Dublin: 15°C Thursday 5 August 2021

Ireland get another reminder that football from the Charlton era no longer works in the modern game

The Boys in Green were well beaten by Switzerland in Geneva last night.

Ireland's Glenn Whelan dejected after the game.
Ireland's Glenn Whelan dejected after the game.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT’S OFTEN SAID that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

If that is indeed the case, Irish football lost touch with reality well over a decade ago.

Last night’s match against Switzerland is the type of performance Irish fans have become accustomed to.

At least since the Giovanni Trapattoni era and to an extent before then, any time they come up against a semi-decent international team, the gameplan is the same — defend deep, work hard off the ball and try to nick a goal from a set piece.

The style of football last night and in general is reminiscent of the Jack Charlton era, with its reliance on the long ball, as well as the clichéd characteristics often associated with the Irish game, such as hard work and spirit.

McCarthy seems to prioritise these qualities above all else, as suggested by the fact by the fact that he left arguably Ireland’s most creative and technically accomplished player, Jack Byrne, out of the 23-man matchday squad on Tuesday.

The problem is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest this Charlton-esque approach is outdated and that hard work alone will only get you so far.

You could argue it has worked to a degree — after all, Ireland can still qualify for the 2020 Euros and last night was the first competitive defeat they have suffered under Mick McCarthy.

But has that much really changed since the Martin O’Neill era? McCarthy has undoubtedly brought a positivity to the set-up that was conspicuous by its absence towards the end of his predecessor’s reign.

Yet the football remains depressingly turgid. Even starting Aaron Connolly — one of the Premier League’s brightest prospects following his two-goal haul against Tottenham for Brighton — made little difference in the end.

You could have the best striker in the world up front, but without anyone linking up the play, they will continue to chase shadows and look desperately ineffectual.

The visiting team rarely looked like scoring against the Swiss — according the BBC’s stats, they had 44% possession and just two shots on target in the 90 minutes.

The problem remains that there is seemingly no one in midfield capable of controlling the play. Consequently, Ireland spent much of the game chasing the ball and are more error-prone once they get it, owing to the fact that they have had to work so hard to win it back and are exhausted when they finally do.

The reason people like Peter Schmeichel scoff at the Irish team is that the approach is so unusually inept.

Even weaker international sides like Georgia, for example, play better football and control matches, despite their lowly status.

And the fact that Gibraltar managed more goals against the Georgians than the Irish team could muster is another stark indication of the Boys in Green’s attacking woes.

What’s really needed to rectify these issues is greater experimentation with style, systems and personnel. Unfortunately for those wanting this to happen, McCarthy’s remit was simply to qualify for Euro 2020 at all costs. There was no room for trying to cultivate a more expansive game or giving a plethora of youngsters a chance.

This issue has been the overriding problem with Irish football for the past decade — attempts at short-term gain have resulted in long-term pain.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

Since the 2002 World Cup, playing a largely unattractive brand of football has resulted in qualification for two major tournaments.

Euro 2012, where the team lost every game and Euro 2016, when Ireland only qualified for the competition on account of Uefa rejigging the format.

24 out of 55 teams will play at Euro 2020, meaning a country has just under a 50% chance of being there. As one former Irish international recently wryly remarked, it is almost harder “not to qualify” these days. Moreover, it’s often overlooked that at Euro ’88, just eight teams played in the main tournament, rendering Ireland’s feat back then far more impressive than in 2016 or 2012.

Granted, the national team have sporadically enjoyed some good wins in recent years. The defeats of Germany, Italy and Austria come under this category.

Yet arguably the key player in these victories was a decidedly atypical Irish player. Wes Hoolahan contributed assists for the winning goals against Italy and Austria, and was named man of the match for his performance in the Germany game.

Since his retirement, Ireland have lacked any real creative spark and their rudimentary style and discomfort on the ball has grown more pronounced.

It is difficult to be overly critical of McCarthy or the players on account of the current predicament. Both are clearly working to the best of their abilities under trying circumstances.

It is the core of the same group that found life difficult under Martin O’Neill and who will continue to struggle regardless of the outcome of next month’s win-or-bust qualifier against Denmark.

The underlying problem, as it was under O’Neill, was a deeper issue regarding Irish youth structures and the inability to produce players of sufficient technical quality to compete with the very best in top-level international football. Ireland are invariably well-organised and hard to beat, which can level the playing field to some degree, but they have tended to offer little beyond those qualities.

There is optimism in some quarters that the work being done by FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter and others is starting to show, with the improved results at underage level, and there is a sense that more exciting youngsters like Connolly will break through to the senior side in the near future.

A number of players in the U21 team, despite their setback yesterday, have looked capable of playing a more enterprising style than their senior counterparts, even if the players in question have yet to be tested at the highest level.

Therefore, McCarthy’s comments last month seemed particularly telling and ring true even more so after Tuesday night. 

“Stephen, I think at the moment, he’s just got the best job. I’ve come in and we’ve got the results and build the momentum, however we’ve done it.

“Stephen’s got the 21s, they’re his team, you’re all talking about coming into the first team, but when he gets the job — it’s not going to be that long now — he’s perfectly placed.” 

Ryan Bailey steps into the presenter’s chair where he’s joined by Murray Kinsella and Eoin Toolan on the line for Japan to tee up one of the biggest, if not the biggest week in Irish rugby: a World Cup quarter-final against back-to-back champions New Zealand.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel