Ireland: Sweet Jesus, What a Season

by | Jun 11, 2021

I hadn’t yet watched the first half of Ireland’s friendly in Andorra last Thursday. And I was briefly in another room in the house when I heard the noise of a goal. “Sounds like Ireland have scored,” I thought to myself. Then Sky commentator Rob Hawthorne uttered the words “…just got worse.” And I won’t repeat what I thought, in case there are kids reading.

Hawthorne insisted during his commentary on Ireland’s Tuesday trip to Hungary that the low point of their season was the 1-0 defeat to Luxembourg in March’s World Cup qualifier in Dublin. This suggested a concerning inability to recall five-day-old events. But Hawthorne might argue that the six minutes for which Ireland were behind in Andorra la Vella wasn’t long enough to be a “point” at all. And he might have a point there. After all, Thursday was Ireland’s biggest-ever win over Andorra…if you consider 4-1 a bigger win than 3-0. And you can’t argue with raw data such as that.

You can, of course. The Andorra and Hungary friendlies came during a ten-day training camp in the Catalan city of Girona, which presented under-fire manager Stephen Kenny with the opportunity to work with players for longer and more intensely than in a ‘normal’ international break (not that he’s had any of them, having only managed during a pandemic so far). This rarely showed over the two games. And Ireland fans must just hope that they will feel the benefits in future performances.

The ‘highlights’ of Thursday’s opening half which I have since seen confirmed that Ireland largely stank the place out. Their goals were all at least partly the result of some acrobatic ball-avoidance from defenders and keepers alike, especially “young” keeper Iker Alvarez’s effort to deny Troy Parrott a second goal, the word “young” doing a lot of heavy lifting to block a multitude of net-minding sins.

James Collins should have headed Ireland ahead from their only impressive first-half performer Jason Knight’s 37th-minute cross, as Andorra tired approaching the break. But Collins tried to make a mountain of a spectacular diving header out of a molehill of a simple nod home six yards from goal. And the highlights I’ve seen didn’t reveal whether the ball ever got closer than six yards from goal. Thus, nil-nil was a depressingly fair Scor Leathama, as they say in Irish.

And it got depressingly worse six-and-a-half minutes after Leathama when Ireland conceded exactly the sort of goal you’d expect Andorra to concede against someone good (i.e. someone other than Ireland). “Aim for the penalty spot” is the usual advice to takers of setpieces from where Alex Martinez placed the ball. So, it was especially embarrassing when the penalty spot was left to mark Mark Vales as he headed past Ireland’s previously bored keeper Gavin Bazunu, who could not have been more exposed had he wintered alone in Antarctica. “Sweet Jesus,” said RTE’s ‘as it happened’ text commentary. Well…quite.

Parrott’s equaliser probably had Video Assistant Referees’ fingers twitching as his low right-foot shot ambled goalwards, past Alvarez but straight under an offside Collins. A clear-sighted Alvarez might have stopped the shot without Collins’ hop, skip and a jump over Parrott’s shot. judging by his hurtle across goal as Ronan Curtis missed horribly from two yards a minute later.

“And its back to the bad old habits for Ireland,” Hawthorne gun-jumped, barely two minutes before Parrott “single-handedly turned it around” when he headed in Conor Hourihane’s far-post cross. No hands were involved, though, unless you include the two Parrott had on defender Joan Cervos’s shoulders as he rose for the cross. Alvarez, looking “younger” by the minute, certainly had no hand in it, contorting out of the ball’s way as if it was visibly covered with Covid and only getting his flailing feet to it as it, just, crossed the line.

Yet victory wasn’t assured until Alvarez was replaced by the even “younger” Xisco Pires. Andorra’s, ahem, ‘number two’ keeper won the battle to stand and watch bearded Damien Duff double Daryl Horgan’s 84th-minute cross which Knight prodded home for the goal at least HIS display merited, Pires almost leaning against the far post as the ball went in. Horgan deserved his 89th-minute goal, too, a neat semi-diving header entitled “THIS is how to do it, James Collins.”

By then, Andorra’s once-again tiring defence included Major Winchester from the M*A*S*H TV series, a.k.a. 41-year-old Ildefons Lima. Lima actually put Andorra ahead in a 2001 World Cup qualifier at the old Lansdowne Road, which Ireland (cough) stormed back to win 3-1. But on Thursday, his FOUR decades as an international showed…not that I was remotely as fit at 41. And Kenny’s green goal machine won at last.

Yet Ireland’s biggest-ever win over Andorra was a real damned lie of a statistic. RTE pundit and Pep Guardiola stunt-double Richie Sadlier’s advice to opposition teams was excoriating: “Press them at the back, because they’ll give it away; give them space in midfield because they have no real ideas what to do; don’t mind the lads up front because they’re very static; and if you let the ball go wide, you’ll get away with it more times than not because their final ball is so poor.” Apart from that, though…

“It’s an awful thing to say,” he…said anyway. “But the fatigue in that Andorra team was a big factor,” as was “two, maybe three howlers from goalkeepers for three of the second-half goals.” On Ireland’s ‘defending’ for Andorra’s goal, he wondered aloud, his face hinting at mid-term constipation, “what did youse do?” at the training camp. And he bemoaned the fact that Ireland only “started looking like a team” when Andorra “got knackered.”

Sadlier is good value. During his post-match analysis of Parrott, he said he “spoke to the coaching staff at Millwall,” where Parrott was on-loan in late 2020 “and they felt he wasn’t ready to make an impact at that level, mid-table Championship.” Whereas you’d likely wait in vain for reports of Alan Shearer’s chats to Brighton’s coaches about late England call-up Ben White.

It is no criticism to suggest that Ireland’s best spell in Andorra or Hungary was their half-minute “taking the knee” immediately before kick-off in Budapest, as thousands of locals loudly lost their sh*t. Kenny found the boos “incomprehensible.” But surely Ireland chose to kneel on Tuesday knowing Hungarian fans would boo. Hungary’s twice-elected prime minister is Viktor Orban, a veteran repulsive far-right populist. And football fans in such an electorate were never likely to appreciate open anti-racism. Especially from foreigners.

Orban insisted that “if you are a guest in a country, then understand its culture and don’t provoke the locals. We can’t interpret this gesture in any other way. From our cultural point of view, (its) a provocation.” You wonder if his words became racist garbage via garbled translation. Because you “can’t interpret” viewing anti-racism as cultural provocation “in any other way.”

One Hungarian player looked as if he was leaning towards Ireland’s kneelers, pointing at the “Respect” logo on his shirt’s left-sleeve. His stern facial expression seemed to say “Isn’t this enough?” However, reports suggested that his ire was directed at the booing crowd, especially as a number of his team-mates pointed at their “Respect” logo, too. Either way, these events did little to keep politics out of football, particularly as they were livelier THAN the football.

Ireland have played worse. And the final quarter of the game was actually good. But this was when Hungary’s superiority shone brightest. Until then, Hungary lacked quality in the final third, while Ireland lacked it in the final two-thirds. Sky co-commentator Matt Holland asked how good it would be if Ireland were in Hungary’s position, facing the European and World Champions (Portugal and France) and…Germany in the Euros. He said this eight minutes in, as Ireland lost the ball in their own third for the 16th time. But the answer would have been “not at all,” anyway.

Ireland came closest to a first-half goal when John Egan’s header from Josh Cullen’s free-kick thumped the bar. And Bazunu was scarcely more tested than in Andorra, until he went photogenically full-length to save Adam Szalai’s 39th-minute header, which BBC Northern Ireland match reporter Andy Gray thought would otherwise “nestle in the top corner.” Not without glue on the goalnets, Andy.

Caoimhin Kelleher was trailed to replace Bazunu. So, commentator Hawthorne had the work done on getting his name right when Kelleher emerged for his senior Irish debut, at the start of the second half, which allowed him to quickly settle on…Kelleher. Hawthorne needed to get it right, as Kelleher would prove the busier of the two Irish keepers AND the two Liverpool reserves, old and new, who ended the game minding the nets after Hungary introduced Adam Bogdan for half-an-hour.

Kelleher’s high points were 82nd and 83rd-minute saves, the first from another Szalai header, the second from Adam’s delightfully-named brother Attila, who fired goalwards as Ireland struggled to clear the corner. And Shane Duffy produced the high point of his season (a low bar there, mind) to block substitute Loic Nego’s close-range 69th-minute effort.

Nego was part of what gave the pre-match booers a moral dilemma late in the game (those that knew what a dilemma is…or had morals). Nego impressed, Adam Idah had Ireland’s only shot on-target and late Irish sub Chiedozie Ogbene gave Ireland something they’ve lacked all season, pace. But other four-letter words, or their Magyar equivalents, might have emanated from the stands, as all three players are black, with Ogbene introducing the wonderful phrase “Lagos-born Corkman” into football’s lexicon, as Ireland’s first African-born full international.

Ogbene might have nicked it on 89 minutes, if the situation hadn’t involved his first touch. He took full advantage of Hungary’s L-shaped offside trap to latch onto the again-impressive Horgan’s neat reverse pass, only to find the side-netting rather than the ball-sized gap which WAS there to hit at Bogdan’s near post. It would have been a steal. But the Budapest booers deserved to be robbed.

It was an unsatisfactory night for Hungary, whose manager Marco Rossi would be a shoo-in for the role of Hungarian Ian Holloway, if he wasn’t as Italian as his name suggests. The game was the diametric opposite to what they’ll likely face in the Euros, even though they are at home in their first two games. And I doubt they’ll have learned over-much from observing Ireland’s attempts to blanket defend and hit on the break, possibly Hungary’s only chance of Euros success.

And speaking of unsatisfactory…there an end for Ireland’s 2020/21. Euros and effective World Cup exits. Nations League relegation avoided scruffily. One win, six draws and six defeats (if you count the Euro play-off against Slovakia as a draw…and, in desperation, I do). The grimmest season of my 36 as an Ireland fan. Clues as to why ran through the Hungary game, as commentary and surely future fictional crime-fighting duo Hawthorne and Holland referenced so many players being injured, dropped and/or relegated.

But this made Kenny’s sparing use of his 27-strong training camp squad a bit perplexing. Kenny made great play of selecting younger “emerging” players such as Kildare’s Andrew Omobamidele. But of the four squad debutants, only Ogbene and fellow striker Jamie McGrath got game time, and only nine minutes, plus stoppage-time, between them, with Omobamidele and League of Ireland defender Danny Mondriou eventually only along for the ride, which seemed a pity when relatively youthful exuberance would have been ideal against tiring, occasionally forty-something Andorrans.

Kenny spoke at the camp of “a really strong cohort of players coming through over the next few years” who “will have 10 or 15 caps under their belt” (well, they can’t put them ALL on their head) “for the next European Championship.” And he believes (trans: prays) that “the Irish public will identify with them” when (WHEN!) “they are successful.”

But next up, on 1st September, Ireland travel to…Portugal (if they can by then). Sweet Jesus, indeed.