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Recurring attacking problems expose Ireland's need to break from obsession with their past

The old ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’ couldn’t mask the fact that this is a side that can’t be relied upon to create goalscoring chances from open play against anyone.

Updated Nov 19th 2019, 8:30 AM

AMID THE ENDLESS culture war between rugby and soccer in Ireland, one of the favoured digs thrown toward the former is their bland and antiseptic belief in “trusting the process.” 

Which our friends in rugby country might respond to by saying, ‘Hey, better to have a process in which to trust.’ 

david-mcgoldrick-and-matt-doherty-dejected-after-the-game David McGoldrick and Matt Doherty react at full-time. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was a telling moment as Ireland chased a late winner last night, as Darren Randolph urged the troops forward for another hoik upfield.

Fortune favours the brave, after all, and we’d spent the night being brave. 

As he dallied over the ball, Matt Doherty dropped off into the centre circle and urged him to pass to his feet. When Doherty was ignored and the ball flew over his head and the move fizzled out, he flung his arms out in desperation. 

It was a small insight into the lousy and enduring reality that Ireland have carried over from the last campaign under Martin O’Neill – they cannot be relied upon to construct a series of goalscoring chances from open play against anyone. 

Instead, they hit and they hope that they might “nick something”, in the truest tradition of a past they have turned into kitsch, exhausted nostalgia.

That was what last night was made out to be: a “night for heroes” in the words of the FAI’s social media messaging, with the PA system blaring out ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’ before muffling a rousing crowd just ahead of kick-off beneath a godawful, jaunty disco version of the Fields of Athenry. 

(If there is anything less suitable ahead of a major night of potential happiness than a lament about a famine then it’s a jaunty, disco version of a lament about a famine.) 

John Aldridge was wheeled out to the crowd on the 30th anniversary of the goals that sealed Ireland a place at Italia ’90, presumably for another bit of inspiration.

At this stage it’s worth asking: has anyone ever mined so much from so little? We’ve built a theory of economic success and a decades-long blueprint for the senior international side from a competition in which we didn’t win a game. 

Matt Doherty is cited above as playing through him gave Ireland a rare, reliable method of attack last night.

His intelligence and patience on the ball created Ireland’s best chances in the second half – he even started the goal he scored by sweeping the ball to the left wing for Enda Stevens. 

But there was too much thoughtless frenzy elsewhere in the Irish attack, and not enough calm: James McClean pointlessly shot from distance while Stevens saw Schmeichel on the ground and tried an almost impossible effort into a vacant goal from the left. 

That Ireland lacked a plan of attack was what cost them against the Danes two years ago, too. Suddenly reeling at 1-1 and needing to score again, the panic set in before half-time. Stephen Ward pressed the issue too soon by playing a risky pass that caught Ireland out down the left and led to Eriksen’s stunning goal on the counter. 

Then, with no semblance of a plan to trust, O’Neill threw as many attackers as he could at the wall. A couple stuck, but the entire midfield peeled off and Eriksen went home with a hat-trick. 

McCarthy and Terry Connor do more structured work on the training ground than O’Neill did, but this campaign has seen systems and personnel change from game-to-game without developing any reliable outlet for a goal other than a set-piece.

Ireland’s last 17 goals have been scored by 17 different players, and can anyone describe with conviction what an Irish goal from open play even looks like? 

The starting plan last night involved Jeff Hendrick playing almost alongside David McGoldrick, instructed to run beyond him and behind the Danish defence when Ireland had the ball and then drop off to make Ireland more difficult to play through without it. 

As you’d expect, he did fine without the ball but with it, his team-mates occasionally seemed baffled by his movement. Thrice last night he ran beyond the last defender only for a team-mate to play the ball short.

As to whether Hendrick is suited to that role is highly debatable, but he was picked there for his diligence when Ireland are out of possession and it was a clear indication of the manager’s mindset going into the game – this was less an Irish side to win the game than it was one to avoid having to win by scoring more than one goal. 

david-mcgoldrick-with-joseph-chipolina David McGoldrick and Gibraltar's Joseph Chipolina, two of Ireland's joint-top scorers from this Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Nonetheless, qualification wasn’t spurned last night, which was an admirable performance undermined by issues that had taken root much earlier. 

No, it was lost across seven previous group games in which Ireland managed a pitiful six goals. Ireland only managed more than a single goal in one game – that was in the 2-0 win at home to Gibraltar, and they scored one of those goals for us. 

McCarthy raised those figures after the game and said Ireland haven’t been clinical, but how many gilt-edged chances have been missed? The problem has been chance-creation, an issue that mocked his predecessor’s moaning about Robbie Keane’s advancing age. 

This was a campaign in which Ireland scored four goals fewer than North Macedonia, just three more than the Faroe Islands and taken 21 fewer shots than Luxembourg

Euro 2020 looks a mightily distant prospect now, given Ireland must win two, one-off games within a week to qualify.

The line from the Irish camp now is that a repeat of last night’s performance will be enough to get there, but last night’s second half was a period in which Ireland were liberated by desperation. Their commitment and energy is to be applauded – but it also laid bare the absence of the more cold-blooded qualities needed to achieve. 

Will Ireland really play with the same forward vigour if they can see the prospect of penalties on the horizon, and have something to lose that the manager would have taken ahead of the game? 

Once again that’s an exercise in little more than faint hope. 

The fuller hope is that Stephen Kenny can arrive and finally snap us out of this decades-long obsession with taking things to the brink and then giving it a lash when there is little else to lose. 

But can he bear the full weight of a football culture needing to end its admiration for a distant past amid the thrust of a World Cup campaign? 

He might have to tell the rest of us to trust him and his process, which might actually represent a bit of progress. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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