Ireland: It’s Worse They’re Getting

by | Oct 18, 2019

It was a shock to hear it. And an aftershock to hear it on national telly. Ireland would have qualified for Euro 2020, with a game to spare (and before a demonstrably superior England team), had they beaten Switzerland in Geneva on Tuesday night. This would surely have been a first for international football. For had Ireland snuck past the Swiss, they would have been the first team to qualify for a major international finals while playing almost no discernible football.

Fortunately for footballing justice, a demonstrably superior Swiss side prevailed, two-nil, which was about the right margin, even if the second goal was a last kick own-goal, against ten men. But Ireland will still qualify for Euro 2020 if they beat Denmark at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on 18th November. As an Ireland fan, I rejoice in this but, as a football fan, I am appalled.

Sky Sports co-commentator, ‘whispering’ John O’Shea, said during Tuesday’s game that his former Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni used to tell his teams that “no-one writes how you played beneath the result.” Which is probably just as well, given how few times you can write “irretrievably sh*te” without dismantling everybody’s self-esteem.

Paradoxically, this dressing-room insider gem came during one of Ireland’s few spells of discernible football, as Jeff Hendrick and the remarkably improving with age Glenn Whelan briefly took advantage of loose Swiss defensive midfield play. But it needed more than a good 15 minutes to get something from the game after Haris Steferovic’s excellent first-half strike. And a LOT more than that to erase the sight, sound and stink of the previous Saturday’s Georgia game.

Ireland have played (s)crappily in and against Georgia for YEARS. But never, EVER as (s)crappily as during Saturday’s first 78 minutes in Tblisi. Nil-nil was “written all over it” after Ireland’s centre-back John Egan hit the post with a fourth-minute header. It was the worst game of Isthmian League football I have ever seen. Ireland mystifyingly played for a point, or at least appearing to, against a side about to concede twice to Gibraltar. Georgia were so “lacking quality in the final third” that you’d fancy O’Shea could have leapt straight from commentary box to centre-back and still helped keep a clean sheet…even without changing into his kit.

Brighton’s 18-year-old striker Aaron Connolly was prematurely thrust into the role of Ireland’s great hope by that outstanding recent shredding of Tottenham’s defence. But he was easily Ireland’s best player, despite only playing for 17 minutes, including stoppage-time, because he ran…well…he ran. That was enough to fashion two decent chances against a Georgia defence that was tiring for reasons best known to themselves (maybe a game like that is as wearying to play in as to watch). And with a bit more experience and no loss of pace, he’d maybe have taken at least one of them.

AND Ireland could have nicked the points in the last seconds, not for the first time in Georgia. Placed either side of Georgia’s untested but unsteady keeper Giorgi Loria and Shane Duffy’s free header from Hendrick’s corner was the winner. But Ireland should have been embarrassed to accept even one point for THAT 90 minutes. So it is perhaps just as well that Loria was in the right place to make the save (though only just, given that his feet were visibly behind the line when he caught the ball).

Denmark’s fortuitous 1-0 home win over Switzerland three hours later gave Ireland that unsuspected chance to wrap up qualification in British Summer Time. But the main take away from Copenhagen was surely that these were Group D’s two best teams, by about twenty lengths. And that Ireland would be third favourites in Geneva.

Ireland boss Mick McCarthy was publicly hopeful that the pre-match rain torrents would be “a great leveller,” the sort of managerial cliché you’d expect, and accept, from a non-league manager before an FA Cup tie against ‘one of the big boys’ but not from an international manager with experience of qualifying for World Cup finals. Yet you knew what he meant. And, worse still, it was an entirely appropriate sentiment (see “worst game of Isthmian League football I have ever seen” above).

Sadly, even though the game looked under threat when the ball steadfastly refused to bounce in the penalty area during a pre-match pitch inspection, only a narrow strip of land by each touchline looked like the sort of non-league ploughed field which often ‘graces’ November’s FA Cup first round proper.

Ireland were ‘plucky,’ especially after captain Seamus Coleman’s 76th-minute red card for two bookings. But Switzerland’s second goal was on the cards before Coleman saw his. Keeper Darren Randolph’s magnificent save from the penalty Coleman conceded for his second booking merely postponed the inevitable. And when your goalkeeper is man-of-the-match in a two-nil defeat, there’s no complaining about the result.

Comparisons with Northern Ireland’s almost entirely ambition-free display in Rotterdam five days’ earlier are instructive. Two-goal defeat was their lot too. And although they took the lead, Josh Magennis’s goal was due to three pieces of comically-abysmal defending from a Dutch team that had been grimly abysmal for 75 minutes. Yet still the North’s display was less unwatchable than either of Ireland’s. Northern Ireland will likely not qualify from Group C. However, if they did and met Ireland, you’d fancy them, even in Dublin, one of the finals’ 94 venues.

Ireland have been crap for as long as I’ve been using 200% articles as post-match therapy. Hard to beat but harder to watch for as long as I can remember. Yet this campaign has been the worst. As worse as it gets. Worse even than Trap’s crap 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, the fag-end of a reign which had run out of puff nearly two years earlier.

There’s no faulting anyone’s effort and commitment. Not even McCarthy’s. And certainly not that of his assistants Terry Connor and Robbie Keane, who, like O’Shea, could conceivably leap from pitch-side to pitch without adversely affecting the team. And Ireland’s under-21s offer considerable hope, despite a Euro 2021 qualification setback in Iceland on Tuesday. There’s talent across the pitch. And, as I’ve written before, the decision to wait until after Euro 2020 to give manager Steven Kenny the senior job seems less bizarre with each international break.

So, a win over Denmark still sends the seniors to the finals. Half of Ireland’s defence will be suspended, captain Coleman for his red card, centre-back Duffy for his, harsh, yellow card. And though Matt Doherty is a capable replacement for the increasingly tetchy, off-beam Coleman, Duffy looks all-but-irreplaceable, Egan had to be in two places at once for much of Tuesday night as it was.

Ireland have dug out enough remarkable results to make it unwise to dismiss their qualification prospects, especially as “there’s always the play-offs.” After all, if startling German boss Joachim Loew is your bag, just walk up behind him and shout ‘Shane Long’ into his nearest ear. But the scoreboard wasn’t lying when it said ‘Ireland 1 Denmark 5’ after the last Denmark match in Dublin which mattered. And Ireland haven’t improved since. I live in hope. But I fear the worst.