Friday 14 December 2018

Comment: Betrayal of generations of young Irish footballers at heart of play-off agony

Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy are down and out after Tuesday’s humiliating defeat. Photo: Sportsfile
Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy are down and out after Tuesday’s humiliating defeat. Photo: Sportsfile

James Lawton

Anger, shock and derision … they were predictable companions on the streets of Ireland yesterday after Christian Eriksen and his Danish team-mates didn't so much drive the Boys in Green off the road to Russia 2018 as consign them to a different, inferior planet.

But there should have been sadness, too, and it ought to have gone bone deep.

It should have run beyond the fact of a catastrophic meltdown in the tactical brain of the normally hard-headed Martin O'Neill, one which instead of tightening resistance to the sublime Eriksen had the effect of a blazing green traffic light.

This was because the real crime was not a series of sluggish, ill-conceived strides at the gates of Ireland's first World Cup finals in 16 years but a long betrayal.

Betrayal of generations of young Irish footballers since the days when players like Roy Keane and Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan showed they could live in competition with some of the best in the world.

We are talking - as they are this week in one of the world's greatest football nations, Italy - of the betrayal of neglect. Of an absence of care and encouragement in the development of players capable of doing proper justice to their national colours.

Whatever the shortcomings of O'Neill's game-plan once the scale of Eriksen's performance announced itself, there was never a question about where the great divide lay.

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It was out on the field from the moment Shane Duffy's early goal was swiped away as though it was the bizarre arrival of an irksome fly on an elegant dining table.

The Danes played a different, utterly superior game. And it was so plainly within their resources.

The Swedes never created that kind of divide in Milan the night before but they did more than enough to play merciless light on the decline of a football culture which with four World Cup triumphs is, with Germany's, second only to Brazil.

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Gianluigi Buffon waves goodbye to international football after Italy's World Cup hopes were ended by play-off defeat to Sweden following a 0-0 second leg draw. Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Thirty-nine-year-old hero goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon wept copiously and said that he felt sorry not only for himself and his team-mates but the whole country.

He was anticipating morning headlines which said "Apocalypse" and "The end of the World."

What Italy and the potentially over-achieving Ireland had in common was the unavoidable sense that the quality of their players had simply not met requirements. And how could they in all reality?

Italy's last significant midfield player Andrea Pirlo luxuriates in retirement in New York while Serie A is increasingly stocked with foreign players. There is not a hint of a new Pirlo, an emerging master of subtle midfield skills.

That is hardly surprising in a league stocked with foreigners, where the reigning champions Juventus have a dwindling number of veteran Italian defenders - Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli - and star roles go to Argentinians like Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.

It is not that far from the plight of O'Neill picking and choosing from his fringe Premier League men and Championship players. And what kind of player does Ireland, without the glimmer of an infant prodigy on the horizon, yearn to see replaced from current resources?

Can it really be the admittedly talented but 35-year-old Wes Hoolahan, who has spent his career in the margins of the big time and in nine years has played just 40 games for Ireland and scored three goals.

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Dublin , Ireland - 14 November 2017; Wes Hoolahan of Republic of Ireland following the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

One of Hoolahan's thinner international periods came during the regime of Giovanni Trapattoni, who had Brady as his assistant, a fact which has understandably raised eyebrows when the latter has called for the regular inclusion of the man from Norwich City.

On Tuesday night, it was inevitably O'Neill in the dock but there were other, deeper-dyed culprits, and the nature of the defeat by Denmark offered no hiding places. It wasn't just a heavy, humiliating defeat; it was an undressing, a laying bare.

The FAI, while perusing its bank balance, have never had a more pressing need to examine itself, its purpose outside looking at harsh financial realities.

International football is awash with money, of course. Television money, sponsorship money, money to burn.

Never can there have been in the case of Irish football a more urgent demand on its most vital use. There has to be a new level of dynamism in the youth system.

Eighteen months ago, high performance director Ruud Dokter was three years into his appointment and still talking about the need to allow young players to develop comfortably in their home environments.

There was no hint of an urgent need for some form of elitism, some of the intensity that has marked generations of brilliant young German players after the embarrassment of finishing bottom of their group in the 2000 European Championship, four years after winning the trophy and two years before reaching the World Cup final in Japan.

Now that Ireland have suffered a disastrous fate in one of their most important games, in front of their own people, there has to be wonder at the fact that a country like Belgium, although with a bigger population than Ireland, can produce world-class players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in the framework of a team with the highest of legitimate ambition.

Dokter spoke of the need to develop all players in Ireland and not just in Dublin. "In rural counties there are big players but we have to provide facilities in which they can play so a young lad doesn't have to travel from Donegal to Dublin. That's crazy, isn't it?"

Maybe, maybe not, at least not if the boy is being given access to a new level of challenge for which he plainly has the ability - and the relish.

One point, at least, was beyond question at the Aviva Stadium this week. Ireland may not be Belgium, or still less Germany, but they are a football nation who on many occasions have punched beyond their weight - and produced players of outstanding native instinct and ability.

Indeed it meant that what we saw was not only a grievous defeat but a degree of shame, as much off the field as on it.

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