Saturday 24 March 2018

Unlike North, we're less than the sum of our parts

Pride and confidence seem to have gone out of Ireland's game, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

And so another abject home defeat is Ireland's lot and, in its wake, the familiar litany of tired old excuses gets wheeled out. Lansdowne Road has become a soulless, corporate entity. The old up-and-at-'em mentality has been shredded. Ireland teams are too negative now. The manager is a busted flush. There's never a bit of luck going when it's needed. And none of these things truly matter, because we don't have the players anyway.

Ah, the players. It's true the crop available to Giovanni Trapattoni right now are no world-beaters. There's one Irish player still involved in this season's Champions League and Anthony Stokes, for various reasons, doesn't figure in the Italian's plans right now. Every debate about the squad's merits is framed against the backdrop of a lack of Manchester United stars liberally sprinkling the squad. Even a few million euro doesn't guarantee you a miracle worker in today's climate.

This line of thinking might wash somewhat if it wasn't so easy to cast your glance towards the north and wonder how our cousins on the other side of the border get by. True, Northern Ireland lost 4-2 to Portugal on Friday night. Yet a hundred miles from Dublin but a galaxy removed from the insipid surrender in Lansdowne Road, Michael O'Neill's admirable team died with its boots on.

There is a spikiness and gilt-edged quality about O'Neill's team that we shouldn't just admire, but learn from too. On Friday, Northern Ireland led 2-1 with just over 20 minutes remaining until they were undone by a hat-trick from, by common consent, one of the two best players in the world. In the away leg in Porto last year, they were just 10 minutes from a famous victory when Helder Postiga struck with a late equaliser for Portugal.

These aren't merely isolated performances. In Windsor Park last month, Northern Ireland welcomed Russia and won 1-0, an achievement that proved beyond Trapattoni's more decorated crew. It's a good while now since they famously beat England and Spain in competitive fixtures but when, over the course of the last decade, could you have imagined Ireland pulling off comparable shocks?

So what is happening here? Do Northern Ireland have the players their southern counterparts seem to lack? O'Neill's starting 11 on Friday had something Trapattoni lacked: a Manchester United player, Jonny Evans. But that starting 11 also had two players from Huddersfield (12th in the Championship), one from Derby (14th), another from Birmingham (19th) as well as a defender from MK Dons (sixth in League One). O'Neill's side had half the total of Premier League players that started for Ireland.

The difference in output is worth considering. Northern Ireland, 109th on the FIFA ranking list, are capable of playing above themselves on a reasonably consistent basis, often considerably more than the sum of their parts. The bottom line with the Republic – ranked 44th – isn't that the players aren't good enough, it's that they rarely play to their potential anyway, too often far less than the sum of their parts.

This isn't likely to change as long as we keep asking the wrong questions. Marc Wilson had a nightmare second half on Friday, but that doesn't make Wilson a bad player. He just seemed to lack confidence and what little he had seemed to drain from him the longer the match went on. Shane Long too seemed dreadfully short on self-belief. It was a collective malaise and the jeering that followed the final whistle won't do much to hasten a cure.

It would be a shame if we felt too proud to look to the North for some guidance. The FAI rarely accepts criticism, however constructive, so it would hardly agree that its underage coaching structures lag behind their IFA counterparts. But that is the reality. In recent years a string of decent young players has come through the IFA system and you can understand why it grieves them to see the Republic gaining from their efforts. It's also interesting to note that of the 13 managers they have employed, only once, with Lawrie McMenamy in 1998, did the IFA look beyond its own shores.

They can resist the lure of the glamour candidates commanding outrageous salaries. When O'Neill goes, you can be certain there will be a feasible home-grown candidate ready to take over. Why can we rarely say the same down south? The only thing we can say with confidence when Trapattoni goes is that the process to find a successor will be long and grimly protracted.

That's not to say change isn't desperately required. Sadly, the legacy Trapattoni leaves behind is not an attractive one. Back when times were better, some of us used to write negatively of Mick McCarthy and, with hindsight, we'd probably revisit some of the harsher criticism. Afterwards, it became clearer what McCarthy brought to the set-up. He wasn't a world-class manager, but he didn't need to be. What he did was take a group of players who weren't superstars, made them fiercely proud of wearing the jersey and moulded them into a unit that, on its day, could be a match for the best.

That has been grievously lost now, though, and unless we resist the lame, old excuses and try to figure out why, there's little prospect of it returning any time soon.

Sunday Independent

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