Monday 26 August 2019

Ireland facing into a lost year

Reality of crushing Danish failure sets in as 2018 promises to be a blank diary for competitive action

A dejected Jeff Hendrick, left, and Robbie Brady after the World Cup Qualifier Play-off.. Photo: Sportsfile
A dejected Jeff Hendrick, left, and Robbie Brady after the World Cup Qualifier Play-off.. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It could have been the most exciting Irish football winter in a generation.

The World Cup draw on December 1. Christmas discussions between fans plotting their way around Russia. Every Irish player motivated by the prospect of getting into Martin O'Neill's 23-man squad.

Instead, there is a blank diary. Nothing to be excited about.

The last time Ireland missed out on a competition - Brazil in 2014 - the FAI had a manager hunt to occupy themselves and quickly installed O'Neill and Roy Keane to create a buzz that pretty much carried them through the 10 months to the start of the 2016 qualifiers. There was an intrigue around the new team that sold friendlies - 40,000 came to watch Latvia.

This time around, it's different for a couple of reasons. O'Neill is mulling over his future, with the ferocity of the response to the Danish drubbing surprising him, but he did say that he expected the FAI to honour their verbal deal.

Unless a better option suddenly appears, then the presumption at this stage has to be that the 65-year-old will stay.

But the road to September will take a bit of selling because the start of Euro 2020 qualifying is delayed until March 2019.

That is because the new UEFA Nations League will take over the autumn after major-tournament summers.

With the relevance of those games only really becoming clear a year later, it's going to be hard for the public to buy into it. At senior international level, 2018 promises to be Irish football's lost year.

It's a grim thought. Here is a look at the dates that will do a poor job of filling the void.

January

The draw for the new UEFA Nations League takes place on January 24 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Ireland's results under O'Neill have moved them into League B, the second tier.

League A features the top 12 teams in the UEFA rankings.

There are also 12 teams in League B and Ireland find themselves in the same category as Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic and Turkey. There are 15 teams in League C and 16 teams in League D.

The 12 teams in League B will be drawn into four groups of three and the winners of each group will jump up to League A for the next phase of the competition in two years' time.

Meanwhile, the four sides that finish bottom drop to League C for the 2020 renewal.

March

There's a window for an international double-header here. FAI season-ticket holders will be expecting a home game in this period. England's World Cup draw could impact Ireland's friendly schedule as potential opponents sometimes like to seek friendlies with teams from the same neck of the woods; in 2014 Costa Rica and Italy played Ireland before facing England in Brazil.

June

There may be another Aviva date here for the purpose of season-ticket holders.

With the summer offering the longest window to work with new faces, management might look for a couple of dates in the diary.

For the association, away friendlies offer less of a financial risk if interest levels are low. And there is always the option of returning to America.

There is talk that US soccer officials are looking at putting a competition together to compensate for their absence from events in Russia.

Italy, Holland and Chile are other high-profile sides that will be looking to occupy themselves. Ireland have always appealed to US promoters because of the diaspora, although bringing weakened squads to the States has not really helped.

September-November

Ireland will play the other two sides in their Nations League group on a home and away basis across the three international windows in September, October and November.

There is the potential to fit a friendly or two in there too; it's been a while since our last joust with Oman.

The importance of the Nations League games is to provide a safety net if regular Euro 2020 qualifying does not go to plan.

Ireland made it to Euro 2016 after a third-placed finish in their group gave them a play-off. But there will be no play-off for third-placed teams en route to Euro 2020.

Instead, the four play-off spots will go to one team each from League A, B, C and D.

Therefore, the four top-ranked sides in each Nations League who do not make it through regular qualifying will play mini tournaments in March 2020 with one spot in the Euros at stake.

In short, a strong Nations League is a safety net in case things go badly in traditional qualifying. It offers teams the security of knowing they have a second chance.

December

The draw for Euro 2020 qualifying takes place in Dublin, as it's one of the 13 cities that will co-host the continent-wide event.

There will be 10 qualifying groups, five groups of five and five groups of six, and the top two in each will progress to the finals. Ireland's Nations League results will determine their seeding, another reason to take the autumn matches seriously.

And that will be the catch-cry when the matches come around. But at this moment in time, 2018 reads like a spectacular anti-climax.

Irish Independent

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