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Those expecting 'sexy football' from Ireland last night haven't been paying attention

The Boys in Green produced an underwhelming display despite beating Gibraltar.

Ireland's Richard Keogh and Tjay De Barr of Gibraltar.
Ireland's Richard Keogh and Tjay De Barr of Gibraltar.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE TOPIC OF ‘sexy football’ has been a perennial bugbear for Mick McCarthy.

During his time as Ipswich boss, the veteran manager became increasingly unpopular among a section of the club’s support owing largely to the unattractive style of football employed.

Though the squad performed well relative to their resources, the fans wanted a more enterprising approach.

However, the consequences of the Barnsley native leaving the Tractor Boys have been disastrous, with the club relegated from the Championship in their most recent campaign.

When asked about his former side’s plight back in April, McCarthy remarked: “The ones that hounded me out… I hope they enjoy watching the sexy football in League One.”

It was hard not to think about that quip last night, as Ireland laboured to an uninspired 2-0 win over Gibraltar — one of the worst sides in international football, with players so obscure that they make the Irish team look like superstars by comparison. Almost all of their squad play their football locally — the exceptions being four individuals who represent non-league English teams and a 19-year-old who lines out for Blackburn U23s.

While Ireland are not exactly world-class, seven of the 11 that started last night’s match are Premier League players, and so it is understandable there was almost a sense of disappointment at last night’s final whistle, despite confirmation that the team had picked up a highly respectable tally of 10 points from a possible 12 in the Euro 2020 qualifiers so far. They would surely have been hoping to register more than one shot on target — a highly fortuitous own goal — in the opening 45 minutes.

Yet McCarthy almost seemed to anticipate this underwhelming performance prior to kick-off.

“I want to win the game,” he said in the pre-match press conference. “I don’t get this about how we have to be expansive. We tried that, we were expansive against Georgia and we had lots of chances. We scored one, and we won the game. We weren’t allowed to be expansive in Gibraltar, and we scored one and won the game. 

“So long as we win, I’m not bothered. I’m not saying we are going out to try anything else, we try to play football, but I want to win.

“I want 10 points. It’s borderline a silly question, sorry. I want to win.” 

Unsurprisingly, his post-match reaction was a variation on this point, with ‘sexy football’ referenced once again.

“We made some great runs, but we were caught offside. Ultimately, we won the game, that’s what I wanted. I’d love to have turned everybody on with some sexy football tonight, but it’s a 2-0 win, 10 points,” he told RTÉ.

It is tempting to draw parallels with the O’Neill era, except that in the equivalent fixture when the Derry native was in charge, Ireland won 7-0.

The main difference now is that Ireland no longer have a prolific goalscorer like Robbie Keane or a player capable of splitting open a defence like Wes Hoolahan, while Gibraltar appear to be a much-improved, better-organised outfit than they were in 2014.

Moreover, last night’s lacklustre display should not detract from the overall progress Ireland have made since McCarthy took charge.

The Boys in Green have looked reinvigorated in recent months. While far from perfect, the 1-0 win over Georgia and 1-1 draw with Denmark were considerably more encouraging than the vast majority of the post-Euro 2016 Martin O’Neill era.

Robbie Keane celebrates scoring Robbie Keane hit a hat-trick when Ireland played a home qualifier against Gibraltar in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There is a greater energy about the side, and while they are not exactly all-out-attack, there is much more of an ambition for players to get themselves in forward positions.

Nevertheless, there are arguably more similarities than differences to the O’Neill days. As is pretty much always the case when they come up against a superior side, Ireland treated the ball like a hot potato when they faced Denmark in Copenhagen on Friday, earning a 1-1 draw despite having just 38% possession.

But these caveats should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Irish football in recent times.

McCarthy has always been a results manager first and foremost. Winning is the be all and end all.  The reason he was hired was to give Ireland the best chance possible of qualifying for Euro 2020. It is what the Football Association of Ireland desperately want. Missing out on the Euros, with some games set to be played in Dublin, would be disastrous for an organisation whose financial issues have been well-documented of late.

If Ireland were more focused on style rather than results, they would not have delayed Stephen Kenny’s appointment by two years. McCarthy, in the association’s eyes, represents the safest pair of hands conceivable at this juncture.

Following the grim end to the O’Neill era, there was a sense among many critics that revolution rather than evolution was necessary. Yet McCarthy’s mandate was never to drastically change the set-up. He was never going to make high-risk, adventurous decisions that some fans would have preferred — he was never going to drop Seamus Coleman in favour of Matt Doherty, to give multiple League of Ireland players a chance, or to incorporate highly promising youngsters like Adam Idah or Connor Ronan into the senior squad, as countries like Wales have done in their set-ups.

Instead, he brought back Glenn Whelan, and kept faith with many of O’Neill’s loyal servants. Towards the latter end of 67-year-old’s reign, the likes of Jeff Hendrick, James McClean, Darren Randolph, Shane Duffy and Seamus Coleman were automatic starters when available, and that has not changed since McCarthy took the reins.

That is not to say the new manager has not made some astute and less-than-obvious decisions — bringing the previously ostracised David McGoldrick back into the fold has been justified, with the Sheffield United striker consistently one of Ireland’s best performers in recent matches. Dispensing with some of O’Neill’s more controversial proclivities, such as naming the team only shortly before kick-off and playing Cyrus Christie in midfield, has also been welcomed by most observers.

Yet those hoping for sexy football and a radical departure from the norm will surely, at the very least, have to wait until after Euro 2020. As with O’Neill and Trapattoni before McCarthy, Ireland’s style is based on a fear of losing, a fear of not qualifying — giving youngsters a chance, playing ‘good’ football and making high-risk decisions simply do not fit into this philosophy. When you appoint a short-term manager, it seems naive for anyone to expect him to look at the bigger picture.

And while this alternative to McCarthy’s approach may sound great in theory, there is no guarantee that it will be successful, as Ipswich fans can attest.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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