Sport Soccer

Thursday 26 April 2018

Long's late arrival may yet prove to be a turning point

29 March 2015; Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's equalsing goal with team-mate Wesley Hoolahan. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Poland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
29 March 2015; Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's equalsing goal with team-mate Wesley Hoolahan. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Poland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Tommy Conlon

With crucial goals arriving perilously late in three of their five games, pulling points out of the fire has become a pattern that so far has burned Ireland's opponents.

But the euphoria triggered by these dramatic escapes has somewhat obscured the fact that this is a dangerous habit. People playing with fire tend to get burned themselves in the end.

Shane Long's 91st minute goal last Sunday was positively punctual in comparison to John O'Shea's 94th minute equaliser against Germany last October. Aiden McGeady began the trend with his 90th minute winner away to Georgia in September.

It is not a coincidence: the traditional virtues of honesty and resilience are plainly as strong under Martin O'Neill as they've ever been.

The abiding concern however is that these late reprieves are symptomatic of a team running desperately hard merely to stand still. That this is a team, in fact, hanging on by its fingertips in the race for places at Euro 2016.

It was certainly looking this way at half-time seven days ago. Poland had comprehensively outplayed an Ireland team that looked, among other things, to have caught a dose of stage fright on the night. It was a big occasion, played out in a thrilling atmosphere. Several home players seemed to just disappear in the maelstrom.

Those who didn't go missing were making elementary mistakes. And Wes Hoolahan's presence on the pitch wasn't making a difference in possession: the long diagonal ball to Jon Walters was repeatedly the chosen means of attack. Other times it was just hoofed up the field to no one at all.

Poland, meanwhile, had hit the ground running. A yellow card for someone in green looked imminent from as early as the 14th minute when James McCarthy brought down an opponent to stop a counterattack. And a first duly arrived when Hoolahan gave the ball away on 25 and then overcompensated with a crude tackle. Irish players were under pressure in every line. O'Shea and Seamus Coleman also picked up bookings as the stress levels intensified.

The visitors had made it clear a few days earlier that they were expecting a rough encounter in Dublin. The policy seemed to be to get their retaliation in first. They were rugged, streetwise and not one bit daunted by the occasion. But if they were blunt in the tackle, they were blunt on the ball too - they created few clear-cut chances either side of their goal in the 26th minute. It was Robbie Brady's mistake but in fairness they punished it with lethal conviction.

O'Neill grabbed hold of the crisis at half-time. He reconfigured his formation and presumably sent them back out with his famed rhetoric fizzing in their bloodstreams. But the greatest motivation was surely the scoreline: Ireland needed a goal or their qualifying campaign was more or less dead in the water with half of it still to play. Conversely, the one-goal cushion seemed to take the edge off Poland.

Either way, Ireland raised the tempo and turned the tide. But as ever there was little in the way of subtle, piercing ball play. It was the familiar method of trying to breach the house by blowing down the door rather than picking the lock.

Hoolahan was there to pick the lock but he had a mixed night. And if he were Glenn Whelan, we might say he actually had a poor night. He gave the ball away inexplicably at times. On other occasions he was simply eased off it physically, like a schoolboy being shunted by an adult.

It didn't help that Brady miscued set-piece after set-piece. This was another pattern on the night: a big preamble, a rising gale of expectation from the crowd - and the anti-climax as the free kick went nowhere.

Ireland's best players were O'Shea and Marc Wilson. Their centre back partnership was the team's anchor, the one stabilising force that held it all together, in particular during that turbulent first half. O'Shea was virtually foot-perfect. Now almost 34, he has quietly built a very fine international career on his way to 101 caps. His tackle on Lewandowski in the 63rd was perfectly-timed and a vital intervention as Poland broke out with Ireland caught high up the field.

But it was James McClean's plough-tackle on Arkadiusz Milik 10 minutes later that had Irish fans crowing. Here was an example of the brutality that the Poles had anticipated. The crowd loved it and during the subsequent break in play for Milik's treatment, the old war cry rolled around the stadium like thunder: come on you boys in green. But the boys in green were already coming, and they kept coming, largely through a sustained McClean rampage down the left.

But still there was more heat than light: Coleman blazed wide on 82 and by now it was shaping up for the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone failure. Mind you, if Robbie Keane had gotten out of his way a bit quicker, Coleman might've been able to line up his sights a fraction earlier.

Anyway along came Long, with just eight minutes left to play, which seemed at least 10 minutes too late. But it wasn't half as late as his goal. That same goal may prove to be a turning point, the moment when O'Neill's reign finally became airborne.

They need however to score earlier, and ideally more often. Otherwise this team could find itself late for its own funeral.

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