IT’S HARD TO believe that it is less than 10 months since Ireland produced one of their best away performances of recent memory.
What was unusual about the game in question was how composed Ireland looked and how utterly deserved the 1-0 victory over Austria in Vienna felt.
Probably not since the defeat of Scotland in 1987 had an Irish team’s result away from home been so impressive. The 4-0 victory over Estonia during the Giovanni Trapattoni era was big in terms of what it meant, though the standard of the opposition on that occasion was questionable.
Austria, by contrast, had come through their last qualification campaign unbeaten, and were even been tipped by some generous critics as outsiders to win Euro 2016, before ultimately disappointing and exiting at the group stages.
It was not a perfect performance that night in Vienna, but what stood out was how clever Ireland looked on the ball for much of the contest, having managed to ride out an early Austrian flurry.
After Glenn Whelan went off injured on 22 minutes, a midfield triangle of Harry Arter, David Meyler and Wes Hoolahan excelled.
Yet since then, Hoolahan has not featured from the start in a competitive match for his country, and Ireland have taken only three points from three games while scoring just two goals in the process.
Without the Norwich star in the starting XI, the Boys in Green’s record is significantly worse — before the Georgia match, RTÉ’s Darragh Maloney read out an ominous stat: Ireland get 2.15 points on average when the Dubliner starts and 1.32 points when he doesn’t. It should be noted, however, Hoolahan being left out against sides of the calibre of France, Poland and Scotland while being picked in games versus Moldova and Gibraltar tends to skew the results in his favour.
But the ex-Shelbourne man was certainly conspicuous by his absence in Tbilisi, and he may well have made a difference by bringing more creativity and courage on the ball to proceedings.
Yet the player’s absence does not fully explain the appalling standard of football on show on Saturday evening, particularly amid a first half that left the visitors with just 24% possession overall.
Such an unsophisticated approach from Ireland is nothing new though. The only difference, really, was the outcome — it was the first time the Boys in Green had failed to beat Georgia in nine matches between the sides.
The rather uninspired, basic approach to playing the game for the most part during O’Neill’s tenure could be excused to a degree owing to the positive results it was yielding.
The Austria and Moldova fixtures aside, there haven’t been any matches in this campaign where Ireland have played good football for a sustained period.
Instead, up to this point, the team’s character, resilience, mental fortitude and good fortune have been enough to get Ireland by in what is a fairly weak qualifying group with no standout team.
The fact that Ireland are still seemingly in desperate need of a 35-year-old who has started just two out of five Championship games for Norwich this season also speaks volumes about the deeper challenges O’Neill and co face.
Ireland were the oldest squad at the Euros and against Georgia yesterday, they looked like an ageing team. Of the 11 players who started, five were 30 or over. The two substitutes called upon were Aiden McGeady (31) and Daryl Murphy (34). In addition, of the six players under 30, three were brought up in England.
The future, as it stands, looks less than promising. The best Irish teams have benefited from the ‘granny rule’ and you cannot blame Martin O’Neill for capitalising on the availability of players such as Harry Arter and more recently, Scott Hogan.
Yet the sheer reliance on players from foreign shores is alarming. In a recent U21 squad named by Noel King, just five of its 19 members were born in the Republic of Ireland.
Wes Hoolahan and others will likely retire after this campaign, and the situation could consequently become bleaker than it already looks.
To a degree, you could argue that O’Neill has done a good job with limited resources. After all, while rarely playing particularly well, Ireland are just two points off Group D leaders Serbia and remain unbeaten in competitive matches since the Euro 2016 defeat by France over a year ago.
But even if the Boys in Green rally from this point and secure an unlikely victory over Serbia to set them up for World Cup qualification, there is no glossing over the widespread problems that have been glaringly obvious for some time.
To be camped inside your own half for the vast majority of the game against a side ranked outside the Fifa top 100 is not good enough by any measure.
Against an Italy or a Germany, there is the excuse that the opponents have infinitely greater resources.
Georgia, on the other hand, have a lower population than the Republic. Like Ireland, rugby is also at a similar level of popularity to soccer in the country.
If they can produce a national team that is capable of playing football in a relatively coherent fashion, then surely Ireland should be able to do so too.
The biggest problem, it seems, is the Irish underage system and its inability to produce technically proficient players.
Whether this situation improves significantly owing to the measures introduced by FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter, including the onset of the underage national leagues, remains to be seen.
For now, there is a serious dearth of talent, and predictably, the one Irish teenager currently playing regularly in the Premier League is London-born Declan Rice.
In a column for The Irish Times yesterday, ex-Ireland international Richie Sadlier noted: “The new underage national leagues will be cited as reasons to be hopeful in the long-term but I have my doubts. St Kevin’s are the only elite-level schoolboy club involved which makes little sense. The League of Ireland clubs make up the rest and that beggars belief.”
It is far from the first time reservations with the Irish underage structure have been expressed. A few years ago, journalist Miguel Delaney wrote a lengthy piece highlighting many of the perceived issues with the system, noting:
“Officials from the SFAI did not return calls, those from the Dublin District Schoolboys League did not want to talk because of the dispute with the SFAI over the contentious radius rule — whereby players are only allowed join a club within a certain distance of their registered school.
“That row actually reflects the entire problem. It would just never have existed if the structures were correct.
“Eight different figures, some of them currently working for the FAI, boiled the issue down to this: the FAI traditionally have not governed football in the way the German or Dutch federations do.
“All of them pointed to the crucial first step in the structure as one of the most important examples. The absolute key ages of development are between six and 12, yet the affiliation immediately in charge of those players have not always proven the most progressive. The SFAI rejected 44 of the 51 guidelines in that 2009 underage review, which remains untouched. Despite how important and obvious it seems, a significant number of leagues around the country for players under the age of 12 still involve 11-a-side matches as well full-size pitches and goals.”
This apparent conflict within the heart of Ireland’s underage set-up as highlighted by the two examples above is surely exacerbating an already perilous situation, even if improvements to the structure of the system have been made in the intervening years since the latter article.
Moreover, even at young ages, it is frequently noted how Irish footballers noticeably lack the technically ability and game intelligence of their foreign contemporaries. The methods of coaching in this country will clearly be problematic so long as this continues to be the case.
While Dokter’s measures have not yet existed long enough for them to be judged unequivocally, in the near future at least, the situation will likely get worse before it gets better.
The Boys in Green have never been the most technical of sides, but now they are even falling badly behind teams previously considered as minnows of European football such as Georgia.
Part of the problem is the mixed messages being sent out. FAI CEO John Delaney has previously said he wants Irish kids to learn to “love the ball,” and this appears to be the overarching aim of recent new developments at youth level.
Nevertheless, when the senior side is stubbornly persisting with route-one football, there is an inherent contradiction and conflict within the set-up.
The counter-argument, of course, is that Ireland will be easily beaten if they attempt to play possession football. This sentiment may be true, but fans are unlikely to ever find out for sure during the largely conservative O’Neill era. The post-match interview the Irish boss gave to Sky Sports was illuminating.
“We need to do better against Serbia on Tuesday because they’re a very talented side,” he said. “I said at the beginning anyone who finishes above Serbia will win the group. Now we’ll try to win that game.”
The word ‘now’ appears key, as if O’Neill was almost happy to settle for a draw before Saturday evening’s setback.
It spoke of an innate conservatism in the ex-Celtic manager’s make-up. Only in games against big sides that they have to win are they inclined to go all-out for the victory.
Such pragmatism transmits itself to the players and perhaps partially explains why Ireland can be so infuriatingly passive when they score an early goal and ill-advisedly try to desperately hold onto a slender advantage.
And this unashamedly negative attitude does not help a team who are limited enough, even before they adopt an increasingly unsuccessful Russian roulette-style approach.
Subscribe to The42 podcasts here:
‘When football is all you know, coming out of it is like leaving school. You’ve got no qualifications.’>