Sunday 25 March 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Free-kick failure strengthens Ian Harte's legacy of fine strikes

Ian Harte hits a trademark free-kick to put Ireland ahead against Israel at Lansdowne Road in 2005
Ian Harte hits a trademark free-kick to put Ireland ahead against Israel at Lansdowne Road in 2005
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In the midst of his career reflections on Newstalk last Thursday, Ian Harte suggested that he would be remembered for his penalty miss against Spain in the 2002 World Cup.

It was difficult to agree with his critical analysis of his own contribution.

Granted, the Drogheda man was below par in Korea and Japan and that poor spot-kick denied him the opportunity to join an elite group. But it will not define his legacy.

Harte, who announced his retirement on Thursday, made 237 Premier League appearances and stepped out 63 times for his country so he was clearly a capable player.

Yet the reaction to the news was accompanied by fond recollections of a rare experience for Irish fans; the joy associated with the execution of a perfect free-kick.

He did it frequently for Leeds and on a couple of notable occasions in the green shirt, with that left-footer against Israel in a June 2005 World Cup qualifier the trademark attempt that instantly springs to mind. It still crops up in discussion because of the absence of recent memories.


Remarkably, Andy Reid's deflected strike in a turkey shoot against San Marino in November 2006, the final international game at the old Lansdowne, is the last time that an Irish player successfully stepped up to convert a direct free-kick in a competitive match. That's almost nine years of wayward shooting.

Under Giovanni Trapattoni, there was a spell where set-pieces consistently yielded positive results but that generally involved crossing and heading. Harte was capable of turning a semi-promising situation into a goal, and that's a rare quality.

Penalty duties beefed up his total, but it's striking that the only players in the squad for this week's double-header to have exceeded his Irish tally of 12 are Kevin Doyle (14) and the peerless Robbie Keane (65). Shane Long has reached 12 from 54 caps.

The top-scoring midfielder in the squad is Aiden McGeady with five and he has acknowledged that his goal ratio for Ireland is poor given his long service.

This drives home the point that, while Harte perhaps had a few limitations, having a player with his capabilities in the ranks helped to lighten the load on the attackers.

It's expected that Keane will come to the fore again this week after being benched in June and that makes perfect sense seeing as Martin O'Neill will expect his team to be on the offensive for 180 minutes. He's the best we have at putting the ball away in those circumstances.

The skipper arrives after a prolific spell in the MLS, although the standard of defending in that league is so ropey that it doesn't dramatically strengthen his claims. Increased exposure to American football via Sky Sports has highlighted the erratic nature of a growing league.

Last week, Keane and Steven Gerrard teamed up to knock five past Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Frank Lampard's New York City FC, a new team that are simply incapable of defending.

O'Neill has been urged to take Irish-qualified players lining out at MLS level seriously, but it's hard to know what MLS level really is when there's a huge disparity in quality between players in the same dressing room - let alone between rival sides. LA Galaxy, to their credit, are a proper operation and Keane's professionalism has earned him deserved accolades.

However, his club efforts don't present the compelling argument for his inclusion this week; it's his Irish exploits that make the case. Georgia could actually prove to be a tougher nut to crack than the scattered units he habitually encounters in his current abode.

Ireland urgently require a heir to Keane's throne, and the fear is that we'll be repeating that statement for the next decade. For a brief window, there was a school of thought that Robbie Brady could be the man to take up the mantle, even if he grew up as an attacking winger rather than a poacher.

He managed to break the U-21 scoring record under Noel King's tutelage, and broke his senior duck on his debut against Oman from his station on the right flank.

The Norwich recruit is going in another direction now, with O'Neill identifying him as a solution to his problems at left full. Alex Ferguson spotted that potential in his younger days.


When Brady brilliantly steered a dead ball into the top corner in last November's friendly with USA, it was reminiscent of Harte in his pomp. And the youngster later admitted that he'd studied the former owner of the number three shirt.

"It probably set me off wanting to take set-pieces, watching the likes of Ian Harte," he admitted.

Heading into this crucial autumn, Brady's skills can be an important weapon with O'Neill shorn of goal threats.

With no sign of the next Robbie Keane coming through the ranks, Ireland may have to turn to a close impersonation of Ian Harte for inspiration.

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