Ireland: Our Goals Will Come
I see similarities between two of my three favourite football teams. Not because of 2018 Kingstonian loan player Alfie Doughty being reportedly the subject of an £800,000 bid from Celtic (he, or his agent, must like hoops). But the style of play currently being attempted by the Ks and Ireland.
That ‘Ireland’ and ‘style’ can peacefully co-exist in the same theory shows that Kenny is imposing a new, football, Ireland. But without results or goals, this ‘new Ireland’ hasn’t impressed everyone. As Sky football co-commentator Danny Gabbidon correctly noted, Ireland would find their new style easier to evolve with no crowds in stadia to shout “get the bloody thing forward” every time a third pass is played across the back line, as happens at Ks.
Ks struggled early last season, as opponents dismantled our measured approach and habitually stuck the ball in our net, before we began moving it forward more effectively. Ks’ first two league games this season were four-goal defeats, before we began moving the ball forward more effectively, thereby improving results. Ireland struggled in Kenny’s first two games but looked more effective last week, despite results exiting Ireland from Euro 2021 and leaving them with a likely Nations League relegation six-pointer at home to Bulgaria on 18th November.
The pain of missing out on a Euros they are co-hosting will be greater, though. I’m not as convinced as many that Ireland were the better side in Bratislava. After a wretchedly nervous first 45 minutes, Slovakia VERY nearly led twice. Keeper Darren Randolph’s wonder save denied Ondrej Duda in first-half stoppage-time. And captain fantastic-at-times, Shane Duffy’s wonder goalllne clearance denied sub Lukas Haraslin with 15 minutes left.
Indeed, as Slovakia menaced after half-time, Duffy threw all sorts of penalty box moves, shakes and shapes to withstand the pressure. He was a handball waiting to happen as no part of his body was in a remotely ‘natural’ position for many early second-half minutes. And Ireland “should have won” only having survived that spell.
Sky’s Mick McCarthy labelled midfielder Conor Hourihane’s left foot a “wand” during the first half (seconds before the Villa man horribly shanked a free-kick with said “wand”). McCarthy probably had a different four-letter word for Hourihane’s right foot after he scuffed his 85th-minute shot six yards out from a near open goal, allowing midfielder Juraj Kucka to clear off the line.
Duffy’s clearance was more difficult, as Haraslin’s shot was a better hit. And that was a fair reflection of the match until the final quarter. Substitute Alan Browne was a pivotal part of Ireland’s best spell of the match and looked destined to score as he popped up in some fine goalscoring positions. Instead, he was destined to miss. And after he shot too close to Slovak keeper Marek Rodak on 70 minutes and hit the post from six yards in extra-time, the cliched view that he was BOUND to fail from a shoot-out spot-kick came true.
It was an unusually entertaining shoot-out. Rodak’s save from Browne was as good as you’ll get in the VAR era where Video Assistants will retrieve even a millimetre of keepers’ encroachments. Rodak’s right foot WAS millimetres off his line. But his left foot was anchored legally. And while Browne’s penalty was at the cliched “right height for a keeper,” Rodak reached it more quickly than the keepers who used to be allowed to narrow the angle at penalties.
Until then, Randolph was closer to Slovakia’s terrific penalties than Rodak was to Ireland’s. And he damn nearly saved Jan Gregus’s “Pannenka” penalty, despite being initially wrong-footed, changing direction mid-flight as if a future as a circus contortionist awaits. No-one would have believed that a still photo would have been of an attempted penalty save. Alas, Slovakia’s penalties reverted to more traditional in-the corner types. And when Matt Doherty won a crossbar challenge with his kick, Ireland were out.
“Agony” and “heartache” featured prominently in media reactions. McCarthy added “travesty” to the lexicon, although he has called Ireland “the better side” in almost every game he has commentary-box analysed this season. The BBC wrote on-line that Ireland “undoubtedly deserved to progress.” The general view echoed Kenny’s, that Ireland “deserved better.” And the Slovak FA apparently bought it, having just fired coach, Pavel Hapal.
After Bratislava, Ireland/Wales would have been the most pointless match…but for England/Wales at Wembley three days earlier. None of domestic football’s recent crackpot schemes match the crackpottery of ‘friendly’ matches during a global pandemic.
The early stages had an overwhelming “why are we here?” vibe. Gabbidon was particularly vexed by the lack of intensity. And he and McCarthy’s com-box love-in was better than the football, especially their shared experiences of how different centre-back play was in their “day,” despite their “days” being largely in different centuries. Hopefully, they can hone their double act during November’s Nations League return fixture, the nations’ sixth meeting since March 2017.
Sky Sports were convinced that Wales should have had a penalty when Randolph appeared to flatten Wales’ Ethan Ampadu in trying to reclaim a dropped cross. Ireland got the free-kick for reasons only referee, and scrabble-winning letter combination Anastasios Sidiropoulus, will ever know. But closer inspection revealed that Randolph merely caught Ampadu’s hair; the Welshman’s collapse probably more due to recall of a childhood incident with a comb than anything Randolph landed.
Another wretched first-half heralded another better second half. The headlines about “ten-man” Ireland holding out for a draw were pushing it, as James McClean’s surly discharge came on 84 minutes. It was, nevertheless, an OK result given Ireland’s Covid-splattered preparations (see below) and Kevin Long’s early departure after a genuinely accidental encounter with Wales striker Kieffer Moore’s forearm, for which Moore was shamefully booked by the shameful Sidiropoulus.
Wales struggled to string passes together, possibly as they were the opposite of “resplendent” in yellow-ish and dark-ish something-ish (their all-red number presumably still in the wash after Wembley). And, to combine two clichés, clear-cut chances were few, far-between and at a premium. Still, as Irish Times reporter Emmet Malone noted, Ireland’s new approach “had far more potential than sending something hopeful up the left.”
McClean has somehow forged a fine international career from such balls. But there was an end-of-an-era feel to his departure here. He WAS unlucky to see red, though. His first booking was nothing of the sort. And Sidiropoulus’s whistle for an Ireland free-kick should have stopped him mid-reckless launch towards his second yellow. And I hope Kenny sees the value of a player so committed to his country. He’s scored international goals in living memory, after all.
The sound of 8,000 real fans in Helsinki was welcome for many reasons, not least because “Fields of Athenry” pock-marked the fake Irish crowd noise in Bratislava and Dublin, for no remotely decent reason. And whether or not the crowd contributed, the game was the best of Ireland’s three almost from the start.
As in Dublin last month, Teemu Pukki wore his post-lockdown Norwich shooting-boots in shooting poorly from two good positions. Hendrick shot straight at Finnish keeper Lukas Hradecky early on. Sean Maguire hideously miscontrolled a magnificent Connolly pass when even a vaguely deft touch would have put him in on goal, eight yards out, with Hradecky helpless. And Stevens dictionary-defined “ungainly” in hooking his 64th-minute effort against the crossbar.
Finland’s goal, two minutes later, offered confirmation that Sky’s “commentary position” was studio-based, as Randolph’s undercooked goalkick caught local TV as much on the hop as Ireland’s defence. And McCarthy had to confess that he didn’t know “what…who’s given the ball away.” There was still the cliched ‘plenty to do.” But the Finns eventually did it, Dublin match-winner Fredrik Jensen side-footing home after some six-yard box semi-slapstick. A better team might have made less of a meal of opening the gift. A better team wouldn’t have given it.
However, it only proved decisive after Finland unwisely entered lead-protection mode and Ireland piled on considerable late pressure. The pressure would have paid off too, if it wasn’t for that pesky Hradecky’s wonder save from sub Ronan Curtis’s header.
Aaron Connolly’s post-match interview was better than we had any right to expect from a xx-year-old, even if he could only express “frustration,” whatever the question. Had he been asked what he’d had for breakfast, he’d probably have said “frustration.” But hie was frustrated-plus about Covid costing him a place in Bratislava. “1.9 metres from somebody who ended up with a false positive,” he spat, summing up a football nation’s…frustration, as the virus and attendant issues dismantled Ireland’s preparations.
Sky Sports called the situation “shenanigans,” which suggested ignorance of shenanigans’ meaning or covert hinting at anti-Ireland shenanigans at Uefa. McCarthy, as per, made more direct reference to possible Uefa skullduggery, although he was quick to disavow the conspiracy theory to which he’d just made unsolicited reference.
The fun began with the positive test result received by an un-named member of Ireland’s backroom staff, two days before the Slovakia game. The staffer was deemed a “close contact” of Connolly and fellow forward Adam Idah, with Connolly’s post-Finland interview suggesting that they contacted ten centimetres too closely on the flight to Slovakia. The test only emerged as a “false positive,” when two tests, two days AFTER Slovakia, showed “no trace” of Covid.
Slovakia were considerably Covid-hit too, with Connolly’s likely marker, Milan Skriniar testing (truly) positive and Stanislav Lobotka ruled out after a virus outbreak at his club Napoli. Nonetheless, when goals are almost as rare as rocking-horseshit, losing two strikers is a heavy blow.
A second ‘true’ positive test, on a player who couldn’t “be named at this stage,” did for five players before the Wales game; Browne, John Egan, Callum O’Dowda, Callum Robinson all having sick notes saying “close contact,” with, reportedly, Derrick Williams. A second squad player, still un-named, tested positive on Tuesday. Reports referenced “conflicting results from two earlier tests,” which, alongside the tests on the backroom staffer, suggested these things were a ‘best of three.”
Meanwhile, as I noted last month, Ireland have increasing regular EPL first-team experience in their squad. And they are starting to play like it. Players such as Hendrick, Doherty, Stevens, Egan and others belong in international football. Ireland had to use football’s lower tiers this week. But only because of Covid.
It sounds daft to say that goals are “all” that’s missing, when they make “all” the difference. But, having watched Ireland through thin and thin in recent years, and with this manager and these players, I believe that, as the saying nearly goes, our goals will come.