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Dublin: 21 °C Wednesday 12 August, 2020

A night in which football felt secondary

5 talking points from Friday’s controversy-filled World Cup qualifier between Ireland and Wales.

Ireland’s Seamus Coleman is carried off the field.
Ireland’s Seamus Coleman is carried off the field.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

1. A night in which football felt secondary

RARELY IF EVER has the Aviva Stadium felt so reserved post-match after what most Irish people agreed at the start of this week would be a ‘good’ result from the home team’s perspective.

Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Wales left the Boys in Green joint-top of Group D with Serbia, but another issue dominated the reaction to Friday’s game.

As Wales boss Chris Coleman pointed out afterwards, the Irish team’s behaviour in the first half was far from exemplary — Glenn Whelan was lucky not to receive a booking for leading with his elbow against Stoke teammate Joe Allen, while Shane Long was also fortunate to escape a caution for a late challenge on Ashley Williams.

Yet these incidents paled in comparison to what followed. Gareth Bale and Neil Taylor both should have been sent off for appalling challenges on John O’Shea and Seamus Coleman respectively, but only the Aston Villa man was red carded.

Coleman broke his leg after the horrendous lunge from Taylor, while moments before, John O’Shea was lucky to escape a similar fate following a dangerous tackle by Gareth Bale.

The reaction was mixed. RTÉ pundit Didi Hamann branded Bale “cowardly” on Twitter, while the former Germany international added: “Why do people talk about a player’s good character when they go over the top of the ball and risk injury to opponents as Bale and Taylor did?”

Chris Coleman, by contrast, was more sympathetic. The Wales boss emphasised that he did not have a chance to see either incident back, but defended the behaviour of both Bale and Taylor, suggesting there was no malice behind either challenge, while adding that the latter was “devastated” and wanted to apologise after the horrific injury to Ireland’s captain.

Only the two players in question will know for sure whether the intent was there. At best, however, both were extremely reckless and certainly deserving of a harsher punishment than the usual three-match ban given to players who are sent off for violent conduct.

But of greater importance than anything else that transpired during the game on Friday night is the long-term well-being of Toffees star Coleman.

The Everton man now faces a lengthy spell out injured. It is a terrible blow for a player approaching the peak of his career. Quite how long he will be unavailable for is impossible to tell at this early stage, but the 28-year-old full-back certainly won’t be appearing again this season and most likely for some time thereafter.

That sad outcome coupled with the moving tributes to the late Derry skipper Ryan McBride and others made it a night in which life beyond football was often very much at the forefront of people’s minds.

2. Should Aiden McGeady’s introduction have come sooner?

From early on, this pivotal Group D World Cup qualifier had the feel of a scoreless draw. The quality of football from both sides was decidedly dire more often than not.

The Ireland camp insisted during the week that they would not play for a draw, but it was hard to see where the goals were going to come following a conservative selection by Martin O’Neill. Ireland lined up with three defensive midfielders essentially, even if Hendrick was tasked with playing further forward than usual. Out wide, they had players in Jon Walters and James McClean known for their physicality, work ethic and often potent finishing, rather than technical ability or creativity, while lone frontman Shane Long was consequently feeding off scraps all night.

Wales were similarly uninspired. Aside from the odd flash of brilliance courtesy of Gareth Bale, they seldom threatened. Indeed, neither side had a shot on target in the first half.

He arguably deserved to start, and as the game wore on, it became apparent that Ireland were crying out for a player of Aiden McGeady’s ilk. They needed someone capable of beating opponents and creating chances. If not before then, when Wales went down to 10 men, the on-loan Preston star should have been introduced immediately. Instead, O’Neill waited until the 80th minute to bring on the 30-year-old winger who was recently named Championship Player of the Month.

McGeady made an impact, but 10 minutes was not enough time for a decisive contribution. Prior to this evening’s game, a 0-0 draw would have been considered an excellent result, given Ireland’s well-documented injury crisis. In hindsight though, it felt like two points dropped, against a Wales side who looked to be there for the taking.

3. Ireland miss some players more than others

Gareth Bale is yellow carded for a high challenge on John O'Shea John O'Shea was lucky to avoid a serious injury after a poor challenge from Gareth Bale. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Much was made of the fact that as many as 10 Ireland players were ruled out in the lead up to last night’s game, while to make matters worse, James McCarthy had to pull out just before kick-off having originally been named in the starting XI.

The absences, it turned out, were felt in some places more than others.

At the back, coming in for Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark, John O’Shea and Richard Keogh were remarkably assured for the most part, while in front of them, David Meyler was also fairly solid, even if his performance was not quite as impressive as the one he gave in Austria last November.

O’Shea in particular led the backline superbly to the point where it seemed legitimate to wonder whether he could retain his place in the side beyond this game when other rivals for the centre-back slots return.

It was in attack, however, where Ireland clearly missed certain individuals. Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady would have provided the team with some of the creative spark that was conspicuous by its absence for most of the 90 minutes, as Ireland struggled to create openings even after Wales were reduced to 10 men.

Harry Arter, too, may have added a greater sense of urgency to the midfield play, while even the physicality of Daryl Murphy would have been a handy option off the bench to further test a tiring Welsh backline.

4. Group D still wide open

At the halfway stage of the qualifiers, Group D looks likely, as many people have always predicted, to go right down to the wire.

Following last night’s games, four points separate the top four teams. Ireland and Serbia are joint top on 11 points, with the latter first by virtue of their marginally superior goal difference. Behind them, on seven points each, sit Wales and Austria, who certainly won’t feel dead and buried by any means.

As Martin O’Neill said after last night’s game, it’s a position that Ireland would have happily taken at the start of the campaign, nonetheless qualification remains a long way off.

The Boys in Green have difficult trips to Wales and Georgia later this year, while Austria and Serbia are certainly capable of doing damage in their forthcoming encounters at the Aviva.

Of the five remaining games, Moldova at home is the fixture that Ireland are most likely to come away from with three points, but even the group’s bottom-placed team kept Austria scoreless for 74 minutes in Vienna last night.

5. Do we really need to manufacture atmosphere now?

Last night’s match was certainly not one for the footballing purists, but even amid a first half that was short on quality, there was a distinct feeling of tension inside the Aviva Stadium, given the importance of the game.

Yet people’s focus on the play was intermittently being undermined. It was a frustrating first half to watch as it was — every so often, Ireland laboriously worked themselves into a promising position, only for a misplaced pass or poorly executed shot to suddenly kill the team’s momentum.

And as if this sense of annoyance wasn’t enough on its own, increasingly whenever a break in play occurred, the distinct sound of a trumpet was heard out of nowhere. Whenever this ghastly noise was inflicted upon the crowd, practically all those around me groaned in unison, and it seems unlikely that the press box was alone in its ire.

It was like watching a bad movie where the soundtrack is constantly telling you how to feel with overly emotive musical cues. Fans will sing ‘come on you boys in green’ and other tunes when they want to, not at the whim of some annoyingly inescapable band.

The stunning atmosphere in the second half occurred in spite of, rather than because of, the ubiquitous trumpet. Indeed, the action on the field will always be what inspires people — anything else is an unnecessary and unwanted distraction.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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