Ireland: Staying Up, Staying Up, Staying Up

by | Nov 23, 2020

It was nil-nil. Because of course it was, And, yes, the result means that Ireland will be third, rather than second seeds in next week’s World Cup draw. But hey. Ireland avoided relegation into the third-tier of the Uefa Nations League with Wednesday’s draw with Bulgaria. And that’s something. No?

There was some panic-buying of sarky boots by Ireland fans, ready for another goalless international break for manager Stephen Kenny’s set-up. The Bulgaria blank and 3-0 and 1-0 defeats in England and Wales made it 11 hours since an Irish goal. The “Mallow News” satirical twitter account suggesting that “the last time Ireland scored we were on COVID-1.” The balls.ie website sighed that “our only goal of the year must be our goal of the year,” (Shane Duffy’s header in Bulgaria). And I got my pair (see headline).

Kenny has not been a “lucky general.” As the mock “Mallow News” headline read (they’ve been busy): “Stephen Kenny Trips Over Black Cat And Breaks Mirror On Way To Dressing Room In Stadium Built On Indian Burial Ground.” No ladders for him to walk under, then. But bad luck had no part in the very existence of the England friendly. Having lambasted the arrangement of an entirely pointless England/Wales friendly at Wembley in the last international break, my heart sank on hearing that Ireland were to play there on 12th November, an exercise somehow even more pointless than entirely pointless.

Reportedly, there were ‘gentleman’s agreements’ for the Euro sometime-in-the-2020s play-off semi-final losers to meet, to fill the date in the international calendar, though wise counsel would advise against such a game-for-the-effing-sake-of-it and a ‘celebration’ of failure, even without a global pandemic. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s penalty shoot-out loss to Northern Ireland avoided the even more darkly comic prospect of an all-Ireland ‘friendly.’ However, before Ireland could book their flights to Sarajevo, England called.

Ireland were late replacements for New Zealand, who withdrew because of what you’d assume were obvious Covid-related “travel and player availability complications.” Their FA said the game could “potentially jeopardise” careers as “a number of the team” would have to go into quarantine when they got home, which “would heavily disrupt their domestic seasons.” Still, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) stepped in, at three weeks’ notice, because…well…for the money, presumably. I mean, they couldn’t ask for a sub from former CEO John Delaney, not after the last time (see 200%s passim).

The official reasoning was punished on the FAI website. Kenny said: “It’s a high quality game. With minimal travel between London, Cardiff and Dublin, it is better for us logistically with player welfare paramount. It helps ensure we will have our strongest possible squad available for all three matches” And the FAI’s interim CEO, Gary Owens declared: “There is something very special about any game against England and I know our supporters will look forward to this match.”

Meanwhile, Kenny’s assistant manager Keith Andrews told Virgin Media Sport: “The decision wasn’t taken likely because of the circumstances. Bosnia aren’t as much of a force as England, even with England possibly having one eye on their (Nations League) game against Belgium. But when you factor in everything in terms of travel and how much we have control of the [Covid-19] situation, then it makes sense. We’ll see if it makes sense after the event.”

Alas, events overtook Kenny’s hopes for the strongest possible squads. We DID see if it made sense after the event. It didn’t. And a glance at fans’ forum, YBIG, a week before the game was even confirmed, could have told Owens about fans’ anticipation.

“Playing friendlies right now is just irresponsible,” noted one poster, correctly. “The Nations League going ahead is madness as it is.” But with broadcast deals to fulfil, games apparently had to be played. And other more prosaic football concerns were neatly summarised by the comment: “This is such a stupid idea on several levels. We would be battered, and it would affect our coefficient,” the ranking system determining nations’ seedings for tournament draws.

After losing in Finland last month, Ireland were barely hanging onto a place in “Pot Two” for next week’s 2022 World Cup qualifying draw and, potentially, a less difficult qualifying group. Losing to England would severely damage such prospects. Although, as another poster noted: “If you think we’ll get hammered by England then I don’t know why you’re worried about the seeding. If we’re that bad we won’t be going anywhere.”

There were also suggestions about arranging “easier” games. “Were Oman busy?” someone asked of perennial Irish friendly opposition. And another optimistically suggested that “we should be playing the rock” to “try and get a few goals” (which Bulgaria did last week, winning 3-0 – unless the poster meant Dwayne Johnson rather than Gibraltar). But however loudly fans shout, money always shouts louder.

It was surprising to discover that England hadn’t beaten Ireland since my first-ever Ireland game, in March 1985 (only five games, but still…). And maybe England issued the invitation to the FAI just to end that ridiculously misleading run. Because the game was, wholly predictably, unwatchable tripe, of no discernible value to either team. Ireland’s attempts to play out from the back rarely got them beyond the centre-circle and they only vaguely threatened England’s goal when they were a bit more direct at both ends of the game.

Ireland under-17, under-18 and under-21 star Jack Grealish DID look good but was, of course, playing for England. As was under-16, 17, 19, 21 and FULL Irish international Declan Rice. Grealish got the headlines for his display. But his showing could only have been a story if he was sh*te. And that was physically impossible for an England player on the night. A Paddy Power advert on a Wembley Way billboard depicted Grealish and Rice’s heat maps as snakes. But the whole night showed how right they were to choose England.

The disdain with which England held the evening was evident when the words to “Ireland’s Call,” the ‘anthem’ used by 32-county Ireland sporting teams, appeared on Wembley’s screens as the actual anthem was played. It was evident too from the team England boss Gareth Southgate selected, especially the second-half introduction of the excellent but circa 12-year-old Jade Bellingham. There was plenty of English talk of getting international experience into young legs and other such “positives to take from the game.” But the most painful part of Roy Keane’s post-match assessment on ITV was the truth of his claim that he “could have played tonight.”

And Ireland’s trip could only have gone worse had any squad member then tested positive for Covid. Cue midfielder Alan Browne, alongside a million jokes about Ireland not getting close enough to England to spread the virus, when the FAI confirmed that there were no “close contacts” forced into isolation. This after striker Callum Robinson had already tested positive, two days before the game.

It would have been darkly comic had THIS fast0diminishing Ireland squad in this goalscoring ‘form’ had denied Wales a seventh consecutive competitive clean sheet. And well though Ireland played in the first half, the better side arguably, Welsh keeper Danny Ward will have few quieter games. Even Ireland’s supposed one first-half shot on-target, by James McClean, would have gone wide if it wasn’t saved.

So while Ireland had more possession and chances, the game never felt that way. Darren Rudolph brilliantly denied scorer David Brooks a second goal. He equally brilliantly didn’t laugh when ideally-placed Wales ‘striker’ Kieffer Moore powder-puffed a shot gently towards him. And Jeff Hendrick’s frustration exploded in the last ten minutes, when he collected cards as if he wasn’t confident of getting many at Christmas, or as if he REALLY wanted to be suspended for the Bulgaria game.

Irish county Meath’s Gaelic footballers hit five second-half goals earlier that day. It was tempting to think they could be drafted into the squad for the Bulgaria game. And by Wednesday, there was probably room for them. McClean and Matt Doherty tested Covid positive having played the full 90 minutes in Cardiff. And the list of Irish absentees (through Covid, injuries and suspensions) was a teamsheet in itself, if defenders Enda Stevens or John Egan were rush goalies.

Bulgaria also had Covid, and confidence, absentees, which made for a supremely awful first half, both teams playing like Ireland did at Wembley. Ireland nearly gifted Bulgaria two goals when their attempts to play out from the back involved Shane Duffy, the squarest peg in the roundest hole in that strategy. Bulgarian keeper Martin Lukov did make a save. A good one, too. But calling Robbie Brady’s slightly overhit free-kick a “shot on-target” reeked of desperation.

The second half was better. Ronan Curtis panicked at an early sight of goal and blazed over. James Collins made the net move with one shot, which the fans at the other side of the ground might have thought was in…if there were any. Brady thumped the crossbar with a 25-yard left-footer which belonged in another game. While Bulgaria’s Bozidhar Kraev missed one clear chance from a corner and nearly benefitted when Rudolph fanny-ed about with it (technical term) in the six-yard box.

Sky Sports commentator Bill Leslie felt compelled to announce Ireland’s tenth hour without a goal…and the eleventh too. Then news filtered through that other results were somehow giving Ireland a shot at World Cup draw Pot Two (see above), despite absolutely bloody everything. But there was neither the time nor, after Brady limped off, the imagination to fashion a winner. Thus Ireland players were in no mood to celebrate avoiding Nations League relegation.

Kenny’s Ireland are currently bringing Liverpool to mind. During Brendan Rodgers’ early Anfield days, that is, where his efforts to get them “playing-out-from-the-back” caused huge problems. Rodgers’ plan eventually worked. But he had better players at his disposal and, given Liverpool’s scratchy pre-Rodgers form, time to perfect it.

Circumstances are rightly keeping Kenny from the pressures such results would normally bring. But not every fault can be protected, not when there’s so many of them. For instance, if I hear the words “Duffy’s the target” over pictures of another Ireland setpiece, I will let out a noise which I won’t be able to spell.

And now the FAI is investigating Daily Mail newspaper reports of an “anti-British ‘propaganda’ video,” shown to Ireland’s players before the England game, which an anonymous source said left them “shocked” and “stunned.” The “three-minute video” mentioned the Irish Famine of the 1840s, in which over a million Irish starved to death, the 1916 Easter Rising, the effective birth of the modern Irish state, a montage of Irish goals against England, “a mock-up of ‘1916’” on a Wembley scoreboard and a speech by Kenny.

And…er…that’s it. Nevertheless, the Mail’s Sami Mokbel claimed Kenny was “fighting for his job.” Un-named “critics” called the anti-English video (no quotation marks) “disgusting” and ‘nothing to do with football’,” and they wanted him “sacked.” Another source-with-no-name said it “upset several” squad players “who were born, raised and still live in England” (of which there were…three). And it “fuels extremism and racism,” said Tory MP Andrew Brigden, asked for a quote because…erm…

“We must kick it out,” Brigden added. And the Mail noted that “the incident” came “days after” Greg Clarke resigned as FA chairman “for using the term ‘coloured footballers’,” all designed to frame the video as racist. A lunatic Inside World Football website headline called it “sectarian video nasty.” And Brigden suggested that “if the England coach showed films of the Second World War and the Nazi death camps before a match with Germany. It would have been career-ending.”

Such hysterical claptrap reeked of smear campaigning by anti-Kenny factions, which have existed since his appointment. Especially as it emerged a week after the match, in a newspaper happy to label all criticism of England ‘racist.’ Nonetheless, the video was a crackpot idea, which didn’t work. About the only sliver of significance in this story.

Still, staying up, eh?