Thursday 22 February 2018

Comment: Irish football left seeking yet another short-term fix based on a long-standing problem

Only surprise about the Irish team's lack of quality is that everyone is surprised by it

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane speaks with the players before their Group D clash against Serbia. Photo: DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane speaks with the players before their Group D clash against Serbia. Photo: DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Martin O'Neill was last out of the Irish dressing-room on Tuesday night. Defeats still wound him deeply despite all his decades in the game or, more accurately, because of them.

"He'll be devastated," notes one of his former players, Robbie Savage. "Absolutely devastated. He'll be thinking about it and trying to put it right, feeling like the worst guy."

The Derryman knows that the buck will stop at him if Ireland fail in their now-dwindling efforts to reach the World Cup.

The next Euros will be just as easy to qualify for as the last ones were but, quite apart from whether the FAI might want to stick with him for another two years, you wonder whether O'Neill would want to remain with the FAI.

And given the inordinate difficulty Ireland made of what had seemed a relatively easy task last time around, it doesn't take a genius to work out that both sides would probably end up meeting in the middle before shaking hands.

For the past week, O'Neill has grown become increasingly mournful about what his team has not rather than what it has, whether it is their crocked captain Seamus Coleman or the erstwhile goal-hungry abilities of a 27-year-old Robbie Keane.

O'Neill's assistant, Roy Keane, visited the players' lounge afterwards and one word lingered amongst every group of people with whom he interacted. "Quality," he repeatedly muttered.

Ireland simply didn't have it and, even if most still believe its best representation lies amidst the creaking bones of a 35-year-old Wes Hoolahan, it was not available to them when they needed it most.

Never mind a 27-year-old Robbie Keane, what would Ireland give for a 27-year-old Wes Hoolahan?

And so Ireland face a familiar short-term crisis but one fundamentally based on a far more long-term chaos. The cracks in the sport only become revealed when Ireland fail to party in the summer amongst the nations of the world.

Even as supporters changed tyres and serenaded nuns in France and Ireland stumbled upon a football formula they have sadly not sustained, the same cracks were evident then as they are now. It's just convenient to disregard the fact your house is in decay when you're having the holiday of a lifetime.

This has always been the case ever since Jack Charlton convinced the nation that they need not have a guilty conscience about the fact that the football industry here was in utter disrepair.

Change is happening, glacially. "I coach the Irish underage teams and there are really, really good footballers," says former international Keith Andrews,

Things have improved, for sure, but anyone waiting for the next Robbie Keane - or, say, Ben Woodburn - will require patience. Lots of it.

"They're not ready now and it depends on what happens to them at their clubs. One of our best U-17s is at Manchester United but he is up against the best South Americans and Europeans in his year.

"So it's having the pathway to make sure they can still be playing after they move on from the under-age teams. The development plan is probably as good as it has ever been, but we are still relying on them doing something, preferably in England. It's difficult and takes time."

Time is not a commodity that has ever been available to O'Neill, though; his job is to get results now. He got enough of them to let the nation party last summer but he may not do so this time. "A Robbie Keane, a 27-year-old Robbie Keane, would have absolutely loved that situation - he would have loved to be the hero, to score the goal," he tells us, longingly, a few hours after the 1-0 defeat to Serbia which confirmed Ireland's alarming decline in the second half of this campaign.

"Which I think he could have done. We don't have that real cutting edge and we've had to try and win games without that cutting edge.

"Without that Gareth Bale in your team, without that world-class player. Our world-class player is, unfortunately, injured at this moment. And that is not demeaning to my team. My team were fantastic tonight."

And they have been 'fantastic' before but never on a consistent basis and, as if aping a national stereotype, only when in response to catastrophe, whether a caning by Belgium or brutal ineptitude against Georgia.

Then again, the stark reality is that, even if Ireland located somewhere near their 'fantastic' selves against Serbia's 11, 10 and then nine men, it still wasn't good enough to eke out a result.

Now O'Neill finds himself in a position where tinkering with diamonds and players and formations become irrelevant; he is in the role that suits him best now.

Mr Motivator. The fighter on the ropes hoping to dish out a bloody nose despite an aching lack of resources. O'Neill relished the immediacy of league football but has often seemed stranded by the yawning time gaps between games at international level as constant dithering and inconsistency of style and formation have shown.

I asked him was this inconsistency a worry and he immediately demurred. "No, it's not. I don't judge it like that."

For his professional existence lives or dies on the end result, not how it is achieved.

"This is the first time that we've been beaten here in this tournament. First time we've been beaten at home in my time as well.

"Beaten by a very, very decent Serbian side that we had the better of during the course of the game.

"If you'd been speaking to the Welsh manager before their game, he would have taken a one-nil win in Moldova, delighted to get the points on the board.

"I just keep getting back to the point. We didn't play well in the first half in Georgia, absolutely. We scored a goal and then we couldn't get the ball for periods.

"We had to do something about that. Tonight we attempted to rectify that and we did do. But we still didn't get a goal. And that's obviously the big concern.

"We came out of Georgia and got something out of the game and remained unbeaten.

"It would have been great to have won and the irony of it all is the fact that even though we played poorly in the game, we actually created more chances than perhaps we normally do, even with an excellent performance. We could have scored four goals out in Georgia. Whether we deserved to do that is another thing."

As it stands, the most important person in the FAI might be the international secretary hoping to smooth the passage of Scott Hogan into becoming eligible to play for Ireland.

The country's hopes may now rest on a player struggling for Aston Villa in the Championship who hasn't exactly seemed delirious about the prospect of throwing in his lot with the Irish team.

"While you'd like some people like himself and young (Sean) Maguire to come into the squad and maybe have a little look round for a while, it's asking a lot to go in.

"But we'll see, you never know what the month might bring in terms of players playing a wee bit of extra football at club level, even in the Championship, and maybe just be ready for it."

It all smacks of desperation.

"We're still fighting. It's not big talk from me. We can win these last two games. The players want to win them."

Everyone wants them to succeed. But whether they deserve to do so is quite another thing.

Should Ireland fail in the attempt, the fallout will be predictable.

A big-name manager getting a filleting from all corners. Another big-name manager being catapulted in as a seeming saviour. And all the while nobody looking at the big picture.

Irish Independent

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