Saturday 18 November 2017

Brian Kerr: Lack of middle class a worry as Irish seek to end hoodoo

If it is going to be a good night in Vienna then we need Hendrick to stand out and Hoolahan on from the start

Jeff Hendrick goes through his stretching routine at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. Photo: Sportsfile
Jeff Hendrick goes through his stretching routine at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

This was where it began. I open the front door, hang a left and race down the street, anxious to catch the next available bus.

Ten years old and football-mad. On my own travelling across town. Yet there is nothing odd about this. Not in 1963. Dublin seemed a lot smaller and a lot safer back then. So I hop onto the No 22, climb the stairs to the upper deck to get a better view of the city as the bus meanders its way up through Drimnagh and then through town, passing by Parnell Square before reaching Phibsboro, where I get off.

Thousands are there before me and for 40 minutes we crowd into that narrow little laneway that runs in behind the houses at the back of Dalymount Park, waiting for the gate to open.

And all the while the anticipation builds. It is the second leg of the European Championships - the round of 16 game between Ireland and Austria. Scoreless after the first leg, we all know what a victory would bring - Spain and a European quarter-final.

It was my first ever international match and until then all I knew about Ireland's stellar players - Charlie Hurley and Noel Cantwell - was from what I had read in newspapers or magazines.

There was no TV in our house then. 'Match of the Day' was a year away from starting - so aside from brief images of Pathé News footage flashing across cinema screens - I'd never got to see Cantwell, Hurley or any of these heroes in the flesh.

Hence why I was early. Knowing there'd be a huge crowd, I had to find my usual spot, down near the corner flag, by the shopping centre end of the ground, where - if you got lucky - you could get a decent view of the game.

Innocence

Yet there was a problem. The crowd swelled. Officially they said there was 40,000 at the game but there may well have been more. So, when the game entered the melting pot - Rudi Flogel cancelling out Andy Fogarty's lead goal - I made the only decision that a ten-year-old could.

Around the pitch stood a wired fence that was meant to serve as a barrier between the spectators and the playing area. Yet where I was positioned, there is a huge hole in the wire. And remember this is October 1963 and an innocence prevails. These are my heroes and this is the first time Ireland has the chance to reach the last eight of a major tournament.

So we win a penalty. And it's Cantwell - a player I am fascinated by- who steps up to take it. There's about seven minutes left. Austria, the team who nine years earlier reached the World Cup semi-finals, and who were regarded as a European powerhouse, look set to be knocked out.

And along with dozens of other boys my age - we climb up through the wire and walk onto the pitch, forming an arc in between the sideline and the penalty box, where we can get a better view of whether Cantwell will stick it away. He does, smacking it into the net. And we scarper off the field before someone tells us to. Ireland hold out for a 3-2 win and little do I think then that we won't beat them again within the next 53 years or that in November 2016, I'll be arriving in Vienna the day before a World Cup qualifier wishing there was another Noel Cantwell or Charlie Hurley around to give us a dig out.

Let's be straight here, we're struggling.

Stephen Ward, James McCarthy and Shane Long - three definite starters - are gone. As are Daryl Murphy, Stephen Quinn and Eunan O'Kane, three players who have been brought off the bench in the qualifying games to date - Murphy to devastating effect in Belgrade.

And no matter how you look at that issue, it is a clear negative because the substitutions have worked well for us in the matches to date - Murphy scoring the late equaliser against Serbia, a game Quinn also made an impact in. Before then, and before them, James McClean was the go-to guy when Martin O'Neill needed a change. Now he's trusted to make an impact from the start.

Will that trust be extended to Harry Arter, though?

You imagine it will - because not only has his form been decent for Bournemouth this season but there are holes left to fill. Ward's absence requires Robbie Brady to relocate to left-back, while McCarthy's injury ensures that two-thirds of the central midfield combination that played so well in the summer against Italy and France are now unable to patrol this crucial part of the field.

Yet while that is undeniably a negative, Arter's availability - injury kept him out of the October double-header - could well be a significant plus. We haven't seen much of him in a green shirt - he did play well against Oman, although let's be honest, I could have held my own in that game - and before then he delivered a promising display against the Dutch in the pre-Euros friendly.

So this is a huge opportunity for him. And one I expect him to be good enough to take, given that his credentials appear suited to the international game.

Yet this was what we thought of Jeff Hendrick during the summer. Along with McCarthy and Brady, and assisted by McClean on the left, they appeared to be part of the new wave - an Irish midfield populated by men who were capable of getting hold of the ball and retaining it.

Revolution

Yet since this World Cup qualification campaign began, the hoped-for revolution hasn't materialised. To start with, McCarthy was injured in Serbia, while Brady and Hendrick didn't make it to Chisinau.

Worse again, the bravery we saw from them in possession in Lyon and Lille, when they took defenders on and supported the front men, wasn't visible in Serbia. Too much long-ball stuff was on show that night and then against Georgia we didn't get a hold of it in the middle at all.

By now this new-look midfield - filled with young, hungry, inventive, dynamic players - was looking rather similar to the old-look midfield, where we survived off scraps and always seemed to be engaged in a battle.

No surprise then that things improved when Wes Hoolahan was handed an opportunity against Moldova. In our best performance in the campaign to date - albeit against the weakest of the six Group D teams - Wes set the tone, creating the early goal for Long, before he was involved in the build-up to the second and third goals as well. Surely then he has to start this evening? Without McCarthy and Brady, and with Glenn Whelan and Arter providing solidity in the middle, Hoolahan offers a creative edge.

Certainly he could offer Hendrick an idea of what cuteness is all about - for whereas Hoolahan always seems to find time and space on the pitch, Hendrick has been frankly disappointing for both club and country since the Euros.

He played well out there - especially in the Italian and French games - but while he has admirable qualities in terms of his physique and energy levels, he has yet to develop that tactical instinct and positional awareness to be in the right place at the right time.

Instead he always appears to be arriving at the scene just that split second too late - reacting to events rather than initiating them - the exception being in Belgrade when he scored, via a deflection, against the Serbs. Is he going to develop into a real Premier League player and a quality international?

He has a bit of a distance to go before we can say that and the same assessment can be made of Shane Duffy, who was badly at fault for the goal in Moldova, and who always appears to be on the edge of a mistake.

During the round of 16 game against France, he was badly exposed when he crashed into Richard Keogh, allowing Antoine Griezmann to seize possession and score.

A few minutes later he was sent off in that game; a few games later he was making another mistake in Chisinau which cost a goal. Yet while he is doing well for Brighton, I still feel Keogh has been desperately unlucky to lose his place and deserves another chance.

And so for that matter - once he recovers from injury - does Rob Elliot. For while Darren Randolph has made plenty of impressive saves in Ireland's key matches over the last 12 months, his club inactivity has resulted in rustiness. Errors with his distribution, combined with mistimed punches and a lack of presence when Igor Bugaev raced through to score Moldova's equaliser in last month's qualifier, has forced me to believe that with Randolph, Duffy and Ciaran Clark forming our last line of defence, the possibility of an error is never far away.

However, on the plus side, Seamus Coleman has been outstanding in recent games. On the opposite side of the field, McClean has also performed impressively since he secured a starting place, and his two goals in the Moldovan match highlighted how he has moved up a level. Plus there is Wes. So there is hope.

The Austrians, meanwhile, are under pressure and will probably be out of the reckoning if they lose this evening. And yet their supposed crisis is a little misleading.

In qualification for the Euros, they won nine and drew one of their 10 matches, recording victories away to Sweden, Montenegro and Russia, and while their experience in France was somewhat underwhelming, some context to their defeats is required. Against both Hungary and Iceland, they dominated possession but missed chances before getting caught on the counter-attack. Against Portugal, the eventual champions, they drew.

Since then they outplayed the Welsh but yet again coughed up a couple of cheap goals - before being outscored by a re-energised and confident Serbian team in Belgrade.

So it is far from a disgrace to lose in Belgrade, which would make me dismiss the idea Austria are in trouble coming into this game. Across their team are good players - David Alaba being their key man, ably supported by Marko Arnautovic and Marcel Sabitzer, their wide players. Marc Janko, their imposing centre-forward, may be getting on a bit - but he has still managed 28 goals in 53 internationals. He has to be respected. As do his team.

A draw here will be a good result.

Irish Independent

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