that we cut down the gaps in the centre of the field as much as possible," read the letter, dated November 23, 1955.

"We can do this, by playing all-up and all-back, but remember that either Sheamus Dunne or Noel Cantwell must cover Charlie Hurley when we move upfield. We must try to play quick accurate football with the ball kept on the ground.

"Try to keep the ball moving, by every player running into the open spaces. If there is no one to pass to, then don't be frightened to hold the ball.

"When we are on the defence I would like our wingers to come back well into our half of the field, to pick up the clearances. Above all lads, we must try to use the ball, and ignore the aimless kick, which will get us nowhere. This applies to our goalkeeper Jimmy O'Neill as well. But players must give Jimmy a chance to throw the ball out to them, by moving into open space.

Manchester United and Ireland defender Jackie Carey, pictured before a match in 1947 (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Manchester United and Ireland defender Jackie Carey, pictured before a match in 1947 (Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

"I always consider that a team is playing well when they finish off their own attacking movements, so shoot at every possible opportunity.

"Spain is a good team, but not better than ours, if we play the football we are capable of producing."

There's a certain arrogance about some modern football with its possession percentages and completed passes statistics that allow the idea to develop that today's game has re-invented the wheel. Yet take most of Jackie Carey's thoughts to Arthur Fitzsimons from that letter and they are applicable to what we saw on Thursday night - or even beyond Irish football.

"Don't be frightened to hold on to the ball"; "ignore the aimless kick" and being an option for the goalkeeper are mentioned in the analysis of the vast majority of Ireland performances.

The ideas of closing down space ("all-up and all-back") and retaining possession at pace ("quick accurate football with the ball kept on the ground") could have been written by Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola rather than the 1955 Blackburn manager because, as all great managers say, at its heart, football is a very simple game.

The question for Irish football is why we are still having the same conversation about our ability in possession 61 years later.

Martin O'Neill will point out, correctly to a degree, that his job is to win matches rather than provide flowing, entertaining football, but the notion that these two are mutually exclusive gets to the heart of the problem.

Roy Keane, as he has done before, suggested last week that Ireland haven't been good on the ball for decades. He urged players to be braver in possession but that philosophy has to be backed up by actions from the management team.

If Stephen Ward, for example, takes a touch and clips it up the line - a skill that can get you a surprisingly long way in British and Irish football - there should be questions asked as to why he didn't look for a shorter pass. If nobody gave him the option of a shorter pass, the questions should be asked of his team-mates as to why not.

Because in an environment where educated risk isn't encouraged, talking about players being braver is simply lip-service without the actions to back it up.


Tony Adams tells a story about Arsene Wenger's arrival at Arsenal that he didn't demand players suddenly stop hoofing the ball but just encouraged them to play and trusted them enough not to stop them when they did.

Adams and Steve Bould are two of the more successful examples of players who, it turned out, could keep possession once facilitated to do so which, after all, is the manager's job.

Nobody is suggesting that O'Neill tries to make Ireland into something that they are not but the question is whether he is making them into everything that they could be - and there's a difference between the two.

The philosophy of hard work, running and bravery won't change in Irish football but that should be a foundation rather than a standard and, ultimately, the desire be more than that comes from the management team.

As Trapattoni did, O'Neill may wonder what all the fuss is about once Ireland keep getting good results and qualifying for major tournaments which Fitzsimons, Carey and many others failed to do for several decades.

The rest of us can only hope that the Reeling in the Football Years cycle will be broken and a letter suggesting Irish players pass the ball to a team-mate, written in 1955 will, one day, feel out-dated.

Irish Independent

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