Sunday 16 December 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Playing terrible football is one thing - but Ireland are terrible at playing terrible football

16 October 2018; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the UEFA Nations League B group four match between Republic of Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
16 October 2018; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the UEFA Nations League B group four match between Republic of Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

The event guide for Dublin from Tuesday offered up the following as a small selection.

In music, The Editors were on at Vicar Street for €34. If theatre was your thing, Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer was in The Gaiety for €29 while cross-town Richard III was in The Abbey for €13. The Battle of the Ax for €5 was there for stand-up comedians in the Ha'Penny Inn as amateurs grabbed a mic and tried their hand. And if you hadn't a penny, The Lost Moment exhibition based on The Troubles at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar and The Beasts from Brazil looking at that nation on canvas in the National Gallery, were free.

It may not be an alpha city like London or Hong Kong, but there's no shortage of choice in the capital. And there is always the other option, given it was midweek, of just sitting in.

Yet it's against this backdrop that 38,321 allegedly showed to Lansdowne Road knowing what they'd get. And while that figure is bloated beyond belief, there were many in attendance. Too many.

The self-professed likeability and lovability of Irish fans is often overdone as we slap ourselves on the back for forcing the craic on disinterested others by singing babies to sleep in train carriages, cheering on the police at roadblocks, and troublingly harassing women coming out of lingerie stores. But this was an example of their understated and underrated loyalty. There's no measure of the best fans in the world but, as much as John Delaney pays lip service, he ought to be grateful that they show for this utter dross, even when literally 100s of tickets were just given away.

In an era of hyperbole that is grounded in fact and merely calling it out for what it is, as the search for a single positive has turned up empty with the only debate being if Saturday was worse than Wales.

Sport has long had a complex relationship with entertainment and ultimately it is an uncomfortable one. The tourist-day-out-at-the-Emirates to watch Arsenal is obscene and rips of the beating heart clean out of football and what it's meant to be about. However there is a need around winning and entertaining.

Both are ideal. One is very acceptable. And this is where the dynamic for Martin O'Neill becomes seriously problematic.

Playing wojus football is one thing, but being wojus at that wojus football is altogether another.

The manager is not the only issue here, indeed he isn't even the most serious one as this column has delved into before. There is always cause and effect. But if, in the sphere of player production, you must make the most of what you have and only then bemoan other sports and population and external issues, that applies to making the most out of what comes off that production line as well. Nobody can say O'Neill is doing that now.

After the annihilation at the hands of Denmark a year ago, there was a legitimate excuse to be made for the manager as all you had to do was look at Christian Eriksen and the difference a genuine world-class player makes when surrounded by so much mediocrity. That grim night, O'Neill may have seen his most impressive traits of organisation and calm go up in flames as his side were shredded, but in the credit column there was also the notion of recency bias. The European Championships were fresh but not anymore to the point the question now has to be, what have you done for us lately?

Besides, on Tuesday there were no stars. No Gareth Bale. No Aaron Ramsey. The last time Wales won a game of football when both were absent was against Luxembourg in a 2010 friendly, and the last time they won a competitive match was in 2005 before either had even made their debut. This was our country lining up against their youth and their dredges, and on top of that Joe Allen was really average while Ben Davies is stuck at left back where his effect is limited.

O'Neill was missing men too but look at this in terms of the movable object that met a hugely resistible force. Ireland had six Premier League players, granted Kevin Long spends a lot of time sitting at Turf Moor, with the other five lining out in the Championship. As for Wales, they'd only three top-flight players starting, seven are employed in the second-tier while Matt Smith is arguably learning below the lot while in the Dutch second division with FC Twente.

Such a basic analysis doesn't mean everything but it does mean something. Then throw in home advantage and a seeking of some semblance of pride and you should also be throwing in a serious stab at winning.

Of course it didn't work out like that. Whatever about the first half where Cyrus Christie might have capitalised on an early slip by Smith and where there was the rare sight of a series of passes strung together on the ground followed by a shot on 40 minutes, this game was all about what happened after the restart. It was then that O'Neill's side were toyed with as if a suicidal mouse waltzing into the cat cage. One-nil? We were lucky it wasn't a multiple of that.

There are those who will laugh at the European Nations League and they have a point, but this is a back door to the European Championship play-offs. That shouldn't bring sniggers as we won't be in sight of the front door, even in a 24-team finals. Despite that, here you had a group taking off their boots before they died as it gave an airier, more comfortable feel. You know that stage where a team is so bad that even if it's your own there's no stress or anger or disappoint at defeat? It's just kind of funny? Well we are there and have been for a year.

It was amusing too to hear Shane Duffy talk about laying the blame at the feet of the team when there is plenty to go around and as if they were getting a pass. The players may be stuck between mediocrity at board level and management, yet their quality fits right in to the point all three layers are seamlessly sad. However, while on their behalf you can make excuses for being poor technically as that's just life, you cannot excuse being wretched mentally. James McClean is no more talented than most around him but at least he obviously and openly hates losing.

All in all, when multiple parts in a machine are broken, to turn it on only sees the sound and shaking and smoke grow louder and more violent and thicker. Still, that's just what we do time and again.

Ultimately the key question in this dark and dreary realm is what are we going to do about it? And the key answer you can bet based on experience and past precedence is very little.

Delaney is said to be desperate for the side to reach the European finals and is worried by potential embarrassment of hosting games without his team there, especially if poor crowds show because of poor fixtures. That'll be the luck of the draw, but for a man said to have an eye on and a real chance of being Uefa vice-president, it may not look good.

Maybe Delaney would be better served sitting down and watching a video of this game. Will he though? That we don't know, but you can be sure at the next public appearance he'll be back quoting figures about grass roots and investment. It's a decade since he was telling anyone who'd listen that fixing two out of three wasn't bad when it came to the senior team, youth structures and the League of Ireland. It was stressed back then that it was the latter that was broken. Shudder.

Some parts of the association may be in good order, the problem is that the health of the body doesn't matter when you slice the head clean off and the senior team are the head of any football association. They create or destroy interest, they inspire or turn away in a market of competition, they set the mood all the way right down the system.

And the mood is rancid. Outside. And inside with the feeling that O'Neill has lost the dressing room. After the Poland game, some looked on baffled as he boarded the plane in a pair of football boots and it added to the feeling of craziness, meanwhile some young players have questioned how coaching is done. The respect is gone for Roy Keane as well given his actions and while these players aren't very good, that makes creation of mistrust and disinterest worse again. We cannot afford it. We need to always play like Italy in 2016. Manic aggression. It's all a mess from top to bottom, worse arguably than anything across half a century.

Four years ago it was all very different as Martin O'Neill showed up in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup with the future in front rather than behind him. At one stage he took a cable car over the shantytowns but as it got moving he quickly got nervous. There and then he professed to a hatred of heights.

Here and now it makes you realise he's in the right job as we scrape across rock bottom.

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