Wednesday 22 November 2017

Brian Kerr: History warns us that it could be another zany night in Georgia

Ireland must impose themselves because nothing comes easy in Tblisi

Robbie Brady enjoys a joke at training in Tbilisi yesterday Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Brady enjoys a joke at training in Tbilisi yesterday Photo: Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

Some of the Soviet buildings that still surround us in Tbilisi started crumbling long before their empire did. Even now, a generation and more since Georgian independence, it is possible to turn a corner and feel like you are travelling a century or more back in time.

Then again, there's always a McDonald's around the next corner.

Like so many of the young independent nations, they are as keen to retain memories of former glories as they are determined to forge new ones.

The past and the present remain in conflict. Like a lot else in society, football offers a perfect view of how life has changed.

Brian Kerr and Lee Carsley celebrate Ireland’s victory in Georgia in 2003 Photo: Sportsfile
Brian Kerr and Lee Carsley celebrate Ireland’s victory in Georgia in 2003 Photo: Sportsfile

My first visit there was in 1985 with Liam Tuohy and Noel O'Reilly for the World Youth Championships and even then you could sense the growing mood for change.

We had Brazil and Spain, a nice handy group, and with a few withdrawals from our squad, it was always going to be difficult for us to progress. We left knowing that they could meet each other in the final and they did.

Marcus Tuite got us back into the game in front of 45,000 against Brazil and we were given a standing ovation at the final whistle in the stifling summer heat.

We made some impression and the Georgians made a lasting impression on us. They were very much people who were independent thinking. They were keen to tell us they were Georgians, not Russians. They were proud of their identity and back then they had the success to prove it.

It was a thoroughly pleasant experience as far as we were concerned and, compared to Leningrad and Moscow, where we had been for the previous year's UEFA Youth finals, Tbilisi seemed almost affluent.

The people were much more open, there was no shortage of the basics as opposed to the suffocating feeling of depression and oppression in Moscow, where it seemed even the bare essentials of living were absent.

It seemed like a more comfortable society, one very aware of their own culture and identity.

Prepared

Nearly 20 years later I found myself back with Noel, only this time with the senior team as we prepared for our first competitive game in charge during the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign.

Spare time was minimal on that trip; Mick McCarty had just resigned after losing the first two matches and we were up against it; but one evening, the pair of us decided we needed a stroll to clear our heads a bit.

I was eager to find the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Tbilisi, which is where Joao Havelange, the godfather of FIFA blazers, was staying in 1985; unimaginably plush amidst so much concrete grey.

We found it alright. The front was boarded up, lines of washing were strewn from cracks in the paintwork, bullet holes pockmarked what windows still remained. Not everything survived the revolution.

Certainly not their proud standing as a football nation. Graeme Souness still recalls that the finest team Liverpool ever met in European football was the Dinamo Tbilisi side that beat them in 1979.

Liverpool had won back-to-back European Cups but, despite winning 2-1 at Anfield, they were knocked out in the first round when being hammered 3-0 in the return. That Tbilisi side would go on to win a Cup Winners' Cup.

As we left the once-proud Intercontinental and its drying laundry, a small fella assailed us as we turned another corner, beckoning us into the darkened doorway of what seemed like the Eastern European branch of Michael Guineys.

They had every gewgaw and gimcrack you'd need and many others you never would. It's the kind of place where you'd get one of those knives for gutting fish or those hooks that only work for certain types of curtains and not others.

He pulled out a drawer and produced what seemed to him like a special religious artefact. It was like a miniature bible and when you opened it there were the pictures of 11 men. They weren't saints but they were to the shopkeeper. The 11 men who won the Cup Winners' Cup for Dinamo Tbilisi.

He rattled the names off and handed me the memento. Another fading memory.

The atmosphere had changed too, and not for the better. I could sense the hostility towards us in the warm-up.

There were a load of fellas hanging around the dressing-room, smoking and wearing leather jackets. Most of their brothers had been hanging around the hotel lobby all week.

We'd a hardy group of 200 or so supporters penned in amidst the home crowd, no segregation; they'd been already battered in Moscow a year earlier and their wallets were still recovering after the World Cup.

It was a difficult build-up to the match apart from the circumstances leading to McCarthy's departure. Robbie Keane's dad was buried on the morning we travelled so it was a really sensitive time.

We'd lost the first two games in the group under Mick and everyone felt we were out of it but I thought we had four winnable games to come.

We got ten points from the 12 and we were in with a shout of qualifying at the end of it all after such an unpromising start.

They had a better team than they have now with high-profile players operating in the top leagues - Kinkladze, Arveladze, Ketsbaia, Kaladze (though he was absent).

We played some good stuff, dominated midfield with Damien Duff playing kind of loose off Gary Doherty. He put us ahead but they got a dodgy goal from a dodgier free-kick before Gary got a late winner after we'd missed a few chances.

We never felt in danger but the players did. There had been a lot of throat-slitting gestures before the game. Then all hell broke loose.

Kevin Kilbane got a belt of a knife, a bottle hit Shay Given's bar, Gary Breen got hit by a marble. It was a zany night in Georgia, alright.

Still, it's been sad to see them decline; they're even behind Ireland in the UEFA club rankings now and even then it was almost impossible to find facilities.

The rugby seems to be the driving force there these days. They're selling out the stadia and sending players to the big leagues now.

That said, Ireland have struggled to beat them when it matters as two of my successors have discovered when they also faced Georgia in their competitive debuts.

Giovanni Trapattoni was lucky his first match was switched from Tbilisi and even then they squeaked a win on German soil in 2008.

Martin O'Neill required a rare sprinkling of Aiden McGeady's magic to get out with the three points this time four years ago.

We didn't really control the game and that has also been the case when they come here; we make them look better than they are and that was again the case last October.

Murtaz Daushvili ran the show in Dublin wearing a scrum cap. Another sign of rugby's prominence back home perhaps? Ironically, Séamus Coleman's wonderfully determined winner was a scrambled effort involving three deflections, more a try then a goal.

Brimming with the confidence of the performance if not the result, Georgia then deservedly drew in Cardiff a few days later.

The lost to Austria but led Serbia until a half-time penalty concession and the Serbs only wrapped up matters with an 86th-minute winner.

They haven't beaten anyone yet but, as Cardiff showed, they are capable of producing a result to upset the bigger teams.

They coped well with our long game in Dublin when we used Jonathan Walters and Shane Long as battering rams without offering too much subtlety to our game.

I always felt since the opening night in Belgrade that the return match against Serbia would be decisive in this group and that remains my belief but only if we do our business this afternoon.

Martin's side have already had two reasonable opportunities to really grasp control of affairs in this group, against Serbia and Wales, but the main thing is that we can still control our destiny, providing they don't wilt in the lingering summer sun today.

Once more, the manner in which we approach the match depends on the personnel involved; should both Long and Walters start, you can presume the battering-ram approach will hold sway.

It hasn't really been consistently effective for us although the argument will be made that it produced the equalising goal when required at home against Austria.

Then again, there is another way to play, with a better balance of controlled passing and the up-and-at-them approach, a mixture which might have produced greater and earlier profit against the Austrians.

It is no coincidence that our best performance, the win in Moldova, and our best result, victory in Vienna, have occurred when we have played Wes Hoolahan in the middle.

threaded He was at the heart of all three goals in Moldova; the early threaded ball to Long setting the tone as Ireland played on the front foot; in Vienna, he provided the crucial pass for James McClean to score after half-time.

I would much rather us having possession of the ball and creating chances. But it seems that Wes has become rather peripheral once more.

Jeff Hendrick is missing but, apart from his energy and industry, he hasn't made a significant contribution of late.

It is always difficult to guess what team Martin will pick - Kevin Long caught many of us out the last time.

But even though there is inconsistency in team selection it tends not to affect their ability to eke out results although it is rarely stylish.

There are a clatter of players on yellow cards but, just as the squad have demonstrated in their unruffled response to the absence of Coleman, losing one or two of them shouldn't make a huge amount of difference.

Ireland will not be thinking too far ahead, though, as there is enough to detain them here even if there is a sense that the hosts are in a small bit of disarray.

Despite their position in the group, their canny manager Vladimir Weiss has maintained their morale reasonably well and if Ireland give them a reason to feel good about themselves, they could thrive on that momentum.

Georgia, not unlike Austria when they visited Dublin, are missing key players, from their first-choice goalkeeper to Tornike Okriashvili, who scored the wonderful equaliser here two years ago.

That was a reminder that when Ireland's direct approach falters, this Georgian team can gain confidence and it took some wizardry from Aiden McGeady to rescue the win late on.

McGeady has returned to form of late and he remains a favourite of the manager and it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that he could be required to produce some more late magic, especially if Ireland find their long game is not producing reward.

Instead, I would prefer if Ireland imposed themselves on the game with the aim of retaining possession and creating chances through clever passing; when Georgia buckle defensively they usually offer up a chance or two or three.

Ireland won't be complacent in their quest for a win but the journey is unlikely to be comfortable because, as we know, they rarely make it easy for themselves.

Anything less than a victory is likely to radically alter the flavour of this World Cup qualification campaign.

Irish Independent

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