A terrible start and a rip-roaring finish, Ireland’s clash with Austria ended with substance thanks to Jon Walters’ equaliser but was worryingly devoid of style. We are still in a brilliant position to qualify for next summer’s World Cup, so why does it feel so precarious? Here are ten talking points after a huge week for Ireland’s qualification hopes.
If a good start is half the battle…
The first half was like the worst days under Giovanni Trapattoni. Straight from the kick off, the Irish players pumped aimless balls forward and by the end of the game, Jon Walters was in tatters. Even if that was a valid tactic at times, and led to Ireland’s leveller, if we couldn’t keep the ball within the white lines, it is a sign that we’re not even good enough to play a long ball game. At the precise time we needed one of our best finishers, after he’d dragged us back into the game, his teammates had run Walters into the ground.
Glenn Whelan has come out of the Austria game with a lot of credit and rightfully so. Everyone knows what the much-maligned midfielder’s role is, to break up opposition play and protect his back four. Whelan did this to great effect. On the other hand, Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick’s job was to offer Ireland creativity in attack and this was a bad day at the office for both, particularly Arter who just seven days earlier put in a man-of-the-match performance against Uruguay. Martin O’Neill was correct when he said too many Irish players had bad games, something we just can’t afford in crunch games.
Case for the defence
O’Neill has shown in the past he’s not afraid to make surprise changes to his starting eleven. Darren Randolph took hold of the Irish jersey when he replaced Shay Given against Germany, and, despite a few wobbles, he’s kept it ever since. Likewise, at Euro 2016, O’Neill completely changed his centre back pairing to Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh for the titanic tussle with Italy. But eyebrows were raised when Kevin Long was named in the first eleven for the Austrian game. The former Cork City player acquitted himself very well but could starting a virtual international novice in such a big game have caused Ireland’s midfielders to withdraw a little more to shield an inexperienced back four? His centre back partner was one of the chief culprits for blasting the ball away when he should have been the cooler head.
Shane Duffy was exceptionally unfortunate not to have earned Ireland an unlikely victory when his goal was ruled out. But at times, Ireland’s back four looked all at sea and as the more experienced player, the onus was on him to command the rearguard. For the disallowed goal, there’s zero doubt that Duffy jumped into his opponent leading with his arm. If the roles were reversed, Irish fans would be apoplectic if the goal had stood. At Euro 2016, he was badly pulled out of position when Keogh was already jumping with France’s Olivier Giroud allowing Antoine Griezeman to score, never mind getting sent off. He was then at fault for a rush of blood in the qualifier against Moldova which led to a goal. There’s a real danger that Duffy could become known for being error-prone unless he learns to be a little more composed. And we really need him, because his height also makes him a definite goal threat.
It seems outrageous but with every game he doesn’t start, Irish fans seem to count down the minutes until Wes Hoolahan comes off the bench. It could have been much sooner last Sunday, as Arter and Hendrick were so ineffective. Hendrick was lucky to complete 90 minutes and as soon as he came on, the Norwich midfielder just brought more control and calmness to proceedings. He was the one player who trusted himself to try to turn an opponent or take a pass in tight space. The rest of his teammates were terrified to be caught in possession and it resulted in the get-out of every poor footballer seen in school yards and junior playing pitches, to hoof it as far away as possible. Wes was never one of those players.
Teams that don’t win their home games don’t usually qualify for major tournaments. Ireland have now failed to beat Wales and Austria in Dublin, the latter when they were severely depleted. The saving grace is that we would have taken a draw in Vienna if we could beat them at home. We’ve just done it in reverse. What’s more worrying is, apart from high balls, we didn’t really trouble the visiting goalkeeper last week, and against Gareth Bale and Co., we barely registered a chance. That’s not the type of home form that qualifies.
Two games in a row now and before both, Martin O’Neill said, as the home team, it was our job to be on the front foot. Roy Keane’s assertion that we would go for the win against Wales was echoed by the players prior to the Austria game. It never materialised. In his post-match interview, Jon Walters admitted the Irish players in the first half did not do what the manager asked them to. But why? And why has it been for the second game in succession? Some of these players need to look at their own performances and step up the plate.
Going into battle
Roy Keane’s pre-match remarks that we were going to war seem to have irked Eamon Dunphy. But how many times in his playing days, was the Corkman described as a fighter and warrior? He was combative on the pitch and it’s that battling spirit that fans wanted him to instil in the Irish squad when he joined the set-up as Martin O’Neill’s assistant. He’s not Donald Trump, and this is sport at the end of the day but having failed to win, we now know Ireland are fighting for their World Cup lives.
Look, the Cork City player shouldn’t have been anywhere near the Irish team to play Austria. But there were two friendlies before this game and Ireland were down to the bare bones in terms of striking options. Sean Maguire is probably the most in form Ireland forward and deserved to at least work out with the squad. Ireland even trained at Fota Island in Cork, and had two Cork City goalkeepers take part in the sessions. Martin O’Neill later revealed that Stephen Quinn was included in the Irish squad because, even though he wasn’t fit, he phoned the manager and asked if he could link up. Maybe Maguire just didn’t have his number.
Still in it
We are joint top of the group with Serbia still to come to Dublin. Many observers see the Serbs as the best team in the group but against Wales they looked eminently beatable and the draw has done us a huge favour. However, the reason Ireland fans are so jittery is if we couldn’t beat the Welsh and Austria at home, what will make the visit of Serbia any different? Many people said the tag of favourites before last Sunday weighed too heavily on the Irish players who prefer to be classed as the underdog. The next game away to Georgia is crucial but this team needs to start winning and soon. What we did see against Austria, however, is that they will fight to the final ball. And that might just be enough.