Sunday 18 August 2019

Comment: Time to stop pretending we care about good football

Ireland's Harry Arter. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Harry Arter. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

The last time Wales played a football match in the Cardiff City Stadium, the anthem sparked a white-hot atmosphere which fizzled for an hour until James McClean's goal sent Ireland into the World Cup play-offs.

Tomorrow night, with Ireland playing Denmark for the right to go to Russia, Wales find themselves returning to the capital for a game against the mighty Panama.

It would be natural for the few thousand souls who brave the cold weather to wonder what might have been, but it's unlikely they'll keep themselves warm with the consolation that they lost to Ireland while trying to play the right way.

Wayne Hennessy could have launched the ball up the pitch, but instead believed that Ashley Williams was in a better position to build a move from the back. Williams, too, could have taken the touch-and-clip approach usually adopted by Ireland's centre-backs but, instead, he trusted his technique even as Jeff Hendrick closed him down.

In theory, Williams was trying to play football the right way, but, in practice, his mind wrote a cheque that his ability couldn't cash and it cost his country the chance at reaching their first World Cup since 1958.

Tomorrow night, if an Irish defender loses the ball in similar circumstances, there won't be a national outpouring of sympathy for the player who makes the mistake.

The old favourite of 'Row Z' will get a mention, so too 'clear your lines' and 'never play across your own goal' might also feature from many of the same people who on Saturday night bemoaned Ireland's apparent lack of desire to pass the ball.

In the RTE studio, what will they say if, for example, Stephen Ward plays the ball from left-back into Harry Arter at the base of midfield, who takes a touch, looks up and is dispossessed, allowing a Danish player to run at an exposed back-four?

It's the sort of pass that the best teams, with the best players, play all of the time because they trust their technique even when they are marked. From there, they can create space by shifting the position of their opponents. It's also the sort of pass that, when bad teams play it, often results in calamity.

After going through the success that both Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane enjoyed as players in his post-match analysis, Eamon Dunphy posed a question: "How can they (Keane and O'Neill) look at the 93 or 94 minutes there and not feel a sense of shame at the failure of nerve to get the ball down, to pass the ball and encourage their players?"

Having read Shay Given's assessment that O'Neill probably wouldn't have done much work with the players to specifically counter the threat of Christian Eriksen, Damien Duff reckoned such a lack of preparation would be "not far off a scandal".

Then Liam Brady, while admitting that viewers must be tired of listening to the panel say the same things over and over again, added: "Martin O'Neill will not care one iota about what we think or what real football people want to watch. He won't care one iota, if we get to Russia."

So, to recap, that's a hat-trick of "shame", "scandal" and an argument that O'Neill is at odds with "real football people". God knows what the reaction would have been if Ireland had lost the match.

Earlier in the day, Ireland had destroyed South Africa 38-3 and, outside the Aviva Stadium, a prominent non-Irish rugby coach was baffled at the reaction from certain supporters who focussed on how poor South Africa had been and bemoaned the fact that Ireland didn't score more tries.

"What more do Irish people want?" was his fairly blunt assessment of the attitude.

The same goes for football, where everybody would like Ireland to play in glorious style on the way to vanquishing all before them.

But given the choice of good football and bad results or bad football and good results, there are very few that would genuinely take the first option. Even most "football people" care about style only as long as it isn't at the expense of results.

Under Giovanni Trapattoni, our 'why can't we play like that all the time?' moment came during extra-time in Paris in 2009. Ireland produced fantastic football when they had nothing to lose, which, when it suited, became the yardstick by which to judge that group of players if they subsequently failed to replicate it.

It's the same logic that would condemn a world record holder if they failed to run the same time again in the next race.

For O'Neill, that moment has now become James McClean's goal in Vienna, which, when it is boiled down, was a tackle followed by a two-pass move and a shot.

It was an excellent goal, but had nothing to do with players having the nerve to get on the ball. Rather it was about Austria vastly over-committing and two players, David Meyler and Wes Hoolahan, having two very obvious passes to play, which they executed to perfection.


The only chance for something similar on Saturday came when James McClean could have been 2 v 2 with Daryl Murphy against the Danish defence had Arter passed him the ball. Instead, after a poor touch, Arter launched it 30 yards over Murphy's head, which, given that Shane Duffy's pass to Murphy a minute early landed 40 yards away from him, at least meant they were getting closer.

All around him, players roared at Arter, who acknowledged his mistake as O'Neill berated him in the manner of someone who certainly wasn't happy for his players to just smash the ball up the pitch.

"You find a way to get the best out of what you have," said O'Neill last week, with his team now one victory away from qualifying for two consecutive major tournaments for the first time in 28 years.

They might not win many points for style, but it's a lot better than looking forward to a game against Panama.

Irish Independent

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