Ireland’s World Cup Car Crash 

by | Nov 15, 2017

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph” is a polite, religious Irish version of a phrase which rhymes with “clucking bell;” the reaction, surely, of many Ireland fans watching their team’s humiliating World Cup exit on Tuesday. And probably a better bet in Ireland’s midfield diamond than the one Denmark ran lanes through at will.

When the end came, it was as difficult to watch as much of the football Ireland have played under Martin O’Neill’s management, although some of Denmark’s football was at the opposite end of the quality scale.

Christian Eriksen and his manager Aage Hareide had reason to say “thank you” to O’Neill, for the way Ireland played and the way they were set up. Eriksen’s goals were all finished with world class. But two were gifts, one a direct present from a thoroughly discombobulated Stephen Ward, who wobbled as he tried to…I’m still not sure what…like he’d been drinking…spirits…heavily since kick-off.

Hareide thanked O’Neill “very much” in his post-match SKY TV interview for allowing Eriksen “a lot of space in central midfield.” And although it isn’t the done thing in terms of international football diplomacy to openly show gratitude for opponents’ incompetence, Denmark’s Norwegian boss couldn’t BUT thank his former Norwich City and Manchester City playing colleague.

This humiliation, as professional controversialist Eamon Dunphy said in his post-match analysis on RTE (Ireland’s state television) has “been coming.” Regular readers know that I’ve always considered O’Neill a “lucky Trapattoni,” producing the same largely unwatchable rubbish as Italian predecessor as Ireland boss, Giovanni.

This has nicked some eye-catching results against technically superior opposition, notably Ireland 1 Germany 0. But when spirit and guts were not enough, it was Ireland 1 Germany 6. And when O’Neill said: “we have to score a couple of goals” after Saturday’s ghastly goalless gloop, I feared a near-repeat.

Ireland needed to nick a goal in Copenhagen. And while I was apparently lucky that work commitments restricted my intake of that first leg to the BBC text commentary (and, wow, were THEY unimpressed), I didn’t see a problem with having that ambition in Dublin, especially as it worked in Cardiff. So, when O’Neill spoke of being “expansive,” I shuddered. Former Ireland international Keith Andrews said during his thoughtful analysis on SKY, Ireland weren’t good enough to be expansive and successful.

It was an oddball first-half. If a game can have a “run of play” in its sixth minute, then Ireland’s goal was against it. And the goal was as horrible as the rest of their display. Robbie Brady topped a free-kick, Nicholai Jorgensen made what the Irish would call a hames of clearing it, keeper Kasper Schmeichel came for a ball that even his dad wouldn’t have reached at his star-jumping best and Shane Duffy showed the benefits of regular Premier League football by nodding the ball into the empty net.

Then, for 20 minutes, Ireland could barely get the ball out of their own third, let alone their own half; a phase perfectly represented by a clumsy James McClean tackle which would have been a blatant penalty, except for it being a blatant foul on…David Meyler.

Odder still, Ireland then had their one good spell of the game. Daryll Murphy flicked Cyrus Christie’s cross narrowly-enough wide to convince half the Aviva that it was one of the most ridiculous 2-0s in football history. And an offside-but-unflagged McClean fired across the face of goal after a genuinely terrific move which wouldn’t have looked out of place in…well…Denmark’s display.

If that had gone in, former Irish beanpole striker Niall Quinn asked in the SKY studio post-match, “would we be having a different conversation?” Well…yes. But not by much. It would have been about how rare it is for a team to lead by two goals halfway through the first half and still get hammered. Keeper Darren Rudolph was already a shoo-in for Ireland’s man-of-the-match (although, wisely, there was to be no such announcement). And when your keeper and right-back are your two best players by a country mile in a 5-1 home defeat, there are no “ifs, buts or maybes” whatsoever.

Ireland had already displayed some doziness at short Danish corners when Pione Sisto took full advantage to cross for Andreas Christensen to mishit his shot and watch as Christie played a one-two with the post before scoring (“Seamus Coleman would have stopped it,” one Irish fan suggested, my…er…er…’his’ hands sore from straw-clutching). And Denmark quickly led when Eriksen pinged one in off the underside of the bar after Ward lost possession from inside his own private hell, with no midfield cover (Jesus, Mary or Joseph) to save him.

Wes Hoolahan, the 94-year-old Norwich City reserve, remains Ireland’s most/only creative player. Which needs no further comment. But while his emergence from the bench for the second half wouldn’t have surprised Donald Trump, that of Aiden McGeady pretty much killed the tie, O’Neill deciding to fix Ireland’s defensive midfield problem by dispensing with the concept entirely.

“If McGeady is the answer, the question needs rephrasing,” I tweeted in, unoriginal, dismay. At 3-1, SKY commentator Rob Hawthorne reminded us that Ireland hadn’t scored four in a game since they beat Oman in Robbie Keane’s last international in August 2016. “And that was only a friendly,” he added, probably un-necessarily.

At 4-1, older Irish fans (e.g. me) recalled Denmark’s 4-1 World Cup qualifying win at Lansdowne Road, 32 years and a day ago, after going behind then, too. Ireland were already out and Denmark had Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer, where Ireland had…Tony Cascarino. Denmark dazzled in the 1986 finals in Mexico. But the game did for Eoin Hand’s management tenure (penny for any thoughts O’Neill had about that).

And at 5-1, the only relief was that the defiant singing of the “Fields of bloody Athenry” began to be drowned out by the noise of tip-up seats being tipped up, as the chances of Ireland’s players doing a “thank-you-for-your-support” post-match lap of honour disappeared as fast as the fans.

Ireland got away with five. Christ on a bike, even Niklas Bendtner scored. And McGeady, Hawthorne informed us, has 93 caps. Neither of which needs any further comment. But in the post-apocalyptic interviews, O’Neill tried to make his substitutions seem obvious. “We needed two goals.” That Ireland needed not to concede three seemed somehow less obvious to him. And when this was made obvious to him, by RTE interviewer Tony O’Donoghue, O’Neill did not take it well.

O’Neill is not an O’Donoghue fan. And O’Donoghue’s recounting of Ireland’s qualification campaign failings did a disservice to a team that finished two places above their group seeding, however wretched their football. But O’Neill flounced out of the interview. And flouncing is not a good look.

A distraught James McClean appeared to suggest that “we shat ourselves” twice in a 70-second interview. And, in trying to hold back tears, he could muster little else of coherence. But his honesty and transparent passion in interviews excuses such vocabulary indiscretions (had O’Neill said that, O’DONOGHUE might have flounced out). And he could plausibly claim it was a heavily-Derry-accented version of “we SHOT ourselves.” RTE analyst Liam Brady took great pains to suggest as much. But you usually “shoot” yourself in the foot. And, frankly, Ireland shat themselves.

Brady’s colleagues sounded shell-shocked. Professional controversialist Eamon Dunphy moaned about “Wesley” Hoolahan not starting because of course he did. “I hesitate to blame Martin O’Neill,” he claimed, having not hesitated at all. “Humiliation” was the fifth word of his post-match analysis. “The team was wrong, the substitutions were drastically wrong,” he added. And he pilloried O’Neill’s often-lauded lack of work on the training ground (“that’s somehow regarded as a virtue? It’s not”)

Dieter Hammam (no, me neither) used his neutral dispassion to summarise Ireland’s problems: “As much belief as they have defending together, as little belief they have playing.” And when Brady wondered why certain players “don’t play like that” for their clubs, Hammam suggested “they’re probably playing with better players.” There’s no “probably” about it.

Inevitably, the relative success of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland, especially in play-off second legs, entered the discourse, as it has generally, not necessarily to Martin O’Neill’s advantage. “We have a guy up the road, Michael O’Neill…you’ll never see a Northern Ireland team a shambles like that,” noted the inevitable Dunphy.

After the North’s play-off defeat, SKY’s Iain Dowie cheered the green-and-white swathe of Glasgow by bemoaning Swiss substitutes from “Eintracht Frankfurt and Augsburg…whereas ours are from Rangers.” But with similar resources to Ireland, in a similar-quality group, the North were equally pragmatic yet a far better watch, playing a decent part in a decent 0-0 draw in Basel and only losing the tie to hapless Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan’s hallucinatory penalty decision.

They were not as sensational as SKY co-commentator Gerry Armstrong now-infamously suggested, having seemingly shared Hategan’s stash of hallucinogens just before kick-off. Armstrong lost the run of himself after the North’s first worthwhile shot on-target. And he didn’t let up as Switzerland regularly created good chances, laughably claiming that the North could have led at the break…at which the studio pundits DID laugh.

So, when the North WERE the better side in the second half, Armstrong had nowhere to go without destroying what remained of his personal credibility. After ONE clearing header, albeit a vital one, Armstrong claimed Switzerland were “reeling.” As they were when Haris Seferovic was replaced in a “defensive” move by…another striker. (Seferovic had a worse day than Armstrong. He fired at an open goal after an offside flag…and hit the post…and got booked).

Co-commentators are allowed a passionate partiality in international football (what wouldn’t viewers give for monotone Ray Houghton showing an ounce of it during Ireland games). But they must combine that with an analytical professionalism…which completely slipped Armstrong’s mind. Great fun to recall. But foot-through-the-telly stuff at the time.

I digress. Martin O’Neill and his backroom staff went into the vital Wales game with the “certainty” of agreed contracts, regardless of subsequent results. The inverted commas have come from the magnitude and manner of Ireland’s defeat and O’Neill’s tactical role in it. Everton fans’ tweet to their managerless club that “O’Neill is looking for work” might yet prove true.

Another tweet, from “Club Mayo Sports,” labelled the loss “of Roscommon proportions,” referencing Roscommon’s horrible quarter-final replay defeat to Mayo in July’s All-Ireland Gaelic Football championship. “Un-necessary,” I replied, as a second-generation Roscommon man. But “that said, a lot of similarities,” I added, as Roscommon lost heavily, having drawn a very tight game, after making “tactical changes against a better side, which didn’t work and exacerbated the differences.”

Both defeats completed otherwise over-achieving campaigns. But Roscommon are a young side. Ireland are not. And whatever O’Neill and co decide, the future looks bleak.

Ireland’s underage teams offer some hope. The under-17s reached the Euro quarter-finals this summer, losing 1-0 to eventual world champions England, despite previously losing 7-0 to Germany. But while a pathway from the League of Ireland to the Ireland team exists, the players to walk it do not. And while the above-mentioned Denmark loss ushered in the Jack Charlton era, his long-ball nonsense benefitted from the element of surprise, and a pool of talent, neither of which currently exist.

Yet, despite all of the above, I hope that, after the “real think” he is currently having about his Ireland future, O’Neill stays. Even if only because there is currently no-one else around capable of doing a better job, with Michael O’Neill being formally approached by that paragon of virtue, Scotland’s FA.

And I hope that when they next cover Champions League games together for ITV, Lee Dixon will tear into Roy Keane for his role in Tuesday’s humbling and make the scowling Cork beardy focus on what he can undoubtedly bring to Ireland’s set-up.

But, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, if Ireland play Denmark again, don’t score first. If Martin O’Neill sets up another Ireland team, no midfield diamonds. And, please, don’t (cough) “shoot yourself.”