All to Play Off For…10 Talking Points

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Before the Germany clash in Dublin, we’d have taken a play-off spot with both hands but humbling the world champions caused Irish fans to dream. A frustrating night in Warsaw raised doubts again but Ireland still have a shot at Euro glory. At the end of a qualifying campaign with a final act to play, here’s ten talking points.

Pole-axed
There were far too many poor individual performances in Warsaw. Where was the James McCarthy who had such an influence against Germany? The only impact he made in the Polish capital was into the back of Robert Lewandowski. Robbie Brady’s set-pieces were way below par but his concession of possession was even more frustrating. Along with McClean, his link-up play was at times shambolic, exemplified by one passage of play in the second half when, on the ball at the touchline, Brady’s touch to tee up a forward pass put the ball out over the sideline. Similarly with Ireland pressing for the goal that would have booked our ticket to France, on the opposite wing, McGeady, having made space at the by-line to cross, sent his right-footed attempt straight out of play. Urgency was necessary but uncontrolled chaos made us look punch drunk when we needed a knockout blow.

John O’Shea
Sheasy will be a hero of the campaign for his last-gasp equaliser at the home of Schalke 04 but his battle with Robert Lewandowski on Sunday wouldn’t have been out of place in the Millennium Stadium. Many Irish fans are bemoaning the Polish striker’s willingness to fling himself to the turf with the slightest contact but there was nothing slight about O’Shea’s manhandling in the first half when we should have conceded a penalty. The red-card rules the Sunderland skipper out of the play-off first leg while injury clouds his availability and we’ll miss O’Shea’s defensive leadership. We won’t miss his continual loss of possession. As one commenter remarked last week. “If O’Shea had a German jersey on he’d have a 100% pass rate”. Ouch!

Panel Beaters
“Wes wasn’t able to play at all. He was hoping that maybe he would get 20 or 25 minutes in the game which we talked about beforehand. He was always going to get on if we were trying to chase the game” – Martin O’Neill
What part of this did Eamon Dunphy not understand? Prior to the game O’Neill told RTE, Hoolahan had informed him he was too sore for a full ninety minutes. In the post-match analysis Dunphy contradicted the manager’s comments saying “Hoolahan was fit to play, he came on with twenty minutes to go.”
The RTE trio have a tendency towards generalisations about O’Neill’s managerial career – his achievements reduced to a single line – “He’s a long ball man”- while Dunphy’s Emile Heskey rant was just bizarre. It was a bad night for Ireland but it was a worse one for the RTE panel.

Lionel Wessi
mon1-400x341So can O’Neill’s philosophy really be summarised in the treatment of one player? RTE’s Tony O’Donohghue must dread even mentioning Hoolahan’s name now in interviews with the manager.
Wes didn’t play away to Georgia in the opening game and that seems to have clouded many people’s judgement of Martin O’Neill, not least the RTE panel, Eamon Dunphy in particular. The pundit repeated his argument after the Polish defeat that Martin O’Neill didn’t trust the player, except the Irish coach did trust him to play a role in all, or part of, eight of our ten qualifiers. A pillar of Dunphy’s argument was that Hoolahan wasn’t played in the defeat away to Scotland in Glasgow, except Hoolahan wasn’t in the squad. He was injured. The Norwich playmaker started six qualifiers, including at home to Poland, Scotland and Germany, also contradicting Dunphy’s assertion that O’Neill only wanted to play him “against the lesser teams.”

Squad game

Jon Walters and John O’Shea are suspended for the first leg in Zenica while the latter faces a race to be fit for the Dublin showdown. Hero against Germany Shane Long is also a doubt and with question marks over Robbie Keane’s ability to play two huge games in four days, our attacking options are stretched. Daryl Murphy picked the perfect time to hit a club hat-trick for Ipswich.  He has largely failed to convince in an Irish shirt and has no goals in 16 appearances. Against Bosnia would be the perfect time to break that duck.

Keepers of the faith

Shay Given is also out with injury and while Darren Randolph was exceptional against the world champions, he too has resumed his place on the bench at club level. Rob Elliot has featured for Newcastle of late but would hardly be expected to be thrown in at the deep end in two games of such importance, would he? Then again, O’Neill plumped for Randolph against Germany while the TV cameras panned to David Forde. The manager has included four goalkeepers in his revised squad for the play-off. With a make-shift defence in front of him, whoever is called upon is likely to have two very busy nights to keep the likes of Dzeko and Pjanic at bay.

Praise the young and they will flourish
This will also be remembered as the campaign of Jack Grealish and whether he would, or wouldn’t? He won’t and the bigger question, if we qualify or not, is what are we doing about bringing through talented youth within Ireland? The Irish squad also moved base to the new National Training Centre at Abbotstown, an important development in our intentions to nurture indigenous talent. A place at the finals could be key to inspiring the players who will come through that facility in future years.

Play-off peril
Our record in play-offs is not good. We’ve won just two out of seven and we now know we’ll face a higher-ranked team in either Ukraine, Hungary, Bosnia & Herzegovina, or Sweden. Not long ago that would have spelt curtains. We hadn’t defeated a higher seeded side since the Netherlands in 2001, when we took four points off the Dutch in qualifying. One commenter, following defeat in Warsaw, said we’d be the team every other side in the play-offs wants to draw. After the heroics against the world champions (who we took four points off in qualifying), is that really the case? The result sent shockwaves around Europe and that will be remembered when the Bosnians pitch up in Dublin.

Long’s night
This campaign also gave us our Reeling in the Years moment. They’ll talk about Shane Long’s goal against Germany for all time but if we don’t qualify, the footage will always come with a downside. For years, we looked on as teams like Northern Ireland and Scotland took huge scalps like England, France, and Italy in qualifying but ultimately they never made the finals. With the North and Wales preparing for the trip to France, don’t let this be one of those lost adventures for Ireland. Beating the world champions deserves a fairytale ending.

Lansdowne Roar
Dion Fanning writing in the Irish Independent opened with this superb line: “Ireland faced Germany at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday night, but by the time the evening ended the game was being played at Lansdowne Road.” In commentary for Sky Sports, Packie Bonner who would know more than most, said the Lansdowne Roar had returned, and the scenes that greeted the final whistle and on the streets of Dublin were a throwback to the heady days of Jackie’s Army. What a contrast to the final days of the previous Irish management team, when jeers rained down from the stands.

Ahead of two crucial games against Bosnia & Herzogovina, we should forget about the aftermath of Poland and embrace the wave of emotion that broke out across Ireland after the world champions were put the sword. Seamus Coleman echoed those sentiments: “I thought the Aviva (against Germany) was the best I’ve heard it in a long, long time. The fans play a massive part, the best fans in the world…If we can get them behind us and make it intimidating for whatever team comes, we have a great chance.”

Images: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com

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