Friday 22 March 2019

Comment: The North's tangible structure only goes to highlight what Ireland are missing


Cyrus Christie (L) and Shane Duffy salute the visiting fans in Cardiff on Thursday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Cyrus Christie (L) and Shane Duffy salute the visiting fans in Cardiff on Thursday. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

With a humiliating 9-2 deficit in their last two competitive games, this is Ireland's worst such spell since an aggregate 10-1 loss to Austria in 1971 - and the brutal truth is that this is probably the worst side since those dark days.

A small football country that has prided itself on overachieving for the past three decades is now facing up to a return to the times when qualification was barely a hope. It already seems set for Ireland to suffer an embarrassing last place in their Nations League group, and relegation from the B division.

There are caveats, since the squad was missing by-now senior players like Robbie Brady and James McClean, but their return will barely do much to change the lower-half Premier League/Championship look of the squad.

The line of world-class players going from Johnny Carey through to John Giles, Liam Brady and Roy Keane has now long been broken, but there is so much else broken about Irish football.

The lower-league status of so much of the squad - and so much of the squad's medium-term future - is a consequence of a highly-dysfunctional domestic structure.

The country has long got away with it due to the diaspora, societal factors and blind luck, but a largely-blind reliance on such fortune was always going to make a situation like this inevitable.

It is remarkable that it hasn't happened sooner, given the evident disconnect between an under-funded and under-appreciated domestic league and a talent production system with so many gaps.

Those at the coalface do admirable work and there have been some improvements, creating some very promising underage teams in the last two years. But it is going to be a while before they come through, with few guarantees, meaning the next two to six years could be bleak.

The next two to six months could be worse. For all the macro problems in Ireland's football structure, and all the justified complaints that Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane might have about the paucity of quality, there are more immediate questions to be asked about how they're overseeing it.

The management team did well to get Ireland through to the last 16 of Euro 2016 with a limited team, powered by emotional resilience and defiance, but an approach like that was always going to have a finite effect, and it seems to have gone too far to the other side.

Everything is now caving in, resulting in humiliations like those at Cardiff, rather than everything being built up for heroic victories like those against Germany and Italy.

The most damning aspect is that the intangible qualities that initially improved this squad have not been replaced by a tangible structure.

Modern international football has repeatedly proved that, regardless of quality, a bit of organisation and tactical know-how can go a long way.

That's the nature of the level now. There is no greater example than neighbours, Northern Ireland.

Ireland now look a much worse team, because they don't have anything resembling such rigour.

They have a management now almost exclusively dealing in motivation from two decades ago, meaning Ireland are now looking at results from four decades ago.

It all looks so bleak.

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