Tuesday 11 December 2018

'I take little pleasure or satisfaction from seeing Ireland play like minnows on the back foot constantly'

Brian Kerr: We simply cannot keep getting away with conceding so much possession to opponents

Shane Duffy celebrates following victory in Wales
Shane Duffy celebrates following victory in Wales
David Meyler’s absence from the first leg of the play-offs will been keenly felt as the stand-in captain has become a key player. Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

Some hours after the match against Wales ended on Monday, myself and a broadcasting colleague were about to enter our hotel when an unusual Celtic connection caught our eyes and ears.

Two Irish lads with flaming red hair were gingerly attempting to pick up the pace of their walk, but it is as if the night has stolen their legs.

The overwhelming, joyous emotion for them is so moving; moving their bodies is now the difficulty.

From around the corner, two young girls approach and pass the now unmoving statues, bedecked in green.

As they do so, they clap their hands in gracious, resigned applause, suppressing their own deep disappointment.

"Congratulations, lovelies!" (Everyone thinks you're lovely in Cardiff!)

"Now I'm only saying, but you have to go and play now!"

Several days on from the unique euphoria delivered by the final whistle from the Slovenian referee, and that immediate outpouring of celebration from within the squad and amongst the supporters, when it seemed as if the World Cup trophy itself had been secured, I find myself somewhat conflicted.

It seems I am not totally alone. Some of the supporters on the flight home approached me, as a penitent might approach a priest, to confess that they thought the match was, in their words, "rubbish".

But, in words that cannot be reprinted here, they argued that the result didn't lie.

The result had been achieved, an end justifying the means.

Wales 0, Ireland 1. Bottom line. I get that. I understand that.

And I appreciate many of the fans too, who sang and danced long into the night - like they did after similar narrow victories over Austria in Vienna, Bosnia-Herzegovina in Zenica and Italy in Lille - don't really care.

And that is the truth of it. Some of them see the discrepancy, however.

Like many, I was brought up on the idea that a football team should try to dominate the game and win football matches by creating and scoring more goals than the opposition.

Of course, if there is an enormous gulf in the quality of the respective players, the challenge to nullify that threat, by good tactical organisation, is a crucial and valued part of the game.

However, the responsibility on our national team to play and take the game to teams of a similar standard still remains.

Watching Ireland throughout this campaign has not been a particularly joyous experience.

The artistic football has been scarce and always only when Wesley Hoolahan has been on the pitch. But for international managers, results are paramount and extremely difficult to achieve, as I know only too well.

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Each game against the better teams or the minnows is either tough or awkward, often both. They're all hard to beat, except Gibraltar for now.

But while the result achieved may justify the approach of Martin O'Neill, I, like many others, take little pleasure or satisfaction from seeing Ireland play like minnows on the back foot constantly.

It's remarkable that in most games we are outplayed by the opposition.

Again, by all the indicators against Wales, we were second-best. Out-passed, 488-152. Corners, 10-2. Shots, 16-8. Possession, 71.2-29.8.

But the only stat that really mattered was that Ireland scored a goal and Wales didn't.

Our best performance of the campaign was in Moldova where Ireland may have had to share possession but we were always the superior team.

Georgia outplayed us in Dublin but a jammy enough goal jimmied us out of a hole.

Whether it be Austria, Wales or Serbia, even a Moldova team losing 2-0, the default setting of this side seems to be always on the back foot.

Some days you simply have to batten down the hatches against technically superior foes boasting a big reputation and better-class players. There is no choice.

I had that problem with almost every match involving the Faroes and any tactic we could contemplate to counter the gap was legitimate.

For me, there's little delight in watching us getting pinned back and chasing opposition passes.

There was no comfort in that opening hour last Monday, save that Wales didn't score.

James McClean celebrates. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Even against Moldova and Georgia, the team seems to be waiting on a big tackle from a James McClean or David Meyler to rouse everyone to even greater physical exertion.

It's old-style football at its very best.

I didn't get involved in this game, and then become inspired to be a coach, to see our international side play without such little artistry or love of the ball.

It's okay for Iceland and Northern Ireland to play to their strengths and win games in whatever way possible, considering the lack of depth in their talent pools.

But we are, and should be, better than that.

Then again, the margins are very fine. Serbia won the group with the least points of any group winner.

All the games, barring those involving Moldova, were either draws or victories by the minimum margin.

It was a very competitive group and redolent of the qualifying campaign I experienced in 2004. So I do understand that.

This is the conflict. Maybe I should have played it a different way in Israel.

After all, managers lose jobs because of their results.

Monday's huge result prompted huge celebration.

This team has occasionally struggled to consistently engage with the public until it comes to the grand one-off occasions like Lille and Cardiff.

But subsequently that feel-good factor has often dissipated in Dublin, as we witnessed eight days ago in the Aviva.

Next month will be different because there is so much at stake.

Over the past two games, Martin has discovered he has a reliable back four until Seamus Coleman is fit again.

They are settled and the heroic performances of Shane Duffy in Cardiff, manfully backed up by Ciaran Clark, stood out. In the modern era, most teams have a game-plan.

For the first half, ours seemed only to involved defending in numbers, kicking long balls to Daryl Murphy and hoping for a breaking ball from a set-piece that might eke out a goal.

We were not pressing high, neither did we disrupt their passing.

The only area we were dominant was in the vital sector, in front of and in our own penalty box, where the central defence and midfield screen performed marvellously, albeit without the subtleties of Hoolahan that might have enabled them to lift the siege.

And yet one probably understood Martin's choice of Harry Arter in the central midfield role, although we struggled to get possession or construct anything resembling creativity, except for one run by Cyrus Christie down the right which released Robbie Brady for a shot just before the break.

Joe Allen of Wales is helped from the field against Ireland

The two crucial moments were the foul on Joe Allen; he had been the orchestrator of the Welsh tempo, style and possession-based passing game.

When he left the pitch, it was a killer blow for Wales, even more so than Gareth Bale's absence because they were already planning without him.

The other key moment was obviously the goal.

It galvanised Ireland to produce even greater physical exertion and demoralised Wales in the same stroke. Aaron Ramsey was dropping deeper and was much less effective.

We had suggested a weakness in Ashley Williams and that came to pass; Jeff Hendrick's role in spotting the defender's discomfort from the goalkeeper's throw-in was the first really decisive thing he has done in the group since scoring that early goal in Belgrade in Match One.

Too often, and again on Monday, he does huge amounts of running without getting on the ball or contributing to the tempo in Ireland's play. McClean always gets tackles in; Hendrick almost gets tackles in.

His energy and work-rate is undisputed but it is time for him to have more of an influence in dominating a game, particularly when Hoolahan is not on the pitch. The wonderful goal rescued McClean's performance.

In terms of fighting and scrapping, harrying and hustling, heading and clearing, Ireland were the best team.

Nobody could question their character or commitment but then these are surely accepted formalities for a player representing his country.

So again, I'm stuck with this conundrum.

In France last summer, Ireland actually played some good football against Sweden, Italy and France. We showed we were capable of it.

We proved we can play a game that is quite effective, enjoyable to watch yet still makes the best use of typically Irish characteristics - energy, honesty, aggression with threats from set-pieces - that remain indispensable.

But do any of these recollections still matter any more now that we won the way we did on Monday? Should we just forget Euro 2016 ever happened?

I still think the point needs to be made.

We were given the impression we would have a go last week against Wales and not merely sit back and absorb pressure. We let them blow themselves out.

Will that be enough to engineer passage via the play-offs, against supposedly better opposition over two legs, rather than just one?

Despite their spectacular winning run during qualification, Switzerland would seem to be the preferred draw in Zurich this Tuesday, followed by Denmark.

You wouldn't want Croatia or Italy.

The fact that the lower seeds may not be away first also complicates matters; most managers prefer the prospect of having something to defend in a decisive home leg.

Monday might offer the patent for progress; there will be superior opposition, lots of talk about having a go and taking them on but it probably won't happen; the result in Cardiff hardens that case.

The hope would be that the home match could be more impressive with midfielders demanding more of themselves than merely honesty, desire and effort.

David Meyler's absence shadows that first leg; he has become a key player after being a fringe member for so long.

You would like to think over the two matches, at some stage, that there would be a place for Hoolahan and that the correct results are achieved because I still firmly believe that Ireland can afford to adopt a less austere philosophy and still prosper.

Those twin aims are not mutually exclusive.

However, though there may be an intention to perform creatively expressed by Ireland in the coming weeks, I suspect it may not happen.

That would make it extremely difficult for Ireland because we simply can't get away with conceding possession for 180 minutes.

If Wales had scored in the last minute, that would have been the complaint and the dominant conversation.

They didn't and the scoreline masked obvious deficiencies. It shouldn't be allowed to muffle conversation about the subject.

The point must be reiterated that the Irish players, particularly in the midfield area, have great skill and are much better footballers in their league, often against much superior opposition, than they are in an Irish jersey.

The manager's selections have been justified. The points are in the bag and off to the play-offs we go.

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