Erin Go Bragh: Ireland Go To The Play-Offs
Hey, we’re in the play-offs. But first, a confession.
I wrote much of this article over the weekend, starting as Moldova honked tunelessly through their national anthem in Dublin on Friday (and missing Darryl Murphy’s second-minute opener while typing). And, because of my pessimistic desperation to tempt fate in a good way, my words were overtaken by events.
I didn’t give Ireland a proverbial prayer of winning in Cardiff. I said a few, and my future cousin-in-law had “a novena going since last Saturday” (trans: a LOT of prayers), but that’s another matter. And, because of my pessimistic desperation to tempt fate in a good way, I wrote the first three sentences above, and the paragraphs in italics below:
Ireland’s World Cup fate was arguably sealed in Georgia, where an equally early goal (Murphy again) only won a point, just as happened in the campaign opener in Belgrade, although the point there was a good one. The display in Tbilisi was the worst of a dismal second half to an Irish campaign which resembled Scotland’s split-personality Euro 2016 qualifying group; great start, grim finish (which Scotland reversed in getting to within 38 minutes of the current play-offs).
Indeed, Friday’s 2-0 win over Moldova was a microcosm of the campaign; a pleasing, if not 100% convincing first half, and a putrid second half. There were reasons for this double-sided campaign beyond manager Martin O’Neill’s control, most notably the horrific injury to right-back Seamus Coleman. Whether Coleman is as key for Ireland as Bale is for Wales is a genuine matter for debate. But he is very probably Ireland’s best player and a loss both defensively and creatively.
However, Ireland’s defensive attitude has proved as costly. However good the draw was in Belgrade, Ireland “sat back” after both their goals. Having seized the initiative before Murphy made it 2-2, their refusal to try to turn one point into three nearly turned it into none (although, again, it is genuinely up for debate whether they might have been hit on the break chasing a winner).
And if the phrase “attitude is more important than ability” is generally meaningless drivel, it HAS meaning if you display neither, as in both games against Georgia, most of the home draw with Austria and for spells against all opposition, including the hapless, tuneless Moldovans.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a certain Giovanni Trapattoni will have taken an even bigger boost to his, never knowingly low, self-esteem. Ireland’s huffing and puffing, occasionally even in victory, has been Trap-esque in the extreme, lacking only a late Aiden McGeady winner in Tbilisi this time around. “As difficult to beat as they are to watch,” summarised Trap’s Ireland. It summarises O’Neiil’s too.
With that in mind, last week’s news that O’Neill and his entire backroom staff have been awarded extensions on their contracts to take them up to plucky failure to qualify for Euro 2020 was a real coffee-splutterer. As was his insistence that “there are exciting times ahead for us with some younger players coming through.”
Likewise, his defence of his Ireland record: “We qualified for a competition…one out of one at this minute is not too bad.” One out of two, however, doesn’t even match Trap, who was a certain handball away from a penalty shoot-out to make it two out of two. And yet…while I wiped away the proverbial mess on my proverbial coffee-table, I could not think of a replacement to justify his replacement.
I’m letting these paragraphs stand because (a) I’m too lazy to redraft them; and (b) I stand by them. I suspect I wasn’t alone in forgetting that Ireland were seeded fourth in the qualifying group and that even the third place which seemed likely after their only group defeat, at home to Serbia, was therefore an above par showing. And the Cardiff win was against the TOP seeds (mind you, NO team in the group finished in their seeded position).
Yet it rarely felt that way. England have received widespread criticism for their sterile football on the way to comfortable qualification for the finals themselves. Ireland have been equally below expectations, with less-talented players. Sterile Premier League fare is, after all, better than sterile Championship fare.
Professional controversialist Eamon Dunphy got pelters on my twitter timeline for his post-match comments (“gobshite” was the consensus) on Irish state television (RTE) for ‘joking’: “where would we be without LONDONderry?” (O’Neill, McClean and man-of-the-match Shane Duffy are all county Derrymen). But Dunphy was also praising Irish players and managers past and distant past; people he had consistently pilloried in headline-grabbing fashion at the time.
Dunphy hasn’t exempted O’Neill from this treatment, even on Monday, offering his trademark moan at the non-selection of a particular creative player (currently Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan). But the crux of his post-match analysis was: “Martin O’Neill. I don’t like him, actually. I don’t like his style of football, it’s not personal.” Yet even Dunphy admitted: “But he delivered tonight. He delivered in the European Championships. And I can live with that because everybody in Ireland is happy tonight.”
Fellow RTE pundit Richie Sadlier, correctly, called Ireland’s first-half display in Cardiff “gruesome.” Ireland’s few first-half situations (“half-chances” is too kind) were “created” by as much arm-wrestling as football. And the defending betrayed huge, if excusable, nerves, with each sliced clearance and woeful air-shot adding to those nerves. It was like Ireland were thinking “if we fall short of the play-offs we are taking Wales with us,” as a draw seemed likely to eliminate both (it would have).
But, as is often the case, Ireland struck after their trickiest spell of the match. Thousands in the Cardiff City stadium thought James Chester’s 51st-minute header rippled the inside of Ireland’s net rather than the outside. And Irish keeper Darren Randolph smartly tipped over Hal Robson-Kanu’s header two minutes later. Within four minutes, Ireland were gifted another “situation.” And, flying in the face of the game’s history to that point, they skilfully worked that situation into a play-off place.
Jeff Hendrick all-but-took the ball he’d just nicked off Ashley Williams over the touchline. But Wales boss Chris Coleman was well-enough placed to explode if the ball had gone out…and he didn’t. Hendrick’s cross was excellent, Harry Arter’s dummy was clever and James McClean’s finish was a touch of class in a classless game. North men, south men, comrades all, indeed.
(As an aside, bookmakers Bet 365 have been threatened with a boycott after tweeting a picture of McClean captioned “Not all heroes wear capes.” (Mug) punters accused 365 of “talking sh*t” for supporting “a non-poppy wearing thug,” claiming “this c**t is no hero, the disrespect he’s shown to actual heroes.” And others reportedly “sent abuse far too vitriolic for republication.” [far more vitriolic than c**t?]. A MONTH before Remembrance Sunday. It isn’t just Christmas that starts earlier every year).
After the goal, Ireland employed a 4-2-3-1 formation with the four, two and three all stood next to each other on the 18-yard line. Wales had been sparkily inventive early on. But once Joe Allen got unwittingly injured in a “Derry sandwich” (McClean and Duffy) and Aaron Ramsey’s game disintegrated, that sparky inventiveness disintegrated too. As did the spectacle. But, hey, we’re in the play-offs.
(As another aside, Chris Coleman gave a hugely dignified post-match interview. And I hope he stays on. Wales’ failure was far more down to Gareth Bale’s absences than any Coleman failings).
Beyond “courage” (in its limited footballing sense) and “determination,” there was little to say about Ireland’s weekend. They struggled against Moldova. A side so understrength that they could only name eight substitutes, who had bathroom curtains stitched into the side of their shirts and whose defending invented a new phobia, an irrational fear of long throw-ins. While Shane Long’s form suggested he should have stuck with Tipperary’s hurlers all those years ago. But, hey, we’re in the play-offs.
And Martin O’Neill has done us again. Me included. And RTE. They recently shipped criticism for depicting the island of Ireland without Northern Ireland. A technically correct representation of the Irish Republic but insane. Especially given Derry’s contribution to Cardiff. O’Neill, McClean, Duffy. All sea creatures, according to RTE’s graphic’s department.
“No-one will want to meet Ireland in the play-offs,” apparently. Mmmm… That’s a difficult concept to articulate without laughing. Michael O’Neill’s NORTHERN Ireland, maybe. They were a better watch in arguably a fractionally more difficult group. But Italy might not mind if Duffy and Ciaran Clark are all that stand between them and Russia, however terrific Duffy has been at vital times in this campaign. Ireland beat Italy’s RESERVES in the Euros, remember.
But while I may not sound it, I am delighted I was wrong about Cardiff. Martin O’Neill may merely be Trapattoni plus luck. But I can live with that because everybody in Ireland is…oh…damn you, O’Neill. Now you have Dunphy espousing my EXACT thoughts. Eamon bloody Dunphy. Still, thanks. Because, hey, we’re in the play-offs.