Some (Delayed) Thoughts On The International Break

by | Sep 16, 2019

With his sight recovered after a recent operation, Mark Murphy took a look at various football goings-on across the international break. They were not all sights for his recently sore eye.

Ireland

We do not “live in interesting times” but barmy ones. Yet it still feels weird to read that the Republic of Ireland’s international football prospects are ‘good.’ In their sole Euro 2020 qualifier during the recent international break, a 1-1 home draw with Switzerland, temporary manager Mick McCarthy’s team were anything BUT good. However, if you want to boost international football morale, invite Bulgaria over for a friendly.

Ireland’s early Euro qualifier displays were forgettable-plus (three goals in two games against Gibraltar). Even Conor Hourihane’s brilliant free-kick winner against Georgia in Dublin slipped my mind, despite it being netted to a backdrop of tennis balls falling from the stands in protest at various shenanigans at the Football Association of Ireland, largely involving ex-CEO John Delaney.

Their 1-1 draw in Denmark in June was “dogged,” “resilient” and “spirited.” I.e. sh*te. “A physical battle rather than a football match,” said RTE pundit Liam Brady, correctly. Between Ireland’s grindingly awful 0-0 Nations League home draw with Denmark last October and June’s game, Danish players dismissed Ireland as “one-dimensional,” “primitive,” ”unpleasant” and “agricultural” (“Well, we are from a farming country,” McCarthy responded, unhelpfully).

Mathias Jorgensen said Ireland’s 1-0 squeaks past Gibraltar and Georgia exposed them as “the same team we’ve faced over the past two years. They will be happy to play for a draw. Our main priority will be to watch Shane Duffy from set-pieces.” And while Duffy’s powerfully-headed 85th-minute set-piece equaliser provided a last laugh of sorts, Ireland’s showing barely disputed Danish assessments.

Meanwhile their other games were their three easiest, the two against Gibraltar and home to Georgia. And however excited McCarthy may have been about three clean sheets (very, I’m guessing), a +4 goal difference was dismal. But draws-akimbo in Group D, including Switzerland chucking a three-nil 84th-minute lead at home to Denmark in March and Denmark drawing 0-0 in Georgia last Sunday, have left qualification in Ireland’s hands…though at 9.10pm last Friday week, it was in Swiss hands, as they dominated second-half possession, having had the few first-half chances going.

There was a brief sense that it might be “Ireland’s night” on 62 minutes when Breel Embolo went all giraffe-on-ice in front of goal. But Sky analyst John O’Shea had already flagged Fabian Schaar’s dangerous forays forward when the centre-back netted on 74 minutes after a slicker move than anything Ireland have managed since Liam Brady’s heyday. (O’Shea, incidentally, would be an even more impressive pundit if he held the microphone nearer his mouth…or spoke up a bit).

Then Switzerland stopped playing, for no reason obvious to any lay observer. Ireland were thus gifted minimal momentum for the first time all evening, which became considerable momentum when (*checks notes*) Glen Whelan thundered a 35-yard right-footer against the bar, with Swiss keeper Yann Sommer thinking “Glen WHELAN?” And before anyone could recombobulate, David McGoldrick bullet-headed home James McClean’s deflected cross.

“There may have been an offside,” Swiss boss Vladimir Petkovic noted, correctly, as just-introduced offside sub Scott Hogan interfered with play and his marker while leaping towards McClean’s cross. But VAR is not available in Euro 2020 until the finals. So…there.

Bulgaria were six shades of sh*te against England last Saturday week. So it was no surprise that their virtual second-string lost 3-1 in Dublin on Tuesday. Except that McCarthy fielded an actual second-string.

Until half-time, the game was as bad as that scenario suggested. All highlights were off-field. Cameras revealed McCarthy belting out the Irish-language national anthem, although mercifully we couldn’t hear how the lyrical, beautiful Irish tongue sounds when sung atonally in thick Barnsley brogue. And when Sky commentator Rob Hawthorne said Ireland captain John Egan was the son of a Kerry GAA legend, and feigned knowledge by noting the up-coming “All-Ireland football final replay weekend,” he got shamed into dead air by Whispering John O’Shea’s instant analysis of the drawn game.

Then…football. Mostly from Bulgaria initially, inspired by David Luiz stunt-double Bozhidar Kraev. But Ireland led on 56 minutes when Alan Browne opened his Ireland account, tapping-in the spawniest goal imaginable after 37-year-old Bulgarian DEBUTANT keeper Hristo Ivanov fumbled Ronan Curtis’s long-range shot and kicked Hogan’s close-range one into Browne’s path.

Bulgaria’s Ivelin Popov levelled when Egan hauled down Kraev, after a Cyrus Christie blooper, to concede a 67th-minute penalty. But with the millionth consecutive 1-1 draw between the nations approaching “the cards,” Ireland scored again…and…again, Kevin Long and sub James Collins opening THEIR Ireland accounts as Ivanov visibly aged with every cross into his box.

And all this followed Ireland’s under-21s winning very impressively 3-1 in Sweden to top their Euro 2021 qualifying group. The post-teens were inspired by “Tottenham wonder-kid” 17-year-old Troy Parrott (remember the name…it shouldn’t be difficult) and managed by Stephen Kenny, whose 2018 appointment as McCarthy’s successor in 2020 looks like a masterstroke in 2019.

So. Come on you (almost literally) boys in Green. However, Ireland face October trips to Georgia and Switzerland. And Denmark are in Dublin in November, where they won 5-1 on their last important visit. So while qualification IS in Ireland’s hands, let’s not, as the Irish say, lose the run of ourselves

Scotland/Northern Ireland

Just a passing observation from last Monday, as Scotland were destroyed 4-0 by a third-gear Belgium and Northern Ireland lost 2-0 to Germany. Belgium will surely be Euro 2020 favourites. And their performance at Hampden Park impressed even more when watched in channel-hopping conjunction with Germany’s at Windsor Park.

In fact, this particular piece of channel-hopping was quite un-nerving. Far more than once, I switched from a sweeping multi-pass Belgian move (involving Kevin de Bruyne and lesser mortals) to a German side trying eerily similar moves but getting each pass wrong by key fractions. Midway through the second half, every pass in one German pitch-length breakaway was either just short or just long until the move finally collapsed without any assistance from the Irish.

Northern Ireland are, of course, currently playing more enterprisingly than Scotland (and “the Republic,” for that matter), while employing an effective pressing game beyond the capabilities of the disjointed Scots. So Belgium were always likely to look slicker than the youthful, transitional Germans, whose squad had names familiar to seasoned Under-17s and Under-20s World Cup watchers.

Germany got it very right just after half-time, fashioning, and squandering all but one of, five chances between minutes 46 and 51, which slightly ridiculed Sky commentators’ and pundits’ on-going suggestion that Northern Ireland could have snatched a point, having had two great first-half opportunities. But otherwise they and Belgium resembled ‘before-and-after’ versions of a team of park footballers hastily-congregated to be coached by a top coach, in a reality TV football show.

Hampden studio pundit Kris Boyd blamed Scotland’s woes on football’s transition into a “middle-class sport” thanks to various attendant costs. “You see ‘no ball game’ signs up everywhere you go now,” he added, before contorting his face beyond skeletal safety when asking “WHY??” And Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted how much he “enjoyed (Boyd’s) class-based analysis of the decline of Scottish football.”

Boyle was less pleased as the “commentator cut across James McFadden, who was poised to launch into a point about Gramsci” (no, I had to look him up too). Anyway. Thanks to the mystifying influence of Uefa’s Nations League, Scotland are guaranteed a Euro 2020 play-off spot. Who Scotland could currently beat in a play-off, though, is a question you wouldn’t want to watch Kris Boyd asking.

(PS: England’s odd 5-3 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Kosovo contained three oddly-timed Kosovan goals. Thirty-six seconds after the start, and four and six minutes after the restart. Sounds as if Boris bloody Johnson gave the pre-match and half-time team talks).

(DE)PRESS

With an understandable reluctance to focus on the national team, Scotland’s football media had spaces to fill in their outlets during international week.

This would have been no bother had Rangers beaten Celtic at Ibrox on September 1st, especially had they done so as impressively as they did twice there last season. Rangers had won their first three league games and thus were ‘back.’ But little in those games supported hacks’ collective faith in a narrative-affirming Rangers win, given that Celtic also won their first three league games.

And the Glasgow Derby gave hacks no narrative affirmation. The first half was abysmal, even by Glasgow derby ‘standards.’ And Celtic ultimately deserved their 2-0 win, ending what the Herald newspaper GENUINELY called a “two-game losing streak” at Ibrox. Bereft of much of their songbook (see below), Rangers’ faithful couldn’t rouse manager Steven Gerrard’s demonstrably mis-selected team. And Celtic were (very) unexpectedly solid defensively and clinical on the break. This was comprehensively “not in the script,” necessitating a comprehensive post-match script re-write.

Rangers’ transfer deadline-night £7m acquisition of Liverpool’s Ryan Kent could have started that, as Kent shone for them last year. But the deal posed THE question Scotland’s football media have always avoided asking ‘Rangers’: “Where’s the money coming from?” Ibrox finances were already so perilous that Europa League qualifier exit could have conceivably killed the club, thanks to continuing trading losses, court costs and punishing loan repayments. And £7m for Kent would have been the most eyebrow-raising Scottish-linked transfer had Sheffield United not paid £17.5m for Ollie McBirnie.

The other big Rangers story was also ‘out-of-bounds.’ Well…one word was. Last month, Uefa sanctioned Rangers for their fans’ “racist behaviour (sectarian chants)” at a July Europa League game, ordering a “partial closure” of Ibrox at Rangers’ next European home game due to “the racist behaviour of their supporters.” Yet the ‘R-word’ slipped past many Scottish journos, despite “Racist behaviour (sectarian chants)” being the specific charge and “racist behaviour” appearing in bold in Uefa’s announcement.

So, hamstrung by their curiously-specific word-blindness, the hacks had to use their ‘imagination.’ Hence headlines such as: “Ryan Kent can be better than Eden Hazard” (Daily Record, 3 September). “Rangers top league table of most popular shirts” (Football Scotland, 4/9). “Rangers make top 25 European club YouTube channels in August but Celtic miss out” (Scottish Sun, 7/9). “Rangers star Steven Davis compared to Cristiano Ronaldo” (Record, 8/9). And “Alfredo Morelos or Odsonne Edouard? Rangers and Celtic stars rated as the debate rages on” (Sunday Mail, 8/9)

All self-explanatorily absurd/meaningless/desperate. In a poll attached to the last piece, Edouard won the “raging” debate 76% to 24%, Rangers fans presumably too busy buying shirts and watching YouTube to participate. Still, the Record also reported “a win for Morelos in the debate against Edouard” as his “Fifa 20” ranking was a point above Edouard’s.

This absurd desperation isn’t new(s). But the clear top-two in last year’s EPL offers an explanatory analogy. Imagine England’s football press banging on last week about Liverpool shirt sales or YouTube clicks edging out Manchester City’s. Or suggestions that some ex-Liverpool reserve could “be better than Eden Hazard.”

Oh…wait…

(Many thanks to the “Celtic Blog” for their extensive, appalled coverage of the above media bollox)