It was almost all over. Instead Shane Long’s stoppage-time equaliser capped off a second-half Irish display full of fight and spirit that hasn’t been seen in years, especially at the Aviva Stadium. The Euro dream is still alive, just. Here’s ten talking points from a dramatic week in Euro 2016 qualifying.
There’s been an outpouring of scorn about Robbie Keane’s performance with RTE panelist Eamon Dunphy labelling the striker ‘past it’. The pundit criticised the level he’s playing at in the USA and felt the 34-year-old no longer had the legs to get around the field. Except Keane looked fit and sharp for all of the 90 minutes he played against Poland with his headed chance hitting the post in the 72nd minute. It’s hardly fair to criticise Keane’s first half display when we, as we have done for much of the last seven years, thumped hopeless balls up to his head. It’s true Shane Long would do a much better job of holding up the ball if we continue to employ that as a strategy but why would we want to? Outside of Long, our strikers operate at the bottom of the Premier League, in the Championship and Scotland. Is MLS that much inferior? Without Long, with a one on one chance, who would you like to be in that position if not Keane?
Is Ipswich striker Daryl Murphy the answer to that question? Mick McCarthy’s Tractor Boys are sixth in the Championship and in contention for promotion. The ex-Waterford United man has 23 goals this season. Only Aberdeen’s Adam Rooney, with 25, perhaps merits a shout for the man more in form. Murphy has had opportunities in the past in an Irish shirt without setting the world alight and no goals to show for it. However, if Irish fans truly want Robbie Keane benched, what more does Murphy have to do to stake a claim?
Scot to be Tartan Somethin
We were beaten in Glasgow and the only way to undo that result is to return the favour to Scotland in Dublin. Before the game last November, the Scottish press claimed, player-for-player that Gordon Strachan’s side was far superior to ours. One piece of brilliance decided a match that was frantic but rarely had finesse. Shane Long’s last gasp equaliser against Poland keeps our qualification dream alive and the second-half display has given Irish fans hope that we are still in with a chance. Under Giovanni Trapattoni, we would have continued with our failed first-half strategy for the full 90 against Poland. Can we now replicate the second-half showing for a successive game and prove it wasn’t a flash in the pan, the ones we were so often teased with – Italy, Bulgaria, France – only to be hopelessly disappointed, under O’Neill’s predecessor?
Stuck in the middle
At Euro 2012, for the game with Croatia, we were lucky enough to be sitting a few rows back from the touchline, a position similar to where we were for last Sunday’s Polish joust. What’s clear is that in the three years since, Glenn Whlean hasn’t learned to call for a football. What’s worse is James McCarthy, our great green hope, doesn’t seem capable of it either. Ten minutes into a crucial qualifier, the Everton midfielder was literally walking around the turf looking wholly uninterested. For the opening 45 minutes, our defence resorted to that oh-so-infuriating practice of bypassing our central players with long punts because yet again an Irish midfield partnership was unwilling to find space to receive a pass. So many throw-ins saw neither Whelan nor McCarthy willing to show for the ball. You’d be forgiven for thinking both players were afraid to take possession, afraid to lose possession. Even schoolboys playing in the centre call for a football. Premier League midfielders being afraid is utterly unacceptable. McCarthy’s second half display showed flashes of what Everton fans have been raving about. He’s still only 24-years-old and admirably he’s said pundits’ analysis of his performances doesn’t bother him. Irish fans are just hoping he’ll answer his critics on the pitch instead of post-match press conferences.
The reaction to Wes Hoolahan’s display has been baffling. Praise for the Norwich playmaker has been described as over the top with many pointing to his misplaced passes. But criticism of his performance seems simply bonkers. Everyone in the ground could see that Hoolahan was the only one in a green shirt willing to get on the ball and attempt to make things happen. They didn’t always come off but so what? Compared to what was around him, Hoolahan’s willingness to take hold of the ball and look for a pass stood out like a sore thumb, and earned him the man-of-the-match award for his trouble.
Ireland’s Die Hard winger James McClean continues to profit from the faith shown by manager Martin O’Neill. His introduction into the fray against Poland was a catalyst for increased pressure on the visitor’s defence as, along with Coleman, the Boys in Green began to utilise both flanks. The Derryman’s crunching tackle on Arkadiusz Milik had the Landowne Road crowd on its feet and the passage of play has come to epitomise the fighting spirit shown in the second half, so lacking from Irish teams up to now. Prior to Euro 2012, the calls were relentless for the rookie McClean to be parachuted into the team ahead of Aiden McGeady. With the Everton winger running out of chances, the choice may be unavoidable.
Sermon for Germans
Poland was a must-win game. But we drew. Now Scotland is a must-win game and all the talk is already about a victory sending us well on our way to France. The reality is that failure to beat Poland at home also means we must beat Georgia, probably draw away to Poland, and get a point from world champions Germany. If we play like we did in the first half against the Poles, Germany will destroy us. If we perform like we did in the second-half, gung ho and attacking, we may also get destroyed. Or we might actually take something memorable from the game as we did in Gelsenkirhecn without all the rancour that followed, that we never tried to play. Maybe if we really want to qualify we need to recreate the same intensity as we did last Sunday and take the game to the Germans on our own patch. We’re waiting for 2001 since our last big win at home. Failing to achieve it against Scotland is unthinkable. But we might need more than one.
MON under fire
Martin O’Neill has also taken plenty of flak with more than a few commentators implying that he is known for indecision. One columnist questioned why he waited until 90 minutes before kick-off to name his team, something that is the norm in every football dressing room the world over. The same article even compared the practice to rugby coach Joe Schmidt revealing his side days before. We really have let that Six Nations win go to our heads. What O’Neill and Keane must take responsibility for is the build-up to the game focusing on being on the front foot and getting the crowd behind the team. Nothing of the sort materialised until the second half. If they take the blame for our first 45 showing, they can take credit for how we finshed. The question now is, can they kick us on from here?
England can be our Nations Cup
A win over Scotland in 2011 gave Irish fans an unusual experience; a trophy presentation with captain Robbie Keane raising aloft the prize. The Nations Cup experiment may have died a death but it served a purpose for Ireland, galvanising a squad to go and achieve ultimate qualification for Euro 2012. In June we will take on the old enemy for the first time in Dublin since the infamous night in 1995. Martin O’Neill has said he doesn’t care if we are beaten by England as the important test comes with the visit of the Scots four days later. But can you imagine the euphoria if we take down the Three Lions before facing the Tartan Army? Would it be enough to fire us to the ultimate Euro reward once more?
The Lansdowne Roar
It’s taken about seven years and 70 minutes to get here but it’s back. Perhaps stunned by the spectacular Polish support, Irish fans at the Aviva Stadium felt more like they were in Warsaw, or maybe flare-fuelled Istanbul. And yet, Poland only profited from an Irish mistake to take the lead while Shay Given was virtually untroubled for the rest of the game. Ireland, on the other hand, grew in stature, and pummeled the visiting defence. Robbie Brady’s cross hit the bar. Robbe Keane’s header came back off the post. Coleman missed a glorious opportunity to test Fabianski and the Aviva Stadium reacted. For too long under Trapattoni, the Irish fans were silenced by the fare on offer despite the best efforts of the Singing Section. This time the Ballsbridge crowd responded to what was happening on the pitch just like bygone days in the old Lansdowne Road. Give us more of the same against Scotland and we’ll roar the glass house down.
All images: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com