Wednesday 24 January 2018

Brian Kerr: Announcing Martin O'Neill deal on eve of game a peculiar move

Sharp decline in performances and results in 2017 have aroused uncertainty

Ireland players (l-r) Glenn Whelan, Aiden O’Brien, Rob Elliot, Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh, Callum O’Dowda and Eunan O’Kane during training in Abbotsto. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland players (l-r) Glenn Whelan, Aiden O’Brien, Rob Elliot, Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh, Callum O’Dowda and Eunan O’Kane during training in Abbotsto. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

There would have been a fair degree of optimism amongst the Irish camp when the draw for this qualification was made last year, particularly within the context of the feel-good factor emanating from the encouraging Euro 2016 performances.

Ireland had seemed to alight upon a clearer identity, based on a pattern of passing play amongst the midfield players, combining traditional Irish virtues of graft with a sprinkling of craft, demonstrated to such telling effect against Italy and for lengthy periods against France.

A draw which unveiled the most favourable top seed and hardly the most fearsome second-seed option emboldened this sense of hope and garnering ten points from the opening four games seemed to illustrate that the graph of improvement was still pointing upwards, even if some doubts persisted.

Ireland now had a key batch of strong performers and personalities - James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady - and a settled management team who seemed set to carry on that improvement and, it was hoped, kick on to the next level.

Yet this week, the obvious uncertainties created by our perilous position in qualifying remain vivid and there are inevitable discussions around the future of some senior players.

At least the manager knows his immediate future. The timing of the contract signing seems strange to me, on the eve of such an important weekend but perhaps it is a demonstration of support from the FAI for their man.

There is still work to be done.

For much of 2017, the trend has been worryingly negative; in their four qualifying games this year Ireland have only managed three points, scoring just two goals, and the inconsistency of form and performance has been worrying.

Platform

A platform to seize some measure of control in this group has been ceded and now, even if Ireland win their final two games, an appearance at next year's World Cup finals is not within their own destiny.

The manager has asserted that he would have taken this position at the outset but it is reasonable to argue, after such a positive start to the group, whether such an attitude is completely accurate.

And so, from a position where this group emerged with such credit and self-belief from their last major tournament, they now face a fixture against Moldova, followed by the trip to Cardiff, in staggering, rather than swaggering, mode.

Of course, should Ireland get the six points, by any means, the anxiety brewing after that run of poor results against Wales, Austria, Georgia and Serbia will have dissipated somewhat; at this stage, the results are the means to the end.

The disappointment is that just when Ireland seemed to alight upon a combination of styles, and the collective mix of players required to implement them, there was a dramatic departure from this template as 2016 gave way to 2017.

In this calendar year, Ireland have played seven matches and only won one. Goals - just six - have been hard to come by and there is a general sense that the style of play has not only been difficult to watch but, of much more importance, has not been conducive to eking out positive results.

The underlying problem, to me, is that the squad have lacked the intent to play football at key moments in this group and at key moments within games.

All the evidence suggests quite clearly that this team - and its players - perform better when they have an intention to pass the ball and keep possession, rather than resort to the lottery of long-ball stuff that has pockmarked the recent alarming dip in form.

Composure, not chaos, serves this Irish team best. And this is a time for calm heads.

It is no coincidence that the best performances in this campaign have been based upon Ireland's willingness to keep the ball and build up play; furthermore, that these displays have happened when Wes Hoolahan has been in the side.

As encouraging as it has been to see his team-mates willingly match the tempo and intention when he is present, the worrying aspect has been their apparent unwillingness to do so when he is absent.

For all the world it seems now as if there are two styles of play - one that features with Wes as its fulcrum and one without.

How has it come to pass that the presence of a 35-year-old, hardly a regular with a Championship struggler, should dictate the mood of an international side featuring so many players with top-flight experience?

Are players like Brady and Hendrick, latterly Harry Arter, so inhibited by one player's absence that they are unable to recreate the performances that they are routinely capable of at club level?

The management team insist that they encourage their players to retain possession rather, as we have seen far too often, dismiss it with a punt downfield.

If that is the case, then the message is not getting through to those players I mentioned or else there is a deficit in the quality of education and guidance being offered to a group who, consistently, demonstrate their ability to retain possession in the often more testing environs of the Premier League.

And yet this is a concept that has often, particularly when Hoolahan is not involved, remained beyond the reach of Ireland. And considering the enormous progress made two summers ago, this remains deeply disappointing.

A further irony lies in the fact that for all the mystifying urge to resort to the battering-ram approach, it has produced less of an end product compared to the times when the team has leaned more towards possession football.

The Jonathan Walters goal at home to Austria was the sole stand-out when this route-one approach bore fruit - there have been set-piece goals as well, of course, in Serbia and Georgia - but most of the positive performances and well-worked goals have derived from composure, protecting the ball and ground passing.

It is also no accident that, be it Austria away or Moldova away, this occurred at the beginning of the group when Ireland asserted an early command of this pool, whereas the decline in performances and results has coincided with a stark abandonment of basic footballing principles.

The last home game against Serbia was a case in point, a performance that followed the horrendous display in Tbilisi.

Against Serbia, Hoolahan started and a transformed Ireland were energised by his presence, keeping the ball well and causing the defence numerous problems.

But when Ireland conceded, Hoolahan was almost immediately withdrawn; Ireland lacked the guile to break them down, instead resorting to hopeful, deep crosses and wild, long-range shooting.

It goes without saying that Wes should start tonight for a win is paramount but Ireland will also want to bring some sense of momentum into Monday.

It would make sense to deploy the trio of Hendrick, David Meyler and Arter, so impressive in Vienna, alongside him, with Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward providing natural width in a game where we should expect to dominate possession and create chances for whoever wins the lucky dip for the front positions.

A win tonight - and on Monday - is all that matters now.

But surely some composure might help ease any unnecessary anxiety.

Irish Independent

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