Wednesday 21 November 2018

Long winter looms after Ireland fall short once again

Ireland 0 Wales 1

James McClean, right, and Jeff Hendrick leave the pitch following Ireland's defeat to Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
James McClean, right, and Jeff Hendrick leave the pitch following Ireland's defeat to Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The last time Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers signalled for the end of a game in Dublin, Ireland had just defeated Bosnia to qualify for the European Championships.

It ended with a lap of honour and Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane saluting to a celebrating crowd. The vibe was different at 9.38pm on a grim Tuesday night, after a week that has drained any of the lingering enthusiasm surrounding this managerial ticket.

That magic touch which delivered crunch victories has been lost. One point from six in this 'must-win' October international window is a poor return, especially as both Denmark and Wales arrived without their star players.

Bodies

Ireland were missing important bodies too, but they were able to call on a more experienced selection than their Celtic neighbours for this clash and still came away with nothing.

Ryan Giggs' named seven Championship players in his starting XI; Ireland went with five.

Harry Wilson fires his free-kick over the Ireland wall for the Wales goal at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: REUTERS
Harry Wilson fires his free-kick over the Ireland wall for the Wales goal at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: REUTERS

Strangely enough, there were patches that offered more by way of cheer than Saturday's drab affair with the Danes.

And there was spirit in the late flurry as O'Neill went for broke by deploying three strikers in search of a point. It suggested he knew the importance of this UEFA Nations League tie in the context of his own position.

Ireland are almost certain to be condemned to third-seed status for the Euro 2020 draw. A win in Denmark next month may not be enough to avoid that drop in status that will complicate the attempts to qualify for the finals.

Boos towards the end indicated that a portion of fans no longer trust this regime to upset the unfavourable odds created by a stagnant year.

Matt Doherty and Ben Davies battle for possession. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Matt Doherty and Ben Davies battle for possession. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Of course, the vibrant profile of the Welsh squad spreads the blame around. There's no real sense that the FAI board are ready to change things up in the dugout and see if it brings about an improvement.

Last night was John Delaney's 51st birthday. There were celebratory balloons in the suite where he watched the game. It's safe to say that the CEO has enjoyed happier ones.

There's a financial element to the decision the FAI face now which presents an obvious obstacle. The fact that Giggs is paid around a quarter of the Derryman's salary is a product of the FAI decision-making over a protracted period.

It's everybody's problem now.

Cyrus Christie is dispossessed by Ashley Williams. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cyrus Christie is dispossessed by Ashley Williams. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The first half had delivered fleeting signs of encouragement, in the sense that it showed Ireland do have players with the ability to pose problems in the final third if they can work themselves into the position.

Callum O'Dowda's injury and doubts surrounding Shane Long drove O'Neill to make two changes with Callum Robinson and Aiden O'Brien brought in.

Jeff Hendrick reverted to a deeper role in midfield next to Harry Arter and Cyrus Christie and was much more comfortable there.

Robinson was the spark for the better moments, however, with the Preston player functioning as the link player .

Ireland did try and advance a couple of yards further up the park and the pressure of Christie forced a golden opportunity to break the deadlock when Welsh teenager Matthew Smith dithered at the edge of the area and the makeshift midfielder seized possession.

James Chester glances a header towards goal. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
James Chester glances a header towards goal. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

But he rushed his shot and Wayne Hennessey saved. "He should have scored," sighed O'Neill afterwards.

That vignette functioned as a window into the game. Wales were leaning heavily on youth, with 28-year-old Allen the senior figure in their midfield next to 18-year-old Smith with a trio of 21-year-olds - David Brooks, Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson - behind 19-year-old attacker Tyler Roberts.

They looked ropey in the early exchanges but recovered to gain control of possession. However, the hosts were sprightly as the interval approached and put together a decent passing move that culminated with a Robinson shot.

At half-time, the crowd gave a polite round of applause. But there was unease from the restart as McClean was booked for chopping down Wilson after he embarked on a mazy run through the heart of the Irish midfield.

The booking rules him out of Denmark. And it was a sign of what was to come, as a loose tackle from Arter on roving Welsh right full-back Callum Roberts gave the guests a free-kick opportunity at the edge of the area.

"If you're going to go to ground, you're going to have to be absolutely certain to get the ball and it's proved costly," said O'Neill.

Wilson stepped up to stylishly dispatch it into the top corner with Randolph outfoxed.

Ireland were in bother and O'Neill had already replaced O'Brien with Long at this point. He immediately opted to bring in Seán Maguire for Robinson with the withdrawal of the latter greeted with disapproval from the stands.

There was nothing to lose. Doherty finally began to impose himself and was central to a break which concluded with Hendrick twisting and turning and testing Hennessey.

O'Neill rolled another dice and sent in Scott Hogan as an extra forward player, leaving space behind and Wales threatened to expose it on the counter. Last-ditch blocks from Arter and McClean halted one advance. There was a stench of desperation.

Ireland had their moments but there was no real structure to their pressure and the clearest sight of goal in the dying embers fell to a Welsh player with Randolph denying Brooks before racing forward for a stoppage-time corner-kick.

It was cleared away and the game was over. O'Neill believed that the boos were for the referee, before confidently asserting that his third campaign at the helm will be a successful one.

The believers are shrinking in numbers.

Irish Independent

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