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Ireland football matches are like Groundhog Day

With Irish football, the more things change, the more they stay the same, writes Paul Fennessy.

Irish players leave the field after the draw with Georgia.
Irish players leave the field after the draw with Georgia.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE IS A weird sense of déjà vu about Irish soccer these days.

Fans and football people have been vehemently complaining about the national team’s style for at least 15 years now.

These past few days have been no exception.

It is arguably not since Mick McCarthy’s first spell in charge that the Irish team played good football on a consistent basis, in terms of it being both successful and easy on the eye.

Ireland’s first competitive game, after McCarthy’s initial tenure had ended, was against Georgia — the first time the sides had ever met. In total, between 2003 and 2019, Ireland and Georgia have played 11 times. The Boys in Green have won nine and drawn two of these contests.

In the 10 competitive games between the sides, Ireland have never scored more than two goals and one is the best Georgia have ever managed.

Traditionally, the games have tended to be quite dour spectacles that routinely induce groans of frustration among Irish football watchers.

Apart from Steve Staunton, every Irish manager post-2002 has come up against the Georgians.

After the latest 0-0 draw, McCarthy seemed taken aback by the media and public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction, while he had a few cutting remarks for some of the journalists who questioned him. He insisted it was a positive result against a “good” side.

It felt as if we had seen that before too. It was akin to a loose cover version of the Martin O’Neill-Tony O’Donoghue passive-aggressive interview after the Euro 2016 qualifier in Tbilisi five years ago (see below), or at the same venue with similarly tense undertones in 2017.

Source: RTÉ Sport/YouTube

On those occasions too, Ireland had been poor in possession and struggled against a Georgian side who matched them in most departments, yet the team’s cantankerous manager was keen to accentuate the positives.

McCarthy seemed baffled by how people responded in particular to the Georgia game. In a way, his viewpoint was understandable.

It still left Ireland with two chances to qualify automatically via the group — a win against either Switzerland or Denmark would do.

Ireland didn’t even manage to qualify without relying on a play-off in McCarthy’s first term and haven’t done so at all since reaching the 1994 World Cup.

Moreover, the Georgia setback was probably the first truly disappointing result of McCarthy’s second spell. Up until then, it is hard to imagine any other coaches doing much better than the results accrued. Given the limitations of the squad, draws away to Denmark and at home to Switzerland were examples of the team punching above their weight if anything.

On a related note, it was not long ago that Irish football fans would look across the water and scoff at Ipswich supporters for giving McCarthy a hard time. ‘Didn’t they realise he was overachieving in getting them as far as he did,’ most people here thought.

And yet, given the flurry of recent criticism, it is almost as if Irish fans and pundits have gone from mocking Ipswich supporters to turning into them. And let’s be honest, labelling Ireland the Ipswich of international football would not be unfair given the two teams’ recent comparably inglorious histories.

The subsequent 2-0 loss to Switzerland also had a familiar ring to it. Every qualification campaign seems the same. Sheer work ethic alone is enough to get Ireland to a certain level — eventually though, they hit a ceiling, coming up against a top-class team that almost always proves a bridge too far.

The players too — Darren Randolph, Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean, Glenn Whelan — have been largely the same for the last number of years.

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Even the new internationals feel similar. Is James Collins really that different to Daryl Murphy in terms of what he offers as a player?

There is the familiar sub-plot of the small, gifted attacking footballer who people unreasonably expect to have an unduly transformative effect on the team and who the manager appears reluctant to embrace unequivocally. For years, it was Wes Hoolahan, before that it was Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland, now it is Aaron Connolly.

And perhaps part of McCarthy’s frustration was justified. Should he not be allowed one or two disappointing results? It is not as if his predecessors were flawless by any means.

Yet it seems reasonable to suggest the palpable frustration stemming from the Georgia and (to a lesser extent the) Switzerland games was not just a reaction to the performances in isolation. It was the cumulative effect of playing Georgia 11 times. The Irish fans are jaded from seeing the same scenario over and over again, with relatively similar results.

The same debates have been had for years. Some variation of the ‘we don’t have the players’ versus ‘the manager isn’t giving them the freedom to play’ has been raging for the best part of a decade at least. 

McCarthy, having been away from the national team for nearly 20 years, would have been somewhat unaware of this baggage and the increasing widespread fatigue and lethargy consuming the footballing public, which constantly playing Georgia serves as a handy metaphor for.

This situation also explains why there is currently so much hype and excitement around Stephen Kenny and the U21 team. Unlike McCarthy, they are symbols of change. They represent an escape from ‘Groundhog Day’. Troy Parrott is about as far away as you can get from Daryl Murphy.

Yet the last time a well-regarded Ireland manager who had a good record at underage level and a background in the domestic game succeeded McCarthy, he was not exactly afforded the time and patience required. This period was also around the time of the Genesis report, when sweeping changes and a radical overhaul was promised within the FAI owing to the association’s perceived ineptitude. Irish fans will hope history isn’t about to repeat itself again.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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