Saturday 24 February 2018

Brian Kerr: Ireland need an injection of guile from Hoolahan

Crafty midfielder can provide spark O’Neill desperately needs to turn things around

Wes Hoolahan in training yesterday and he is pushing for a starting place tonight. Photo: Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan in training yesterday and he is pushing for a starting place tonight. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

It was breathless stuff at times. The passion consuming spectators and participants alike. Bravery when in possession and courageous when not.

A typical snapshot is when a diminutive midfielder plays a one-two and busts through a scrum of tacklers before settling himself to score. The crowd roar their appreciation.

This is not the Aviva Stadium but Croke Park; Waterford's number eight Jamie Barron just one of a number of sporting heroes displaying the gifts of their craft and combining it with strength, courage and creativity.

This was truly a representation of all the Irish character traits that the GAA community admire. What does the Irish soccer team represent at the moment? It is difficult to say.

As I eagerly approached my seat on Sunday, I was assailed by voices from Ballinasloe to Ballysaggart - and all points in between - who colourfully wondered if I had been watching what had unfolded in Tbilisi.

Despite not being part of the international scene for well over a decade now, it seemed as I was somehow viewed as a sympathetic apologist for my sport.

But these weren't all exclusively GAA people; they seemed to demonstrate the prevailing mood that has yet again enveloped the nation in the wake of another utterly underwhelming performance.

The GAA's identity sets them apart but what is the identity of the Irish soccer team? Even the manager seems uncertain in his attempts to catch the national mood.

It seemed like we had re-discovered it during those brief, wonderful days in France two summers ago when Martin O'Neill's men performed with a joy, expression and style that wasn't exclusive to getting performances and results.

Ireland had forged its personality. What has happened since? Those days seem like a fleeting memory now. Once again, there is a danger that this team may snap the connection with their supporters that was briefly re-established for a glorious few days at the Euros.

The heavy defeat by Belgium had dampened morale and prompted a necessary response and Ireland need something similar now; they have less time in which to implement it now and the recent evidence suggests they may struggle to do so.

The heavy criticism has been justified and Ireland need to be much better against an improving Serbian outfit who are substantially superior to the Georgian team that out-played us last Saturday.

It is said a team reflects the character of its manager. Ireland are managed by two very intelligent people but there is little or no intelligence in how the team performs.

Smart

O'Neill and Roy Keane were at clubs who won European Cups led by smart managers who recognised the values of being effective in and out of possession, the need to be compact in defence but also to use the ball intelligently. And yes, of course, to sometimes play it long if required.

These principles, so briefly unveiled two summers ago, have now seemingly been wantonly abandoned.

Latterly, there has been no discernible pattern, bar allowing the goalkeeper to kick it as far as possible, hoping for the best in terms of winning a header and then picking up the ball.

There is no intent. It is just hoping for the best. Ireland cannot command a game when in front and seem more comfortable chasing a losing cause.

The conundrum is that the manager can point with satisfaction to an unbeaten sequence of results.

If there has been a common theme, it is the side's unwillingness to keep possession; I refuse to believe they are unable to do so. And I would be surprised if Keane is satisfied with this situation.

Instead, our plan seems to be run hard, work hard, kick it long, fight hard, win a set-piece and unsettle the opposition. Is that it?

Even with the Faroe Islands, I tried as much as possible to get our lads to become more comfortable in possession; otherwise, I knew we'd be completely dominated, the other team would get more chances and free-kicks as our players tired.

You expect countries like Luxembourg to struggle in possession and do what they can to get an amazing result against France. It's the best they can do. But that shouldn't be the aspiration for a country like ours with extraordinarily well-resourced management set-ups and a much higher calibre of player.

Already, Ireland are trying to play this underdog tag ahead of this evening but Serbia have also been a fourth seed lately; this is not Spain we are talking about. After two successive games where Ireland could have assumed control of this group, that confidence has receded.

They need to regain the initiative and to do that they must retain the ball.

Serbia will be better prepared for the long-ball stuff that troubled them at times in Belgrade, although they can deal with the rough and tumble. Long balls can be fruitful, especially down the channels against a side who will deploy wing-backs. There is no problem with mixing it up.

I was happy to have a big man up front at times but it can't be the only game in the old town tonight.

Ireland's problem has been a lack of variety. If Serbia push back expecting long balls, that should give our midfield space to play but they must have the intention to do so. You need to challenge teams in different ways. Get to the end-line and cross from there.

For sure, Ireland need the familiar Irish traits of aggression and competitiveness but it is foolhardy to discard the notion that you can also control the tempo of play and pick the right pass when required.

The manager may opt to replace Stephen Ward for Robbie Brady but there are dwindling options at midfield which brings us back to Wes Hoolahan - if fit.

For me, it's less about whether I think he should play but what are the manager's reasons for not doing so? Was he being held back last Saturday for this one? Is he worried about Serbia's physicality and height? Is he worried Wes might try to be too clever and lose the ball?

Still, it is undeniable that his ability to see a pass and control the momentum of the game are assets we didn't have on Saturday; he alone cannot dictate a change in mindset, though.

The other players should have the bravery and courage to try to keep the ball regardless of what they may or may not have been told by their manager.

Serbia were comfortable against Moldova and their main threats came down either flanks with wing-backs Mijat Gacinovic and Aleksandar Kolarov playing like auxiliary wingers.

Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic will seek to control the midfield as Nemanja Gudelj and Milivojevic did for large spells in Belgrade.

To survive in that area, and get some control and freshness, I would like to see Martin go with a trio of Harry Arter, David Meyler and Hoolahan, now that his options are so limited.

It might be a physical mis-match but Hoolahan and Meyler should press the Serbian midfielders to prevent us being on the back foot.

Arter, although he struggled on Saturday, could play a role in protecting the back four while starting the play as he does at club level. This would give us some energy allied to Hoolahan's guile.

While a good case for Aiden McGeady could be made, the necessity for defensive awareness obligates the retention of Jonathan Walters and James McClean. We also need to press the full-backs and dictate the terms of engagement.

The manager could plump for Daryl Murphy in the centre at Shane Long's expense but whoever plays they all must have clear ideas of their roles. It remains to be seen if there has been enough time and inclination to do this.

Although the tone and the flavour of the group has changed considerably since Saturday's result, it is still possible to turn the tide again.

Ireland must demonstrate an intent and willingness to make something happen. Let's hope they can.

Irish Independent

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