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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019
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Ireland have been hamstrung by conservatism for far too long

Mick McCarthy’s side could only draw with Georgia in Tbilisi on Saturday.

Shane Duffy shows his disappointment after Ireland draw with Georgia.
Shane Duffy shows his disappointment after Ireland draw with Georgia.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE WERE TWO 0-0 draws involving Republic of Ireland teams over the past week, but that is where the similarities between the games ended.

In Tallaght Stadium on Thursday, Stephen Kenny’s side produced a performance that was full of exuberance, wit and invention, even if they ultimately could not unlock a well-drilled Italian side.

It may not have been the win they wanted, but the match was entertaining and the Irish team delivered a performance that the footballing public could be proud of. Everyone will have left the ground feeling they got their money’s worth.

By contrast, on Saturday in Tbilisi, fans endured a dire spectacle for 90 minutes. It was everything the U21 performance was not. Instead of playing it out from the back, with well-worked moves frequently initiated by goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher, there were seasoned professionals kicking the ball as far away as possible and rarely finding a player in an Irish shirt.

The contrasting reactions of the two Irish teams’ managers afterwards was also interesting. 

In the past, certain Ireland coaches might have celebrated a draw against Italy as if it were a win, but it was not the case with Kenny.

“We’re not ecstatic about drawing tonight. We feel we could have won the game,” the disappointed Dubliner said afterwards.

By comparison, after yesterday’s match in Tbilisi, McCarthy told RTÉ: “It’s a point gained. They’re a very good side. And I don’t think we’ve been beaten by them in 10 or 11 games and we’ve had some wins.

“Had you offered me four points from two games against Georgia, I’d have taken it.”

Georgia may have drawn with Denmark, but they are not ranked 91st in the world, just below Uzbekistan, Gabon and Congo, by accident.

The fact that there are attempts to sell the draw as a positive — against a side that the Boys in Green had beaten in nine of 10 previous attempts and who had nothing to play for with their group qualification hopes over — is indicative of the declining standards in Irish football over the past few years.

Of course, in some ways, the comparison with the seniors and the U21s is unfair. The latter were playing at home, on a decent pitch, in less pressurised circumstances, while underage football is generally played at a lower level of intensity than senior games.

But there is still a sense that the young side are eclipsing their older counterparts by virtue of their far more expansive brand of football.

That is not to say McCarthy deserves most of the blame for this issue. In many ways, he is in a difficult position and has inherited the unholy mess that is the Irish football team.

The 60-year-old coach’s goal is to qualify the team for Euro 2020 and the philosophy he believes in is largely picking experienced players. It is not an illegitimate idea and it is one that could yet prove successful should Ireland beat the Swiss or the Danes.

And the very nature of his role encourages such conservatism. Look at it from the former Wolves and Sunderland manager’s perspective. He hopes to leave the job next year with his reputation intact. Were he to decide to call up seven players from the U21s and encourage a more expansive brand of football, it would undoubtedly be a risk. If Ireland lost badly to Georgia, it would influence how he is perceived by potential future suitors.

In short, McCarthy was hired as a safe pair of hands, and that is exactly the role he is adhering to. From a short-term perspective, it is arguably prudent from both a footballing and financial perspective — it lessens the risk of not qualifying by relying on the tried and trusted, and reaching a major tournament would be a major boost to the Football Association of Ireland, whose money problems have been well documented of late.

Yet a bolder coach might have been more imaginative with his team selection. 

James Collins previously only had half an hour of international football under his belt and has spent the majority of his career in League One and Two. Was playing him really that much less of a gamble than picking Aaron Connolly?

Of the midfielders, James McClean, Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan and Conor Hourihane, admittedly to a lesser extent, have been around for quite some time now. It is clear that, as a unit in their current format, they are incapable of controlling a game or opening up a team at this level. Why not try something different when a win is badly needed? Josh Cullen and Jack Byrne were both excellent in the recent friendly victory over Bulgaria — surely at least one of them was worth some game time yesterday. Jayson Molumby has consistently shown he can dictate play at U21 level, while he has been playing consistently in the Championship with Millwall of late. He might offer an element of surprise against a Georgia team who are practically on intimate terms with the Irish side at this stage.

Instead though, it was the usual old faces and therefore, the usual old performance. The reliance on virtually the same players who were also the core of the team for much of the O’Neill era, and the fact that all of them seem to be automatic selections no matter how poorly they play, would indicate they are getting picked on reputation rather than form. This predicament consequently brought to mind another Kenny quote from during the week.

“I think there is a danger in focusing on what you don’t have sometimes,” he said in relation to the U21s. “It’s not a league table either, to say, ‘How many players have you got playing in the Premier League, how many games have they played?’ The international team shouldn’t reflect a league table of how many appearances people have and so forth.

“You have to have your own vision of what you want, your own style of play and what fits that, what constitutes a team.”

Kenny subsequently added: “You can’t be paralysed by fear. Life is short.”

Yet on Saturday, Ireland were paralysed by fear. There were times where they seemed content with a draw and played as if they considered themselves inferior to Georgia.

Of course, fans want winning football, but they want to be inspired too. In Tbilisi, they were simply bored. And it’s unlikely to get much better even if the Irish side ultimately qualify for the Euros with a scrappy, fortuitous and forgettable 1-0 win.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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