Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 February 2018

New green shorts but not enough green shoots of promise for fans

Ireland's David Meyler in action against Turkey's Ishak Dogan during yesterday's international friendly
Ireland's David Meyler in action against Turkey's Ishak Dogan during yesterday's international friendly
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ireland wore green shorts and were hoping for green shoots. Green is also the colour of envy; as many of their international relations are planning for the sport's ultimate carnival, Ireland have had Georgia on their minds for some time now.

This night merely moved us 90 minutes closer. In essence, the only significant tactical innovation of note took place on the bench. No longer does Roy Keane sit beside his manager; instead, Steve Walford, Martin O'Neill's long-time consigliere, has the Derry man's ear.

Keane may still be chafing at the bit for a return to a regular day job; those who stayed away to watch him and his colleagues on duty here may have been praised for their keenly perceptive foresight.

Literally, one could not give away free tickets – even for a family of four! – for this gig.

Plainly, it was a worthless effort for so many of the much-vaunted Irish football family. Martin O'Neill could only hope that he gleaned more value from the exercise than his paymasters, those charged with sparking the sadly moribund interest in the national team.

The vast chasms within this stadium reflected this and other factors; that one could hear the exhortations of the players from a few hundred feet away in the bleachers was oddly disconcerting.

O'Neill will not be unaware that other issues, aside from the pressing need for an emerging left-back or the desperate quest for someone to follow in Robbie Keane's boot steps, have dominated of late.

In Ireland, silly seasons are supposed to last only for a couple of months in the summer, when both the Dáil and courts are in recess.

Given the national soccer team's absence from next month's football carnival in Brazil, theirs is destined to last for almost a year.

It is not surprising, then, that the national team have been garrisoned by events that, even if they are not of their own divination, reflect the reality that, in terms of what happens on the field, there is more fuel fired by the past than the future.

The most prominent news items before the build-up to last night's game were rooted in a past where a sense of rootlessness reigned supreme. Roy Keane and Stephen Ireland were prompted, albeit the latter unwittingly, into the vacuum that has endured in the year between competitive matches.

Thus, most of us were, quite unwillingly, hauled back into yet more needless excavation of those unseemly days in 2002 when Keane divided a nation and, five years later, when Stephen Ireland took a cleaver to his own family.

If all that were not sufficient to dull the senses, O'Neill was once more re-appraised of the freewheeling circus that attends the significant personality of his assistant when the Celtic vacancy emerged as a talking point. Despite the increasingly unlikely possibility of Keane hopping into the Celtic hot seat – it began as a highly improbable thesis in any event – the swirl of focus off the field reminds us that, too often, there is little on it to divert one's fitful gaze.

On the field, too, Ireland are attempting manfully to forge a brighter future, even if still tentatively rooted in their recent pass under the draconian leadership of Giovanni Trapattoni.

Despite the involvement of so many of O'Neill's leading contenders for starring roles from September and beyond, an appalling defensive lapse and recidivist problems in front of goal were not unusual occurrences for this, or any other regime.

Just as was the case in the stands, it was more pertinent to reflect on those who were absent, rather than those who were present.

Robbie Keane remains Ireland's only truly consistent converter of goal chances; Shane Long, who forlornly craves that status, missed a glaring

effort here in the first half from no distance. It was pointed that as he wheeled away in disgust, and away from the playing area, another chance presented itself to his captain when, in fact, Long should have been trying to make amends.

His effort and aggression are eminently praiseworthy; his diminished end product is not.

Robbie Keane, tumbling implacably into extended dotage, remains a vital supplier of that rarest of commodities – international goals.

At the back, Richard Dunne's return must pressingly be a matter for serious consideration; assuming his fitness and health survive his welcome return to top-flight football.

Stephen Ward was lost in no-man's land as slick Turkey pounced for their goal; the men beside the recurrently hesitant left-back were non-committal. Rob Elliott, on a day when a Wentworth wonder was celebrating joyfully the removal of the yoke, the goalkeeper's feet failed to move as Ozek, a mere fledgling at this level, flashed a near-post header beyond his flailing grasp.


Ireland responded with typically yeomanry instincts and yet, for all the incision of Wes Hoolahan, when the ball arrived at his feet, it usually did so after a tortuous journey. James McCarthy's charismatic personality was sorely missed.

In contrast, Inan and Sahin, Turkey's midfield duo, were rapier-like in their delivery; that they were mostly fitful in their endeavours ensured Ireland escaped more severe retribution.

At least Ireland kept up the appearance of a team at least trying to play and pass and move, unlike under O'Neill's often derided predecessor, albeit the team remain a zealously dour collective.

They are symbolised by Aiden McGeady and James McClean, who more often than not, still resemble uncertain elephants charging senselessly at imaginary enemies.

The arrival of three imposing six-footers late in the piece hinted that the pretence of creativity – obviously cleverly concealed – would be supplanted by more rudimentary methods. Turkey, often doleful and disinterested, responded with another slick interchange; Wes Hoolahan, who along with his glaringly orange boots provided the only occasional dash of colour, supplied beautifully for Jon Walters to finish decisively.

In that moment, he revealed something beautiful. Otherwise, grit and passion once more trumped guile and panache.

Ultimately, a match that exposed not much of a hint of changed fortunes to come, rather confirming realities that have existed for some time now. And dressing them up any differently won't make a difference.

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