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Ireland players train ahead of the match.
Ireland players train ahead of the match.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland v Georgia talking points: Delaney controversy threatens to overshadow qualifier

Off-the-field issues have dominated the headlines in recent days.
Mar 26th 2019, 6:15 AM 4,390 20

1. John Delaney controversy threatens to overshadow crucial qualifier

ON SATURDAY, Ireland laboured to a 1-0 victory over Gibraltar, a team made up largely of part-timers, as Mick McCarthy got his second spell in charge off to an inauspicious start.

The match was poor in quality, even by the Irish team’s standards, which is saying something given the extremely low expectations that exist with regard to the national side, after a 2018 that saw the Boys in Green score just four goals and win only one of their nine matches, having ended 2017 with a humiliating 5-1 home loss against Denmark that emphatically ended their World Cup qualification hopes.

On RTÉ afterwards, Richard Dunne urged people not to “hammer” the team after one performance.

“You never get out of that down,” he said, recalling an experience in the Steve Staunton era in 2007, where the side needed a last-minute winner to beat lowly San Marino, adding “that killed the whole campaign because of the reaction”,

He continued: “As much as we say the press won’t affect the players, it will over a period of time.

“If they come out of a situation where it’s not been positive for the last 18 months, then we build them up straight away and then hammer them for one performance that wasn’t excellent… We need to give it time.”

And indeed, the criticism has not been as vociferous as it might have been towards the Irish team ordinarily.

However, it would be naive to assume the reason is simply because the media and the general public have taken heed of Dunne’s comments.

Instead, the ongoing controversy involving John Delaney and the FAI, due largely to the explosive reports in The Sunday Times, has distracted somewhat from the team’s inept on-field performance.

The Gibraltar clash almost felt like an afterthought, with the various headlines involving Delaney dominating media coverage on the front and back pages in recent days.

Although the current issues represent the biggest football-related controversy in a long time, it feels as if these off-field sub-plots have become a regular feature of Ireland’s international weeks by now.

Whether it’s Whatsapp sagas, uncertainty over the commitment of players such as Declan Rice and Jack Grealish, excessive criticism of individuals, altercations with fans, ill-timed book releases and numerous other sideshows, it’s getting to the stage where talking about the football itself feels somewhat novel.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the team’s matches these days are so often uninspired and forgettable, to the point where focusing on some off-field drama feels like a minor relief in comparison to dwelling on the relentless drudgery on the pitch.

A win against Georgia tonight would therefore provide a much-needed morale boost at a time when the perception of Irish soccer is as low as it’s been in quite a while, owing to a combination of matters on and off the field.

The last time the sides met, a Martin O’Neill-managed team were fortunate to escape with a draw, so victory this evening over Georgia would at least suggest a sense of progress.

The controversies and serious questions that need to be asked of the people who run football in this country will of course remain regardless of what happens on the pitch, but now would be an opportune time for the national team to provide a momentary sense of escape from the current mess that has been dominating the narrative in recent days.

If the Irish side are good enough to rise to the challenge and whether all those watching inside the stadium will be willing to focus primarily on what is happening in front of them is another matter.

2. A must-win game?

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Mick McCarthy Mick McCarthy will be hoping his side can put in an improved display against Georgia. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It seems very early in the campaign to start talking about matches as being ‘crucial,’ but there is no doubt that anything other than three points tonight would represent a very unwelcome setback to the Irish team’s qualification hopes.

Granted, they are up against a Georgia side who will probably feel a greater degree of confidence travelling to Dublin than they would have in the past. They seemed to improve every time they played Ireland during the Martin O’Neill era, culminating in that September 2017 1-1 draw in Tbilisi — the only time they have taken points off an Irish side in eight competitive fixtures and a match that the hosts largely dominated and really ought to have won.

That said, they are fourth seeds in the group. And at the weekend, Switzerland earned a hard-fought 2-0 victory in Tbilisi. The top seeds will likely win the return fixture as well, while Denmark would similarly strongly fancy themselves to take six points from the Georgians.

With two qualifying spots up for grabs, it is vital that Ireland can at least emulate the results of their rivals against the lower ranked teams. Should they do so, they can probably afford away draws against the two sides boasting patently superiors players to everyone else in the group.

Yet should they stumble this evening, it would add considerably to the pressure ahead of those daunting trips to Copenhagen and Geneva.

3. Which players will miss out?

As poor as the Gibraltar match was, some critics have cut the Irish team some slack for a number of reasons.

Saturday was McCarthy’s first game in charge, he has had very little time with the players, the windy conditions were hardly conducive to good football, the atmosphere inside the 2,300 capacity Victoria Stadium was slightly surreal and a couple of important individuals were either only half-fit or unavailable.

Consequently, given the somewhat freakish nature of the Gibraltar match, it feels as if this evening’s encounter may serve as a better indicator of how much (if at all) Ireland have improved, and whether McCarthy is able to galvanise a team that was patently lacking in morale towards the end of the O’Neill era.

After Saturday’s fixture, McCarthy did not try to downplay his team’s sub-par performance, admitting he “pretty much hated every minute” of the game.

Depending on how bad he considered the display to be under the circumstances, a number of the weekend’s starters could be at risk.

Matt Doherty was the first player substituted in Gibraltar, having failed to impress the Barnsley native in an unfamiliar right-wing role and the Wolves man is unlikely to displace Seamus Coleman at right-back, so his spot in the side could be at risk, unless McCarthy opts to drop Enda Stevens and play him on the left-hand side of the defence, where the Premier League star has played on occasion at club level.

Shane Duffy, who scored against Georgia the last time the sides met, is doubtful with an ankle injury, with John Egan expected to come into the side if the Brighton star is required to withdraw.

Further up the pitch, while hardly spectacular, Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick and David McGoldrick probably did just about enough to retain their places in the team.

Nonetheless, Sean Maguire and James McClean were decidedly ordinary and perhaps won’t be feeling too confident as McCarthy prepares to name his starting XI.

Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne dissect Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations campaign, and discuss the pros and cons of rugby’s new law proposals in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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Paul Fennessy


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