Monday 20 November 2017

Coleman loss the turning point of campaign

But absent skipper is just one of a number of reasons behind failure to build on strong start

Seamus Coleman arrives at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night, however, his presence has been missed on the field. Photo: DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Seamus Coleman arrives at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night, however, his presence has been missed on the field. Photo: DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It was Martin O'Neill who brought Seamus Coleman's name into discussion late on Tuesday night. His presence around the Ireland camp in the build-up to the loss to Serbia had apparently lifted the troops.

But it also reminded management what they were missing. In O'Neill's view, the Donegal man is a 'world-class' right-back and his absence was keenly felt in the double-header that has left Ireland requiring a perfect finish and a few favours to make a World Cup play-off.

Cyrus Christie is trying his best to fill big shoes. Unfortunately, he had a role in both of the goals that Ireland conceded in the past week.

And while the Middlesbrough recruit bombs forward with intent, he just lacks the quality and composure of Killybegs' finest. He's never lined out at Premier League level and is still learning the game so it's unfair to expect him to slot in seamlessly.

Ireland are always going to miss a player with Coleman's ability.

Therefore, it's easy to highlight the turning point of a campaign that was going swimmingly last November when James McClean nabbed a winner in a controlled second-half display in Vienna.

Wales were on the ropes when they came to Dublin in March and neither side had impressed very much in a derby-style affair when Neil Taylor's lunge on Coleman had devastating consequences.

That game had draw written all over it and it still left Ireland in a strong position with the top seeds at arm's length. What followed next was flaccid displays against Austria and Georgia that were only enlivened by second-half rallies.

Coleman had dragged Ireland over the line against Georgia in the Aviva meeting but similar leadership was lacking in Tbilisi. That turned Tuesday into a high-pressure match and Ireland couldn't afford to have one of those nights where the performance didn't necessarily get the result it deserved.

After gaining undeserved results along the way, it's hard to argue with Ireland's current third-placed position in the group on the overall strength of their performances. With a fit Coleman all the way through, it's a not stretch to suggest they would be in a better place. But it's not the only reason why the Russian bandwagon has derailed...

Hoolahan absence

There are people out there who believe his importance is overstated but it's not what Wes Hoolahan does in isolation. It's what he does for the players around him.

Hoolahan started last autumn's victories over Moldova and Austria, with his creativity setting up McClean's winner in Austria.

Since then, the playmaker has been involved in 80 minutes out of a possible 360. He missed the Welsh match with a setback, which was unfortunate.

He was then benched until the final 20 minutes against Austria where Ireland mounted a comeback although the leveller was the very definition of route one.

The 35-year-old then sat out the entirety of the Tbilisi affair before coming in for an hour on Tuesday. O'Neill says a tight groin was troubling him. Ireland could have done with him when Serbia were down a body.

Ireland don't have another player like Hoolahan and that's why the banging of the drum is justified when a team is sent into battle without him. His central role in all of the big performances in the past two campaigns is not a coincidence.

Growing pains

Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were expected to take centre stage after starring at Euro 2016. They have struggled to cope with the responsibility, and their Irish performances have been erratic since France. That said, Hendrick's availability would have helped out over the past week and Brady will always be selected when available because of the threat he possesses.

What is notable, though, is that both players have toiled when selected in an advanced role - Hendrick v Austria and Brady v Georgia - and actually seemed quite unsure of themselves.

Hoolahan's comfort in that position is striking by comparison; it comes naturally to him. Perhaps Brady and Hendrick need a little more direction; and the chopping and changing of sides and their versatility has stunted their progress.

Striking woes

Shane Long has not had a good year with Southampton and he has failed to ignite in a green shirt too. Despite that, O'Neill left him on the pitch for every minute of the September double-header. Jon Walters was carrying a knock and also put in the full shift.

Neither player looked especially sharp in the dying stages of Tuesday's match but there were no alternatives in that position on the bench once Daryl Murphy was introduced for Hoolahan.

David McGoldrick missed out for personal reasons while Kevin Doyle was cut from the long list. Sean Maguire is in form at Preston. It took until June for O'Neill to go and see Maguire in the flesh this year and realise the extent of his improvement that earned him a move to the Championship.

Scott Hogan, meanwhile, was slow to commit to Ireland for his own reasons. If Hogan and Maguire had been around the squad before now, they might been considered as viable options.

After all, O'Neill did throw the relatively inexperienced - in an Irish context - Conor Hourihane in for the final 12 minutes on Tuesday in a different position.

A goal-poaching striker with the ability to anticipate flicks from any combination of the imposing attackers would have added something.

Poor game management

Wales were down to ten men for the final 15 minutes in Dublin. Serbia were in the same position for 22 minutes plus injury time on Tuesday and were practically operating with nine at the end.

Ireland were blunt when presented with that situation; they might miss Coleman but they still had 11 men on the park. The decision making was chronically poor with players trying to force things instead of coherently seizing the lifeline that had been given to them.

They didn't look prepared for that scenario and the frantic nature of the dying stages of every qualifier in 2017 is telling. Things have happened by accident rather than design.

Age profile

This ties in with the previous point. Maybe it's just a simple case that time has caught up with this squad across the group.

O'Neill now concedes Glenn Whelan didn't have the legs for the two games; he was sluggish in the heat of Tbilisi.

David Meyler has his limitations but Ireland's battery power was stronger when he was on the park on Tuesday.

Hoolahan is a veteran, but his fitness levels are underestimated. But the legs of McClean and Brady in the middle next to Meyler gave Ireland a real spark.

Whelan brought experience but at this stage it's possible that Ireland just need a fresher face in that position. It's a young man's job.

James McCarthy's best international displays have come when he has taken over that brief from Whelan.

All of the aforementioned attackers are in their thirties too. If Ireland are to operate at a higher tempo, they need a sprinkling of low-mileage options. O'Neill has tried to promote Callum O'Dowda, a player who cannot get a prolonged run of games at Bristol City. This is one area where the manager has an excuse. He can only work with the players that are available to him.

Ireland have underperformed in a number of fixtures and the first half on Tuesday backed that up by showing what this group are capable of doing.

If next month ends badly, the finger-pointing should go beyond the manager and encourage debate on the player development skills of the national association. A marquee managerial appointment may only be a short-term fix.

Irish Independent

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