Sunday 19 November 2017

Comment - Dour Welsh display shows FAI must put more focus on honing creativity in young talent

Players with the flair of Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady are simply not coming through for Ireland. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Players with the flair of Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady are simply not coming through for Ireland. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
James Lawton

James Lawton

Maybe the rawness of Seamus Coleman's catastrophic injuries is still a huge emotional barrier to any kind of cool and wider analysis of what happened at the Aviva Stadium last Friday night. But then it is also true that in all the anger and the sadness there is one perspective that refuses to go away.

It takes us to the heart of Martin O'Neill's challenge of returning Ireland to another major tournament, another chance to touch the kind of glory his team achieved in Lille in the European Championships last summer.

And it surely casts legitimate ridicule on a criticism of the coach that made a small intrusion into the rage that came in the wake of what, without the Coleman nightmare, would have been routine disappointment over lost ground in a promising World Cup qualifying campaign.

Remember the sniper's bullet of the point that when Wales were down to 10 men, O'Neill's team revealed a lack of the proper drilling that might have delivered a killer thrust and a massive stride in the direction of Russia 2018? Where, it was asked, was the tactical variety, the wit, to exploit a series of corners won from the stretched-out Welsh?

Drill

The barbs, you had to be believe, were misdirected. They ignored a fundamental reality of the game. It is that you cannot drill for wit or originality, you cannot give the most stout-hearted horse the turn of a thoroughbred's hoof.

You can urge, but you cannot teach, a footballer to think on his feet, to seek out a weakness in the way of one of the great predators of the game.

And, on a more workaday level, you have also to accept that without the creative thinking and verve of the absent Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady, O'Neill might have exhausted the almanac of set-piece options without any guarantee of success.

The problem against Wales was not tactical, but historic. It was not about the failure of O'Neill and his ramrod assistant Roy Keane. It was to do with the lost chord of Irish football, that characteristic of the national game which was so apparent long before Jack Charlton so pragmatically found a way on to the world stage.

The list of Irish players who could inflict their skill and their native nous in any circumstances is a long one and we do not have to linger over it too plaintively now.

What we do have to recognise, however, is that O'Neill does not have a Charlie Hurley or a John Giles, a Liam Brady or a Roy Keane to call on. When he is challenged on his work on the training field, when he is reproached for a lack of refined preparation, it is absurd not to weigh the limitations of his playing resources.

The failure at the Aviva Stadium was not one fashioned in a few days - a very few days - of training and practice. It came down the years. It came in a failure to preserve old values and develop new momentum.

This is not to scorn the men who wear the green shirt today. They have grown up in a game of limited horizons. They have fought their way to good livings in the professional game, but they have not emerged from a culture of the kind which in the past has inspired superb achievement in small football countries - and which today in Belgium has given the world players of the quality of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.

No doubt it is true that Ireland has the cultural complication of Gaelic sport, which not so long ago had the likes of the soccer-playing John Giles dismissed as "corner boys" by teaching brothers.

But that was another Ireland and the new one aspires to take its place on the world football stage.

For it to happen, as something more than a passing phenomenon produced by a hard-drilling coach or a sudden, superior generation of players, it will take more than mere yearning.

It will take the FAI's recognition that the current national product owes far more to the commitment and ambition of individual players than the early honing of notable natural talent.

It will require an understanding that expectations run far ahead of any appreciation of what is demanded from a football nation realistically set on a permanent place at the truly competitive end of international football.

These, certainly, were questions that, sooner or later, had a place in the vexed aftermath of a match in which Wales, when all was said and shouted, not only had a greater range of talent but also creative ambition.

Ireland, weakened no doubt, did what they could, but the truth was that it never suggested it was going to be enough.

In the meantime, the rage over the tackle by Neil Taylor which has so endangered the career of Coleman will not be quickly spent. Assertions that the Welsh player did not intend the terrible consequences are not as helpful as his apologists may imagine.

Taylor is a professional and at the very least he must answer to a charge of shocking negligence. His tackle was not only technically inept, but extremely dangerous.

It also came before breath was adequately drawn on the appalling lateness of Gareth Bale's challenge on John O'Shea, one which cried for the red card that was formally handed to the less celebrated Taylor.

These were dreadful incidents which would have brought huge shadows over any game, however luminous or stirring it had been.

That they should have come to one so undistinguished seemed to be, for some little time at least, an unbearable burden, one that will not be easily lifted. And, certainly, not by a few training ground drills.

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