Saturday 14 December 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Ireland's long and tedious purgatory adopts familiar holding pattern'

The Couch

Ireland boss Mick McCarthy
Ireland boss Mick McCarthy

Tommy Conlon

A lot of people were in Van Morrison mode on Monday night, wondering why we couldn't play like this more often and thinking, wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

Well, it still wouldn't be the land of milk and honey but it would be an improvement on the usual fare of bread and water. Ireland hadn't suddenly turned into a team of artists. They had eked out the most predictable of scorelines, and it was Denmark who'd qualified for Euro 2020 at the end of another 1-1 waltz.

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But by virtue of being the best performance of their Group D campaign, it was enough to keep most supporters in a state of meagre optimism, or at least postponed pessimism. Given Ireland's dismal performances heretofore, looking for any sign of increased confidence was still setting a very low bar. And when they duly got over this bar, it was greeted almost as if they'd set a new national record for the high jump.

The full backs, Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens, were the catalysts for much of the progress. In pressing forward they helped push the team forward and onto the front foot. They helped stitch together Ireland's frequent spells of possession football. They brought composure and energy to the collective effort. Most of their teammates raised their levels of quality in tandem. The team overall dovetailed nicely, in a formation that suited them. There was a clarity and cohesiveness about their work that finally had them looking like a credibly competitive international team.

Obviously there was still the chronic dearth of creativity in midfield and menace in attack. That's not going to change until the personnel changes. Ireland made the most of what they had on Monday night and in global terms it still didn't amount to much of anything. It was just that in our own parochial world, it was a source of encouragement, a fairly pallid ray of hope.

And of course there is no guarantee that it will serve as any sort of platform for the Euro 2020 play-offs next spring. Four months is an eternity in football. Players will get injured or lose form or get dropped at their clubs. Any boost to morale from this performance will have long turned cold by the end of March. The putative momentum dividend will have stalled; it will be a bit like starting over.

In addition, the Denmark game was akin to a cup final. Ireland played like the underdogs who had one shot at toppling the favourites. Only a win would see them through. This was more or less knock-out football and British-trained players tend to enjoy these do-or-die scenarios. It seems to free them up, loosen their self-consciousness and license them to have a go, without having to think about it too much, or at all. What's more, they had a safety net to catch them if they didn't get the win. Maybe this was the real reason behind their improvement: there was nothing to lose. It was a free hit, a case of go hard or go home.

Their opponents, meanwhile, didn't have the psychic luxury of such a black-and-white scenario. They were dealing in areas of grey because a draw was enough to see them through. And they played like a team that didn't quite know whether to stick or twist. Theirs was a grey performance for a grey situation.

Clearly, the circumstances will be substantially different when Ireland travel to play Slovakia on March 26 next. There will be no safety net under this one. Only a win will see them through here too, but this is a semi-final, not a final, and they are not playing a European power. Ireland will be favourites, however marginally, and this is precisely the kind of assignment that makes Irish players nervous. They won't have permission to go gung-ho here, they will be expected to navigate the pressure with a high degree of caution and concentration. It's a match that will call for brains and composure, not blood and thunder.

In which case, they are more likely to revert to their mean level, the median capacity that was so ordinary through most of Group D. The form line of the previous seven games may be a more reliable guide to their performance in Slovakia than their heightened display six days ago. On its own as a sample, it cannot be trusted; one cannot assume that this Irish team has turned a corner on the basis of that single game; the circumstances that brought it about were unique to that fixture. And, to reiterate, in the bigger scheme of things it was not a statement performance anyway. It was simply a tad more palatable than the usual slop.

The overall sense remains that this Ireland team is in the same holding pattern as it has been for most of this decade, bereft of anything but banal talent, caught in a prolonged doldrum, with everyone waiting desperately for a new wave of players to emerge. It has been a long and tedious purgatory.

The national team will go back into cold storage for the next four months while most Irish people interested in the game will fixate instead on the Premier League with its incomparably superior cast of characters and richness of drama.

Then some day in March, Mick McCarthy will walk into a press conference and remind everyone that there is a significant international game to be played. Until then, few will miss them and the long hibernation will continue undisturbed by dreams of glory for the boys in green.


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