“To stick the boot in and kick players and staff when they are down is bang out of order”. These were the words of a distraught James McClean in the wake of last night’s disastrous 1-5 defeat to Denmark in the Aviva Stadium. He’s probably right.
If there’s one thing we always say about Ireland, it’s that they give us everything. This is certainly true of McClean. There is a lot to be proud of over the course of Ireland’s recent qualifying campaign, as Martin O’Neill was at pains to remind RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue in their post-match interview last night.
We defended well and were hard to beat. We were the only team to beat Wales, and if the most recent performance against Georgia was unacceptable, few saw us fighting our way back into the playoffs afterwards. It is too soon to have a go at the players, who were quite visibly devastated after the final whistle. But it’s not too soon to begin the autopsy into what went wrong, or to ask where we go from here.
The problems with Irish soccer are multi-faceted. If Martin O’Neill is right about one thing, it’s that there “is no quick fix”. We are lacking in quality and young quality, particularly compared to Irish teams of the even not so distant past.
It’s hard watching Damien Duff and Roy Keane in the RTÉ studio or on the sideline when we are so in need of their talents on the pitch. A few years ago we were clamouring for Trappatoni to give young players like James McClean and James McCarthy a chance in the team. Now we’re clamouring for 35 year old Wes Hoolahan.
Where are the young Irish players who are going to freshen up the team following this defeat? Like most Irish soccer fans, I don’t watch enough League of Ireland. That’s a problem in itself – successful national teams nearly always require a viable domestic league in which clubs are not constantly walking a tightrope of crippling financial insecurity. The domestic game has produced our captain and finest player Seamus Coleman.
It is clear that Irish teams are capable of producing good players. But wherever they are, they aren’t in the national side. Callum O’Dowda is impressing in the Championship, but successful Irish teams in the past have been built around players who featured regularly for top Premier League clubs. Looking at our options now, it’s not encouraging.
There was a revealing moment in RTÉ’s recent eponymous Giles documentary. John Giles, one of the most accomplished and talented footballers this country has ever produced, returned to his childhood home on Ormond Square in Dublin’s north inner city. Giles spoke to the young people currently growing up there. There was a sign on the square warning “No Ball Games Allowed”.
This is where one of Ireland’s greatest ever players learned the game, kicking a ball against the wall all day long, learning the most basic skills of football. If you’ve watched RTÉ’s soccer panel over the last few years, you’ll have heard the likes of Giles and Eamon Dunphy lamenting the decline of football as a street game in Ireland. They’re right.
Expensive coaching infrastructures are important to help players develop, but only to nurture the skills you instinctively learn as a child growing up playing the game every day. There is no substitute for learning how to control the ball and go past a player in tight spaces in laneways or in Dublin’s narrow, winding streets.
Liam Brady has also spoken about how when his generation was growing up in Ireland, they played football all day, every day because there was nothing else to do. Many kids now prefer to play FIFA from the comfort of their bedrooms than play football with their friends.
Any ageing, balding pundit decrying technology and remembering how much better things were in their days is liable to make you roll your eyes. But he’s right too. Ireland was better at football when we were poor and had nothing. Every country is.
It isn’t an accident that football has often triumphed and flourished at its greatest heights when it is a working class game played in slums.
We have a problem with our footballing culture. That’s not in Martin O’Neill’s, or even the FAI’s power to change. At least not to the extent that is needed. Maybe there isn’t much we can do about it – Ireland is never going to be Brazil, and that’s fine. Of more immediate concern to many fans spending increasingly extortionate prices to watch our team is whether the current crop of players can perform better.
Of course they can. If Iceland can be competitive at the highest level, then we must be able to. But it requires a gameplan infused with at least some sophistication and attempt to maximize our strengths. Martin O’Neill has dramatically improved Ireland’s defence. It is a cliché to say that Ireland’s players are never found wanting for grit, guts or determination. But it’s obvious to everyone that that isn’t enough. Kicking the ball away mindlessly whenever it comes to you is not a game plan.
If it isn’t too obvious, soccer is a game played with the ball. The most basic premise of having a gameplan is that you must be able to kick it to an intended target with a respectable level of accuracy. Successful defensive, counter-attacking teams do this.
If you’re going to go into a match hoping to soak up pressure, you can’t rely on luck, or nicking something from a set-piece. Not unless you have a plan to put the ball into areas where you can win set-pieces in dangerous positions. You need to use pace to get away from defenders and force fouls, or to create something on the break.
If we want to play that way, why did James McClean, our best crosser of the ball, not start on the left wing where he is most effective? Why have we persisted with the static Daryl Murphy up front in our two most important games of the year, offering no movement or any chance of stretching the defence and creating some space?
Hitting in hope usually just amounts to giving the ball straight back to the opponent, at which point you have to defend all over again. Whenever someone asks why Ireland can’t play passing football, the inevitable reply is that we don’t have the players or skill to do it. Defensive football is, supposedly, our only option. That may be – we aren’t Barcelona, but we aren’t Atletico Madrid either.
It’s no less arrogant to assume that we don’t need to try and take pressure off of our defence by passing the ball around and maintaining possession. There are very few teams in the world who can confidently defend for 90 minutes every match against real attacking quality. That cannot be our game plan. Sooner or later, our luck will run out.
The one player our defence was missing after we conceded the first goal on Tuesday was in fact, our most creative. We needed Wes Hoolahan on the pitch to take the sting out of the game and retain possession. We needed someone who would show for the ball in the middle of the park and bring some calmness and composure to our play.
Severely lacking those attributes, the Irish team imploded in spectacular fashion. Our tactics are mind-numbingly predictable. Once Denmark equalised, they could have been confident that we had little to offer except what we’d provided over the last 90 or so minutes of football.
They knew they would have all night to try and break us down. They probably didn’t think it would be quite so easy, or that we would make such basic mistakes as allowing them a two-on-one situation from a short corner.
And that points to another problem, perhaps a more difficult one to fix. Ireland made mistakes against Denmark that we had stopped making under Martin O’Neill. We hadn’t defended that catastrophically since going up against Belgium and France in Euro 2016. We didn’t make those mistakes in Copenhagen several nights before – our defence was exemplary that evening.
Why and how did we collapse so dramatically? How did we suddenly forget the most basic principles of defending when that was our greatest strength? Many will point to the pressure of the occasion, but after we took the lead, there was at least as much pressure on Denmark to satisfy their expecting public. Perhaps they were just better at handling it than we were.
Whatever it is, it is the coach’s responsibility to get the best out of his players when it is most required. Ireland were not adequately prepared for Tuesday’s game, and the proof of that is in the scoreline. There is no obvious explanation for just how bad we were, and that suggests it’s something beyond what ordinary supporters can see. The problem must lie with the coaching and preparation for the match.
It’s important to recognise what Martin O’Neill has done right. Not only did we get to the Euros but we impressed there. Our performances in France were far from perfect – the team were, truth be told, made to look like amateurs by the likes of De Bruyne, Lukaku and Griezmann.
Nonetheless, it was a massive step forward from the nadir of Euro 2012 under Trappatoni. But if the FAI had waited until the end of our World Cup qualifying campaign to offer Martin O’Neill a contract extension, would that new deal be forthcoming now? It’s hard to capture in words just how deflated the mood was at the Aviva.
To see the stadium half-empty after 70 minutes gives you a sense of the disappointment, and worse, lack of faith that things can be any better. There are few coaches who could stay on after such a damning performance and result.
It would be no surprise if Roy Keane decides to move on from the national set-up and seek a job in club management; nor if Martin O’Neill decides his blood pressure cannot take another interview with Tony O’Donoghue
Whatever happens with the coaching staff, we need to use our year and a half without competitive football to experiment with new players and crucially, some variety in our tactics. Ireland are known as a “primitive” team, as one Danish player described us, but anyone who regularly watches the team knows that we can play too. It no longer requires a leap of faith for our manager to encourage the Irish team to pass the ball on the ground and to try retain some possession. At this stage, we don’t have much option but to change it up. After all, it can’t get much worse than Tuesday.