Thursday 20 September 2018

Comment: Encouraging draw doesn't exonerate Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane

Five days after the Wales humiliation, Ireland's only consistent quality is to be inconsistent

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane prior to the International Friendly match between Poland and Republic of Ireland at the Municipal Stadium in Wrocław, Poland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane prior to the International Friendly match between Poland and Republic of Ireland at the Municipal Stadium in Wrocław, Poland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mateusz Klich beats Darren Randolph to score Poland’s equaliser. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Changed times, indeed. Not a precise mirror image of days gone by, though, unless your take on Irish soccer history is viewed by walking through a carnival of mirrors.

There were occasions when the FAI would regularly take themselves off to Polish climes but with the primary aim of forgetting what was happening on the field in order to indulge in distractions elsewhere.

From the late 1950s to the '80s, Ireland played Poland on an extraordinary number of occasions, seventeen in all. The late Ray Treacy reckoned, of his 42 caps, 40 of them were awarded in such affairs.

Some FAI folk sought the mundane rigours of inflated currency exchange.

One FAI delegate, with an entrepreneurial streak sadly lacking in his organisation's approach to the game they curated, began a steady line in the import business.

His speciality was removing newly-produced underwear for the right price in order to sell it to earn a cheap kill at home.

Another blazer - allegedly - was more interested in removing underwear from those already wearing it, also for the right price, in order to earn a cheap thrill away from home. He proclaimed to those who would listen that, on the contrary, this was true romance.

Sometimes the honour of flying the tricolour abroad was laced with tragedy, not farce, as when Joe Wickham collapsed at half-time in a 1968 friendly.

Still, it was not long until farce intervened.

Eamon Dunphy recalls in his autobiography that a row broke out amongst officials as to who should remain in hospital with the stricken Wickham, who sadly would die a few days later.

The Irish dressing-room's initial stunned silence was belatedly broken by a player wondering had the general secretary managed to sign their appearance fee before being rudely indisposed.

Their rewards were puny but usually well-earned; on one occasion, led by a distinctly unimpressed John Giles, they were forced to travel atop suitcases in the luggage department of a train while the suits suited themselves in first class.

Last night, in contrast, the FAI and their squad were attempting to turn the tide of that history and instead seek some on-field distraction to deflect from a circus off it.

Disconnect

The events of the past week, serving to widen the disconnect between the national team and their supporters, never mind the wider public, had besmirched any semblance of decency, good practise and managerial competency.

Perhaps these 90 minutes could at last identify the squad's too often concealed ability to demonstrate their best traits, were it not for the fact that many might have struggled to identify the squad in the first place.

This fact was not entirely unrelated to the seemingly careless incapacity of the management to include those willing to play for them, let alone those who may not yet have decided to do so.

Even more surprising was the non-selection of David Meyler in the starting team, whose calming defensive presence, so potent in Vienna in recent times but oddly overlooked last week, was deemed surplus to requirements until the 55th minute.

So too Matt Doherty, one of the dwindling category of top-flight players, the dearth of which the manager rarely misses a chance to bemoan.

Another selection, and with it too, another change of formation. The match programme profiled Martin O'Neill as a detective disguised as a head coach; some supporters might muse whether it is more Inspector Clouseau than Inspector Morse.

If any occasion had demanded a three-man midfield, it was Cardiff last Thursday.

After an action-packed build-up, perhaps we all needed the quiet, coma-inducing calm of a meaningless friendly.

Ireland sought to impose some meaning by advancing a vague interpretation of a passing style of play; five years too late, but no matter; and rather less noteworthy when the script is handed to a cast of understudies.

Some fluffed lines remained familiar, notably Ireland's defensive frailty from dead balls, another illustration of flaws in preparation that have remained stubbornly persistent.

Poland had neither tempo nor tumult, lacking the precise passing verve of the Welsh in their attempts to exploit spaces on the Irish flanks.

Ireland's players moved the ball with surprising alacrity for a team not used to it, and despite their manager's purported pleadings for them to do so.

And yet here they were, vaguely impersonating a competent international side. Aiden O'Brien's debut goal stemmed from such a composed passage of play.

Why now? And why here, on an occasion when it was hardly less needed, and with players who normally Ireland would not need either.

Callum O'Dowda an obvious example, always tidy yet incisive here, but he has rarely received consistent encouragement.

Overall, it almost felt poignant, a lament for what might have been had such encouragement and mutual certainty always existed in more demanding circumstances.

This was yet another occasion when, after a smarting humiliation, Ireland's pride and resolution defiantly sought to erase all that had gone before.

Another wild lurch from chaos to calm, a now seemingly irreversible theme. If anything, this competent display doesn't exonerate the management's problems, it compounds them.

For it demonstrates that Ireland's only consistent quality is their inconsistency.

Whatever about the management being trusting of their players last night, next month will prove whether the players are trusting of the management.

Irish Independent

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