Tuesday 13 November 2018

Vincent Hogan: Crisis looms as O'Neill's men fluff their lines

Defeat to depleted Welsh piles more pressure on under-fire Ireland manager

Harry Wilson celebrates after scoring Wales’ winning goal last night. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Harry Wilson celebrates after scoring Wales’ winning goal last night. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

A single moment of refinement sufficed, a gently arced free that ran at odds with the frenzy of a clangorous evening.

Harry Wilson's 57th minute strike cast a cold light on Martin O'Neill's position, the Irish manager ghost-like after as he pushed a gracious hand towards Ryan Giggs. This may be the beginning of the end. Likely relegation in the Nations League and an accumulation of questions pressing down now on one of the costliest management alliances in Europe.

Because it isn't a team O'Neill manages now, more the fascimile of one. That's not entirely his fault, given injuries suffered by Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Robbie Brady, meant the hope engendered in France two summers ago has long since yielded to a sense of flux.

So there's an ambivalence to how we see this group now.

Half the team that started the 1-4 humiliation to Wales in Cardiff last month had no involvement in the 1-5 trouncing by Denmark ten months earlier. Yet those results drew sharp focus on an absence of tactical clarity or coherent intention.

As did Saturday's stalemate, the match stats a wasteland of ambition. Ireland drew, but were passed off the park by a team effectively playing one-paced, sidewinding football. They created one credible opportunity from play in 90-plus minutes. Great swathes of the attendance spoke with their feet at half-time. It felt depressing.

Last night was more helter-skelter, louder for sure, yet no less discouraging in what it conveyed.

Ostensibly, O'Neill gave youth its chance but - at times - it had the air of trying to gather a harvest in spring. He picked Callum Robinson and Aiden O'Brien as a two-pronged strike-force and the team tried, Ireland teams always try. But they hadn't the technical accomplishment nor, palpably, confidence to treat the ball as anything other than a hot-plate being passed from a kitchen.

Like it or not, that's our tradition. Ireland teams have a resolute instinct for eschewing possession in favour of long, spooned deliveries towards a (usually) lonely forward. That fugitive condition of 'playing out from the back' had been overlooked by far more gifted groups than this one.

Robinson and O'Brien up top might have seemed more brazen if we could have believed in the possibility of them being recipients of a service.

But Robinson spent most of his time on the field deep enough to be considered a supplementary midfielder and the customary tenor of what we do was, maybe, best captured by James McClean's thunderous fifth minute challenge on David Brooks, leaving the young Bournemouth boy looking paler than his peroxide mop.

Seven minutes later, McClean was spoken to by Mr Kuipers for another needless kick at young Brooks's shins who was promptly thumped again by Kevin Long, the defender receiving a booking.

Just 15 minutes gone then and Irish intentions crystal clear. Checking what resided within the kid's rib-cage.

Hence the grim fascination with management's salaries, not just the annual lottery win rolling Martin O'Neill's way, but the extended team. If Roy Keane is football's most expensive adjunct, how do we define the mysterious faces around him?

Tactically, Ireland look aggressively functional and well organised. No more, no less. They should have led when Matt Smith gifted Cyrus Christie a gaping, ninth minute opportunity that Wayne Hennessy denied. But we had to wait 40 minutes for the first, real evidence of joined-up football, O'Brien and Jeff Hendrick creating the opening for Robinson whose strike was blocked by the hard-working Smith.

It's hard to watch games as poor as so many of Ireland's tend to be. The language tends to be clipped and hurried. Even without Bale, Ramsey and Ampadu, Wales were ready for this..

Christie's early chance apart, Hennessy could afford to be semi-watchful almost, like someone reading Ibsen at a bus-stop.

Giggs picked a coltish team, one arrowing towards the teenage Tyler Roberts in attack and one, clearly, faithful to his desire that Wales play at pace and with a little impudence. It was a side with the grand total of just seven international goals to its name though and, truth to tell, it showed.

Because Ireland's physicality was, maybe, never going to be to their taste and Wilson's billowing 49th minute run through the middle drew another intemperate McClean challenge and an inevitable booking.

The night needed a goal. Without one, the loudest roars just followed tackles. O'Brien giving way for Shane Long in the 55th minute didn't, maybe, set the place tingling either, given the two years that have passed since his last goal.

Soon after, Sean Maguire was in for Robinson too but, by then, the Havelock Square-end was a blaze of red in celebration of Wilson's goal.

It was a goal that ought really have been avoided on two levels. Harry Arter's challenge on Connor Roberts arrived when the pass had already been completed and it's fair to say that communication between Darren Randolph and his defensive wall might as well have been delivered in Morse Code.

Ireland tried gamely to reset the balance, the crowd bellowing its encouragement. Hendrick directed a shot straight at Hennessy, but both Brooks and James Chester had opportunities at the far end, the former denied brilliantly by McClean.

Kevin Long was gone now too, a defender replaced by a striker in Scott Hogan. It spoke volumes. Ireland were game and hard-running, they always are. But they looked a ghost of a team. Three strikers on the field, no goals. No hope.

Irish Independent

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