It’s been a bruising few days for the Irish football team. A disastrous tackle has left us shorn of our captain Seamus Coleman while the goalless draw with Wales has seen us slip off the World Cup qualifying group summit. Here are ten talking points.
Ireland versus Wales was billed as the biggest game of all the European qualifiers last weekend but the lack of quality has sent alarm bells ringing among the home fans who were hoping we could rekindle the type of displays we produced in France last summer. Re-watching the highlights, it says much that the footage jumped from Glenn Whelan’s wayward shot in the early stages to the 33rd minute. Even then, three Irish elbows on Welsh opponents plus two horror tackles, one of which has heart-breaking consequences for the Irish skipper, were deemed the standout moments of an ugly night. The road to Russia is not going to be smooth for Ireland. Here are ten talking points.
Much was made of the players missing for Ireland before the game with Wales. We were without our central pairing of Clark and Duffy but many remain unconvinced that they are actually our strongest partnership anyway. Duffy, in particular, has made some costly mistakes while Keogh and O’Shea looked solid last Friday night. Robbie Brady proved to be a big loss as his subsequent deliveries against Iceland highlighted. Harry Arter only made his competitive Irish debut away to Austria so we have yet to see if he is the creative outlet we crave on a consistent basis. We appear to be desperately reliant on Wes Hoolahan to break down defences.
Ahead of the showdown with Wales, Irish fans knew that a win would cement our place at the top of the group and inflict a hammer blow on our Celtic competitors for a place in Russia. As ever with the Irish team, we must do things the hard way but the biggest concern is our inability to make chances, something which continued in the game against Iceland. What was more worrying was the lack of intelligence on Tuesday to realise that we hadn’t won an aerial battle all night. No one had the ambition to change our play, to seek to come in-field or even send in low-level crosses instead of constant high balls which were as beautiful to an Icelandic defence as the Northern Lights. Surely, Wes Hoolahan is not the only player available to us who has a football brain?
The debate raged in the RTE studio over whether Ireland’s rough-house tactics in the first half caused Wales to over-compensate after the break with catastrophic consequences for Seamus Coleman and Martin O’Neill’s team. Roy Keane’s pre-match comments about hitting Gareth Bale garnered plenty of media attention and could be viewed as stoking the fire but many outlets failed to include a keyword of Keane’s press conference, “fairly”. There was nothing legal about Bale’s or Taylor’s challenges. Equally, Whelan, Long, and even David Meyler could all have seen red in the first half for elbows on their opponents. Long was late to a tackle but caught his opponent in the face with an elbow. That’s dangerous territory. Chris Coleman was unwise to try to defend the indefensible with Bale but he was right that Ireland’s players didn’t cover themselves in glory.
A small crumb of comfort from Coleman’s injury is that stand-in full-back Cyrus Christie has already shown he is up for the task ahead. What’s most encouraging is that, like Coleman, the Derby County player shows a willingness to maraud down the flanks at every opportunity as he did against both Wales and Iceland. Christie is also drawing inspiration from the man he must replace and paid Seamus Coleman a visit in hospital. “He spoke to me as I left,” he said. “He told me there was no better man to fill his boots and that was great to hear from him. That sums the kind of guy he is up. For me that’s a great compliment and it gives me a great amount of confidence because I look up to him.”
Deservedly man-of-the-match against Wales after a traumatic week on a personal level, James McClean is fast achieving cult status among Irish fans, as Keith Andrews said in commentary. His willingness to run at opposition defences is the type of play that brings the Irish crowd alive and raises their voices. With Austria to come to the Aviva Stadium next, Ireland will look to McClean for inspiration, even if it’s more for his heart than his ability.
In his own inimitable style, former Ireland manager Brian Kerr said Irish fans should be entitled to a refund for the game against Iceland as they were “swizzed out of an international match.” It was the Ireland second-string against a visiting team without their best players. But what was more worrying for the ex-St. Pat’s boss was Ireland’s inability to create chances against, now, Georgia, Wales, and Iceland. The Iceland game was billed as offering a chance for others to show what they can do should we encounter another horrendous injury-list as we did before the Wales game. Sadly, the answer for now seems to be, they could do very little.
With huge games to come against Austria and Serbia at home, that inability to create scoring opportunities is becoming a real concern. For twenty minutes against Wales we were unable to make 11 men count against 10. Pundit Clinton Morrison is confident Ireland will have already qualified by the time we travel to Cardiff for the final game of the campaign. If we must go to the Welsh capital in October in need of something, will we look back at those minutes with an extra man in Dublin as a lost opportunity to seal our passage to Russia?
The only positive of a dour friendly defeat to Iceland was the debuts of the likes of Egan, Hourihane, Horgan, and Boyle. Some impressed more than others and it’s unfair to expect too much from players in their first international outing. Many footballers repeat how their debuts often go by in a haze as adrenaline and emotion kick-in which don’t always allow them to express themselves as they would like. Having said that, Daryl Horgan looks like he could provide a real spark on the left wing. His ability to cut back and deliver quality ball with his right foot could be a major weapon in the months ahead. It was also brilliant to hear the receptions for both Horgan and Boyle, and the cheers of the Aviva crowd should serve as a ringing endorsement for the potential of the League of Ireland.
Blowing our own trumpet
You can applaud attempts to improve the atmosphere at Ireland games but the new musical act was not a popular choice. The insistence to carry on a tune far longer than necessary just became plain irritating. It’s also true that the Welsh brass band, the Barry Horns, was banned from playing at the game in Dublin last Friday. Fair enough, home advantage and all that, but to then introduce a trumpeter of our own for the first time just seems cynical now. And bloody annoying.
The outpouring of wishes towards the Irish captain gives some indication of the esteem he’s held in by his teammates and fellow professionals. It’s a measure of the man that most people speak how highly they rate Seamus as a person, not just as a player. Apart from to himself, his injury is a devastating blow to the Irish squad, and his leadership will also be sorely missed. John O’Shea has spoken of completing the job of qualification for their stricken teammate. If any positive can come from this, they should use his injury as motivation in every game to come, to get the Republic to Russia.