Friday 20 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Captain Meyler earns his stripes on a night Ireland seem to run out of steam

David Meyler covering the hard yards for Ireland last night. Photo: PA
David Meyler covering the hard yards for Ireland last night. Photo: PA
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

You can't put in what God left out, but good men know how to bend the arithmetic to their advantage.

David Meyler is no silver-spoon footballer, but he understands the relationship between movement and space and how, in sport, the right energy can move mountains.

He represents an almost emblematic figure of Martin O'Neill's regime now, never a regular starter, yet always a viable option.

The bearded Corkman would have been a left-field choice as captain last night, but someone from whom O'Neill knew implicitly what he would be getting here.

Son of a devout GAA man, he has become the answer to a small multiple of questions for a manager who - between club and country (they worked together at Sunderland) - has used him as a right-back, centre-half and a conventional defensive midfielder.

This was his 21st senior cap in seven years, deployed on sentry duty in front of a back four that, accordingly, enjoyed an arm-chair evening.

Little enough of what he did generated applause, but that's the nature of the work he does.

Nobody writes songs about footballers like David Meyler, albeit team-mates must be tempted to.

Malfunction

His promotion after the Irish midfield's broad malfunction in Tbilisi has worked well for O'Neill, the manager pointedly lauding Meyler's performance against Serbia last month, the arc of which was one brazen nutmeg by a corner-flag.

He was declared man of the match for that game and, if that garland didn't quite fall his way last night, he did again produce a performance rich in wisdom and humility.

What he brings to a team was aptly synopsised just nine minutes in when, after a clumsy touch gave the ball to Alexandru Gatcan, Meyler chased down the Moldovan as if pursuing a pick-pocket with his watch.

Soon after, he materialised behind the Irish back four, sweeping away danger fleetingly presented by the elusive Radu Ginsari.

In many ways, Meyler was the hod-carrier here, doing his prosaic thing whilst men like Wes Hoolahan and the encouragingly impressive Callum O'Dowda found licence to lift the creative curtain.

Two Daryl Murphy goals up inside 19 minutes, it proved a peculiar night by the Dodder.

The win against weak opposition was secured with easy efficiency, but anything less would have been derided.

And the timing of a new contract announcement for O'Neill was odd if only because, through his four years at the helm, seldom has this Irish team looked less identifiable in terms of football personality than it does right now.

They are neither one thing nor the other, urgent and cohesive one moment, dissonant and palpably anxious the next.

Before last night, they'd failed to win any of four competitive internationals since beating Austria in Vienna 11 months ago, four games that decanted a miserly two goals.

And that hard-boiled truth of a team losing its way in mid-campaign seemed to be overlooked this week, perhaps on the basis that no compelling alternatives to O'Neill have been making conspicuous sounds.

It's true too that international football doesn't allow a manager the intimacy of time with his players to mould any great, tactical masterplan.

Largely the job is one of compromise. Square pegs go in round holes because there is no open market for alternatives.

And the history of Irish managers is one of good men turning sour as they find themselves reduced to tossing bromides in defence of a group that can't quite give us evenings at The Bolshoi.

We always want ballet, you see. They give us a line-dance.

And so much of O'Neill's interaction with media can seem powdered with mild sarcasm, communicating only on what seems a largely superficial level.

In this, the tendencies of one Irish manager seldom differ from any other. The job wears their patience. They grow tired of the endless carping, the sense of people demanding art from a battlefield.

There have been nights when that prayer seemed to be answered, like against Italy in Lille or Austria in Vienna.

Taking the initiative in these games, by its nature, meant taking chances. And through those evenings on opposition soil, Ireland found it within themselves to play with a tempo they've largely struggled to replicate in Dublin.

To begin with, it looked like they had found it last night but, in a sense, those early Murphy goals all but sedated the crowd and, seemingly, the team. As the minutes trickled by, a lot of the early structure and control began to unravel before our eyes.

Once O'Neill became incandescent when Meyler was slow to position himself on the half-way line as Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark stepped forward for an Irish corner. But it was a rare moment of animation from the manager on a night that quickly lost its impetus and promise.

Of course, they say that good managers are right when they have to be and that's been O'Neill's position all along, an argument that patience is a virtue that usually gets rewarded.

The journey to last year's Euro finals was electrified by an improbable Dublin win over a Germany team that never saw the punch coming.

Now Cardiff beckons and, if Meyler doesn't retain the captaincy on Monday, it will be a surprise if he doesn't at least start. An unfashionable footballer making the most of what nature gave him.

An emblem of the team.

Irish Independent

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