Sunday 17 November 2019

Comment: Any sense of joy utterly extinguished in limp from chaos to stasis

Republic of Ireland's Cyrus Christie. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Cyrus Christie. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

From unremitting chaos off the field to unrepentant stasis on it.

Progress, as this night was claimed by its authors, would almost make one long for the genuine days of austerity.

It seemed jarringly apt that a listless, artless occasion would conclude on a note of insipid simulation for this entire evening was an exercise in deception.

This was a quite selfish and slavish devotion to self-preservation, the mediocre means to an end result which ensured the management will remain slightly more secure in their jobs.

Not that we should forget that it was their incompetence which brought them to this point in the first place.

But we are in a "re-building" process, undertaken by a head coach who as recently as January didn't seem like he wanted to be building anything here, and an assistant who still casts envious eyes at a club game which may have forever turned its back on him.

And still the Irish soccer supporters are expected to be worthy of their commitment.

Perhaps if evenings like Saturday are the outcome, even unconditional support may begin to waver; the thousands of empty seats and unused free tickets are already pointing that way.

Without any sense of even a sliver of delight to anticipate from their national team, why would they bother? It could be a long road.

"Ireland's play is primitive but you can survive very long being primitive," Denmark's Thomas Delaney tells us and it is hard to discern whether his words are a thinly-concealed compliment or a portentous warning of even more gloom.

"They make it very difficult for us. And yet they suddenly out of nowhere get a big chance."

This remains O'Neill's approach, five years on from beginning this job, and 28 years from his first. It has always been so and will ever be so. Unless someone shouts stop. But nobody can.

"Normally if you have the ball a lot of the time you have a better chance of winning," says Danish boss Age Hareide, before offering a withering barb.

"Not many teams win championships by not having the ball. Sometimes, many, many years ago it happened in England."

Ireland declared their aspiration was to win but their words were utterly undermined by their actions. Intentions reveal ambition; Ireland offered precious little.

Which is why the honest Cyrus Christie, a player who until this point had never operated in a central midfield role as a pro, was suddenly thrust into that position for the first time since celebrating his 14th birthday, while three eminently passable imitations remained rooted to the bench.

Jeff Hendrick, shoehorned into an uncomfortable position behind Shane Long, struggled.

James McClean and Matt Doherty, two of Ireland's genuinely pacey and persistent potential attackers on the flanks, were straitjacketed by a commitment to hold a stern defensive line.

Harry Arter floundered in a midfield role to which he is also, like Hendrick, palpably unsuited. Only Callum O'Dowda seemed capable of finding expression within a role that suited him, were it not for the fact that he was surrounded by a coterie of players who weren't.

Approach

Christie only discovered his novel positioning when he arrived at the ground; is there any other professional enterprise, in any other sport, which would admit to such a loose approach to preparation?

O'Neill declared before the game that Ireland would be on the front foot but, with the two wing-backs joining their central defensive three in a rigid line close to goal, they did nothing of the sort.

Passing intentions were literally so; pressing intentions were minimal.

With the back five rigorously unmoved, McClean admitted that when Denmark switched the play, the Derry man didn't know whether to stay or go. At times, Long would push but Hendrick wouldn't join him, or vice versa.

With the defenders slow to come out, the midfield also lagged, fearful of leaving a gap. It was easy for Denmark to shift it from side to side, exploiting McClean's stated indecision.

Ireland were unable, or unwilling, to gamble. The stakes were simply too high; not just for them, but for a management which had placed them in this invidious position.

Only the introduction of Callum Robinson sparked genuine verve from the listless crowd as well as his tiring team-mates.

He was able to attach himself to Long in a way Hendrick could not; but the spurt of energy couldn't be sustained, primarily due to the fatigue engendered by the ceaseless defending.

Like the management they play for, undone by a lack of real ambition and intention, merely the desire to cling on, in a desperate quest to revive former glory.

Some might say the Ireland manager doesn't have any international players. Others might say Ireland's players don't have an international manager.

Irish Independent

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