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Last night proved one thing - we do have the players

Ireland earned a creditable draw and could easily have beaten a Portugal team featuring Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene with Danilo of Portugal.
Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene with Danilo of Portugal.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

IT IS a refrain that will be familiar to every long-suffering Irish football fan.

Any time Ireland suffer a poor result on the international stage, a certain portion of people will insist: we just don’t have the players.

It was said after the 4-0 defeat by Spain. It was said following the 6-1 hammering by Germany. It was said after the 5-1 thrashing by Denmark.

A variation of this phrase was even said by more than one past Irish manager.

It was uttered so often that there were times when it felt as if both players and the majority of fans were starting to believe it.

A recurring theme of the Stephen Kenny era has been attempting to change this perception.

The chasm that has grown between Irish football and the general public — partially because of administrative rather than footballing failings — has not gone unnoticed by the Irish manager.

As far back as May, Kenny stated: “Over the next few years there will be a really strong cohort of players coming through and for the next European Championships, there will be a lot of really strong players and a lot of them will have 10 or 15 caps under their belt.

“The Irish public will identify with these players and when they are successful, there will be a great connection there I feel, very powerful.”

While at the time, talk of a “great connection” between fans and players may have seemed at best hopeful, given that the team were in the midst of a long winless run, it would not be a stretch to say, in the last few matches, the public have got behind this side in a way arguably not seen since Euro 2016.

The key to this transformation has been Kenny himself.

While the Irish boss is not quite the extravagant idealist that some people portray him as, he does believe in the Irish players in a way few of his predecessors did, trusting them to play out from the back, for instance, even against a team of Portugal’s calibre.

One of the abiding images from last night was Chiedozie Ogbene — on his first competitive start — regularly tormenting Danilo. 

Kenny was critical of the officials afterwards for disallowing an Ireland goal that looked legitimate, and he equally had reason to feel aggrieved at the failure to send off Danilo for persistent fouling.

Moreover, based on Thursday’s game, if you were to tell someone not especially knowledgeable about either player that one represents PSG and the other is on the books at Rotherham, they might incorrectly assume that it is Ogbene who lines out for the Ligue 1 side.

The same hypothetical person might also be surprised to learn that John Egan, who did such a good job keeping the star-studded Portuguese at bay, is this season plying his trade in the Championship, with Kenny last night going so far as to say the Sheffield United man “could play in the Champions League”. Or that, unlike the other CR7 present, man-of-the-match Callum Robinson being left on the bench at club level does not tend to cause a major furore.

Indeed, consider the clubs represented in the respective starting XIs.

Ireland: Portsmouth, Everton, Brighton, Sheffield United, Sheffield United, Tottenham, Anderlecht, Newcastle, St Mirren, Rotherham, West Brom.

Portugal: Roma, Wolves, Porto, Man United, Man United, RB Leipzig, Sporting CP, Man United, PSG, Valencia, Sporting CP.

And yet, it was the visitors who were largely hanging on by the end of the contest, with Kenny’s side a little disappointed not to secure the three points ultimately.

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This brings us back to the “we don’t have the players” argument.

The main reasoning behind this claim seems to be that Irish players don’t play for the top Premier League clubs and therefore, supposedly aren’t very good.

And granted, the Irish squad largely comprising of mid-table or lower Premier League, Championship and League One sides is an undeniable fact.

But as Ogbene showed on more than one occasion, the gap between a League One player and someone at a European superclub is not necessarily massive.

Of course, if you were to pit a League One team against a top-class side, the latter would prevail at least 99/100 times, but it does not always mean an individual third-tier player is automatically inferior to his more acclaimed counterpart.

And in international football, a nation that are simply well-structured with a coherent game plan can go a long way.

Look at the Denmark team that reached the semi-finals of the Euros earlier this year, or the Ukraine side that got to the quarters and the Sweden squad that made the last eight of the 2018 World Cup. None of those countries were filled with star players but they still managed to exceed expectations through a mixture of confidence and organisation.

The Irish players similarly often tend to be pigeonholed according to the clubs they play for, but they showed last night these are merely labels that they are well capable of transcending.

- Originally published at 07.00

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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