Friday 20 September 2019

David Kelly: 'FAI insistence on propping up rudderless regime is baffling as Denmark loom'

 

All at sea: Ronan Curtis. Photo: Sportsfile
All at sea: Ronan Curtis. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When there is no hope left, the safest option is to cling desperately to the past in order to change the future.

Except this Irish team and Martin O'Neill have no real future together. And it grows ever more obvious that a significant section of Irish supporters feel the same.

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As the dithering ensemble head to Denmark, where a year ago a destructive Ireland battled to a brutish draw, there is a sense that repeating that minor feat might simply wash away the ongoing neglect and care of the international team.

Perhaps spirited Paddy might conspire to produce something heroic, akin to the hit-it-and-hope effort in Dublin when Shane Long's goal downed Germany in 2015, or the hack-it-and-see approach that prevailed in Wales in 2017.

Maybe then the thousand hangovers which might induce a short-run emotion could hoodwink the dwindling believers in this O'Neill team to revive their emotional attachment.

But whatever O'Neill does, and the temptation must be to return to the most basic of strategies for deviating into anything demanding concentration and planning seems beyond his staff, it will be not be a permanent solution.

Demanded

Just as the loosely-labelled 'bravery' repeatedly demanded by the players has proved to be beyond them, it may now even be the case that a return to more craven tactics may not be sufficient to stave off ongoing the arrested development.

It does, however, seem imperative that the manager must abandon his recent, belated conversion to a 3-5-2 system to shore up the repeated holes that have punctured the flighty optimism that prompted his tactical switch.

Once more on Thursday evening, and this time against supposedly inferior playing and coaching personnel, who surmounted these obstacles with a contrasting superiority in organisation and cohesion, Ireland were horribly exposed, in attack and defence.

And the lazy argument that Ireland were simply undone by a superior team yet again did not apply in this instance.

Instead, an even more limited side than that at the disposal of the vastly remunerated Republic of Ireland staff were able to offer composure and poise all over the field apart, to their ongoing disappointment, in front of goal.

"That's a credit to the manager and the staff, they have it drilled into us and every one of us knows our roles, even if we're coming off the bench. And it's not just this game. It's all the way through and we play as a team."

So spoke Gavin Whyte, an Irish League player a season ago but one who now plies his trade at exalted Oxford United.

Meanwhile, Ronan Curtis, as if he needed to remind everyone, informed us he wasn't given a clue about his role until being given the nod for his half-time debut on the evening of the game.

Curtis had been introduced to limit the debilitating solitude of Callum Robinson up front, one of several players experiencing the growing discomfort of Ireland's latest formation change in recent months.

Behind him, Callum O'Dowda had looked lost in a No 10 role before Jeff Hendrick, anonymous in a deep role, neatly bookended an undistinguished evening by disappearing when pushed further forward.

Seamus Coleman, aside from one characteristic surge, was reined in on the right; opposite him, James McClean was unable to close the gaps created when there is a three-man defence; cleverly, cutely, Northern Ireland repeatedly filled them in.

While the home side ceded obvious width, there was none in attack as the team was either unwilling or unable to unveil any passing pattern to go through the midfield, and were also without the option of playing to the wings.

Given the ordinariness of both sides, gaps emerged all over the field but Ireland were palpably unable to locate them in attack, and just as vulnerable to manning them in defence.

It is a recurring theme, of course, and the whispers of ill-preparedness behind closed doors are laid bare when the team presents itself on the field.

Which is why O'Neill may now ponder a switch back to the predictable comfort zone of a 4-4-2. It will fill in the yawning gaps on the flanks without, one would hope, compensating the defensive strength in the middle.

The front man can be offered adequate support and, with the midfield allowed the fluidity of an extra man in attack and defence - if that is not too complicated for the overworked men in tracksuits - some semblance of structure can be imposed.

Too often, players did not look as if they knew what their roles were, with an inadequate collective press and a dismal re-alignment of defensive shape when the ball was - repeatedly - lost.

If a management and team seem unable to function with the subtle complications of the 3-5-2, then clearly something less taxing is called for apart, of course, from a change of management which the FAI are still, it seems, unable to contemplate, for financial reasons as much as any semblance of common sense.

Irony

The irony, of course, is that any contemplation of changing tactics or personnel will continue the pattern of chaotic inconsistency that has marred Ireland's stunning decline, meaning that O'Neill has the worst winning ratio of a manager in modern times.

A win on Monday, perhaps a gloriously grisly rehash of those Germany or Wales coups, would propel him skywards beyond Steve Staunton once more and inject false belief that progress is being made.

But it is not. Any evidence that it has was left behind many, many months ago far beneath the fields of France.

A regime that once offered promise now delivers just empty rhetoric and it is being propped up by an organisation that is slowly losing touch with reality.

Arlene Foster might have been able to relate a similar kind of experience to the distant coterie of FAI board members on Thursday evening.

Then again, they probably wouldn't have listened.

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