Tuesday, 20 November 2018

A Tale of Three Irelands

A google search for 'the unifying power of sport' returns just shy of three million results in under half a second. Yet, as much as it can unify, sport also has the potential to divide. Both sides of that coin were visible at Lansdowne Road during the last week as three separate Ireland teams took to the pitch in radically different atmospheres.

Despite being a staunch Ireland fan since I was old enough to form memories, a part of me has always thought it a shame that, unlike the vast majority of sports, there are two separate football teams on the island. The majority of people probably look at the split of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) away from the Irish Football Association (IFA) as being linked to the partition of the country in the early 1920's. But, while both splits occurred in the same general timeframe after several years of conflict, the conflict in terms of football was as a result of alleged IFA bias towards Ulster rather than the desire for independent nationhood. The final straw was the refusal of the IFA to schedule the Irish Cup semi-final replay between Glenavon and Shelbourne in Dublin and insist that the second game be played in Belfast. 

The desire of both sets of blazers for power over football on the island led to both associations claiming to be the defacto association for the island in its entirety. While the likes of the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Golfing Union of Ireland, along with governing bodies for Boxing, Hockey, Cricket etc were doing their best to promote their sports across both sides of the newly drawn border, the two football associations were butting heads with various efforts to reunify throughout the twenties and thirties falling short on sticking points that had nothing to do with the politics of the time but everything to do with perks and power.

                           Ireland kit circa 1930s/1940s           Northern Ireland kit circa 1930s/1940s 

In fact, both associations wore the same shirts and used the name of Ireland throughout the thirties and forties. They also carried on selecting players from each side of the border up until 1946 in the case of the FAI and 1950 with the IFA. The growing global nature of the game saw both Ireland's enter World Cup qualifying for the first time at this stage and after Tom Aherne, Reg Ryan, Davy Walsh and Con Martin played in qualifiers for both sides, FIFA intervened to prevent the situation happening again,

The late Con Martin with some of his caps from each Irish team

A gentleman's agreement between both sides not to pick players from outside each jurisdiction meant that relations were relatively benign and there were even talks throughout the seventies while the troubles were at their height where reunification was on the agenda. Even George Best went on the record, stating he had ‘talked to several players from the South and they all want to see a full Irish team. I know the Northern Ireland players think the same way.’

Indeed, an All-Ireland squad of 14 including seven Northern players played world champions Brazil in a famous 1973 exhibition game but that team had to take the field using a Shamrock Rovers moniker after IFA objections prevented them using Ireland as planned. In a nice touch, Con Martin's son Mick got one of the Irish goals in a 4-3 defeat.

The All-Ireland side that played Brazil in 1973

Talks continued throughout the seventies although various factors including the two sides being drawn against each other for the first time in the Euro '80 qualifiers prevented a resolution being found. Cormac Moore's excellent book, The Irish Soccer Split, provides great detail on those failed efforts.

The main argument for reunification was that a single side would be better equipped to qualify for major tournaments. This was rendered moot not long after with Northern Ireland qualifying for consecutive World Cups in 1982 (with Ireland only denied by some scandalous refereeing in a number of games) and 1986 and Ireland following suit with qualification for Euro '88 and World Cups in 1990 and 1994. With the qualification for USA '94 sealed amid a poisonous atmosphere in a Windsor Park game against the North, any talk of reunification seemed a long way off and has never been back on any agenda since.

While the atmosphere at Lansdowne last Thursday was a long way from 25 years before, the nasty edge to it was still dispiriting. From seeing pictures of Northern Ireland fans displaying Para regiment flags to the booing of both anthems to Irish fans roaring IRA slogans at 'orange bastards', it was a long way from France two summers ago where both sets of fans mingled good-naturedly. As I said in the aftermath of Thursday's game, maybe the two-year diet of Brexit, backstops and the proximity to the annual poppy fascism season has seen things regress.

It's because of the power of sport to unify that my regret about football being split on the island stems. The lines have been well drawn at this stage between both sets of supporters and it would be nigh on impossible for either group to simply subsume into the other. Reunification of the sides will only ever happen if there's reunification of the nation. I've always wanted to see that but I'm more than aware that if it's ever to happen, accommodating and welcoming the opposing tradition on the island has to be a big part of it.

Watching a packed Lansdowne Road rise to acclaim Jacob Stockdale, the son of a vicar from Newtownstewart in County Tyrone, as he grounded the winning try for a 32 county Ireland against the All Blacks on Saturday, I couldn't help but wonder how the support for a national football team would have developed had no split occurred. And whether that may have had a knock-on effect in society.

The demographics mean that it would be overly simplistic to look at the support that rugby (and indeed other sports such as hockey and cricket) draws from both sides of the divide and extrapolate that to football. While the other sports mentioned earlier have always drawn support from the middle and upper-class ABC1 base so beloved of rugby sponsors and advertisers, football's history on both sides of the border is a working-class one.

And it was within the working class communities of the North that the brunt of the troubles were felt and where identity was something people could grip onto when they had little else.

It would be ridiculous to say that had both communities followed a single team they probably wouldn't have been ghettoised by "peace walls". Or that the civil rights issues that existed in the North would have been solved by sport.

The hooliganism that blighted matches between nationalist and loyalist supported sides in the Irish League is well documented, with the demise of Belfast Celtic and the exclusion of Derry City the most high profile examples of those problems. Indeed, these highlighted the issues that remained within the IFA for years after they had caused the split in the first place.

Despite the efforts that have been made regarding inclusivity, the NI anthem and flag still give credence to the view that, to paraphrase, it's a Protestant team for a Protestant people. Yet it's extremely unlikely that those symbols would have survived to this day if the IFA had been an All-Island organisation rather than remaining one forged in the six counties. With the aforementioned gentleman's agreement long now forgotten, the Ireland team has become a de facto 32 county nationalist team understandably leaving little desire for changing those symbols within the IFA or their support.

Family links with the composer of Amhran na BhFiann make its playing a proud highlight of any Ireland game for me, both at home and abroad. But would a rugby style arrangement with a neutral song (albeit one a lot better than the godawful Ireland's Call) have been palatable to our support had it always been thus?

Looking at how both communities united behind Monaghan boxer Barry McGuigan in the eighties at the height of the troubles in another working-class sport showed that it was possible for supporters from each tradition to unite behind one force. But any individual sportsman has a finite career. In team sports players come and go but the team abides.

How might football on the island have evolved if all 32 counties were cheering a team representing all at the World Cup in 1958? Or if instead of two Ireland's splitting four consecutive World Cup's from 1982 onwards a single team had contested four in a row? Or even if the old Home Nations Championship had become an annual Four Nations tournament throughout the 20th century? A team featuring Jemnings, Giles, Brady and Best while that tournament was still one of the few live on TV couldn't have failed to quicken pulses on both sides of the border.

Tribalism is an inherent part of football but the support of a team generally transcends an individual's politics. Anything that could have shown two fans from say The Falls and Shankhill Road something they had in common rather than what divided them couldn't have done any harm. Instead, the soccer split on the island has simply given some another platform to show off their prejudices.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

It's Grim Down South

Martin O'Neill's oft-repeated excuse of Ireland not having the players to compete in the passing stakes with superior opposition was laid bare last Thursday.

Once again, our team spent the evening chasing shadows while set up in a barely discernable formation. The difference is that this time our opponents didn't have a Gareth Bale or a Christian Eriksen in their ranks and in fact had a squad unquestionably weaker than that our manager can choose from. The problem is not with the players, it's with the management.  

From the off, it was clear that this was going to be a disappointing evening. A two-year news diet of Brexit and the proximity to the annual poppy fascism gauntlet that James McClean has to shamefully endure in England has seen a hardening of attitudes in the seven years since Northern Ireland last came to Dublin, let alone the three since the last game against England. Our choice to have an extra pint and skip the anthems was vindicated by the boos we could trace from both ends during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann and God Save The Queen as we came through the turnstiles.

Add the 25th anniversary of the famous Windsor Park clash where Alan McLoughlin's goal saved Ireland's World Cup 94 qualifying campaign into the mix and the wisdom of arranging a friendly with our nearest neighbours has to be questioned.

I've watched us play the North at Lansdowne in 1989, 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2011. On none of those occasions have I witnessed the nasty edge and provo chants that were present last Thursday.  We mainly rose above it. While the abuse clearly wasn't at the level that we were subjected to in that qualifier a quarter of a century ago,  the fact that most of it came from lads that were probably still in nappies when that game was played and remember nothing of the troubles was depressing. 

Yet, what's been transpiring in the Ireland camp on and off the field is more depressing still. Every time the team has gone into camp in the last 12 months, there's been a feeling that we must have reached rock bottom. But every time, the management find new depths to plumb.

How low can we go?

After the Harry Arter and Declan Rice stories, Michael Obafemi's acceptance of a call-up should have been a good news story. Quite what Martin O'Neill was thinking in casting doubt on the Southampton youngster's commitment is beyond me. Yet, rather than talking to the player, that's precisely what he did in Monday's press conference, pointedly remarking that the player still qualifies for England and Nigeria and "has decisions to make for his future."

Well-placed sources close to the striker were reported in the media as denying this was the case on Tuesday but once again, instead of talking to the player, O'Neill doubled down on Wednesday stating that Obafemi wouldn't be travelling to Denmark for Monday's game as he wouldn't "be rushing him into making a decision" and that “I’ve spoken to (Michael)…but I think in terms of decisions for tying him down, I think that’s a bit of a distance off.”

There followed a bizarre and snidey exchange with Pundit Arena journalist Richard Barrett which I've copied here for context.

Transcript from FAI press conference, 14/11/2018

Richard Barrett: Having spoken to a source close to Michael Obafemi directly his intentions were clear that he wants to commit to Ireland. Has anything changed over the last number of days?

Martin O’ Neill: Sorry who have you spoken to?

RB: Someone very close to him.

MON: Is that right? You’re further on than me.

RB: Has anything changed?

MON: Who did you speak to?

RB: I can’t reveal that, but they said his intentions are very clear that he wants to play with Ireland.

MON: You can’t come in here and be half honest.

RB: Would it be a surprise to see him line out on Thursday?

MON: Thursday is alright, Thursday is okay and I’m hoping that he can be in and we can use six subs in a friendly game so hopefully he’d be in the squad anyway for that game so no that wouldn’t be a surprise, the next game is the one.

If he has total commitment he didn’t say that to me nor to be fair to me I didn’t press him on it because I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to his family but no, you’re ahead of the game you tell me.

RB: Are you confident?

MON: Confident on what?

RB: Confident that he will declare for Ireland?

MON: Am I confident? I’m always hopeful and I’ve always said that. I’m hopeful about Declan Rice too, hopeful you know? I can only be confident of something that I know I’m in control of or if that’s the case at least I know. I’m not in control of other people’s decisions, particularly issues like this which are very very important. I agree with you he has really enjoyed the training, he has enjoyed being brought in it seems.

As Glenn (Whelan) has mentioned he did very very well and has got a lot of encouragement, a lot of encouragement from the backroom staff but also importantly he’s got a lot of encouragement from senior players like Glenn and Seamus Coleman so that sort of feeling has got to be good and if that’s the case fine.

He might well have made his mind up even before coming over here, I’m curious as I said to you, you’re closer to him, I should bring you into the team.

On a serious note though, in regards the game on Monday, if he does declare do I go and do that then and if he suddenly goes and changes his mind then? I’m not sure on that but overall yes I’m hopeful, and I think you’re confident.

RB: Very confident

MON: Are you?

RB: Yes, I am.

MON: You should come and see me afterwards, join us for lunch.

With the manager casting doubt on Obafemi's intentions, the social media brains trust were quick to react leading to the young player getting significant and unwarranted abuse on the cesspit that is twitter in the build up. A clearly baffled Obafemi camp then released a statement on Thursday afternoon confirming the player's commitment and stating that "due to current speculation surrounding Michael Obafemi and as Michael's representatives, we would like to go on record to say that we are not in talks with either Nigeria or England, nor is it something we have ever pursued."

If that was the case, and it certainly backs up what Barrett's sources had said, then why was the manager undermining that and leaving the player exposed to the online abuse? O'Neill's disdain for social media is on the record but it's his job to manage situations like this. Rather than stage-managing what should have been a badly needed good news story, Thursday's developments made him look foolish in the extreme when a player who he said was a "distance off" making a decision made that decision within 24 hours. And in fact, denied that said decision was ever in doubt. A tweet from Obafemi shortly afterwards seemed to seal the deal.

Michael Obafemi confirms his allegiance 

Meanwhile, on pitch developments have been making O'Neill look foolish for a long time now. We lined up in what ostensibly seemed to be a 5-3-2 with Darragh Lenihan, Shane Duffy and John Egan taking the central defensive positions and Callum O’Dowda once again in an unfamiliar number 10 role. Robbie Brady made a long-awaited comeback after a year's absence and Glenn Whelan was back for a farewell bow.

The first ten minutes were passable with McClean's tap into an empty net after O'Dowda had been flagged offside the closest thing to real excitement. Needless to say, McClean's every touch was being booed by the North's fans which generated significant response from the Irish support with various profanities filling the night air.

But it wasn't long before any semblance of a shape started to desert us and we really should have been one down after 13 minutes. Our defence was nowhere to be seen as Gavin Whyte was played in with only Darren Randolph to beat. The Boro keeper spread himself really well to deflect the ball clear but really Whyte should have been given no chance.

Our only attacking outlet these days seems to be throwing Duffy up for a set-piece and hoping he gets a header on goal and that tactic nearly paid off ten minutes later with a great Brady delivery that was asking to be finished but this time Duffy mistimed his header, sending it into the ground and up high enough for Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the North's goal to tip over the bar.

A similar chance on 34 minutes that Duffy headed straight at the keeper was as much as Ireland created and the highlight of the half was the applause that Whelan got as he was subbed five minutes before the break. 

He's a player that had shipped a lot of unfair criticism during his career but the fact is that when he played, Ireland were generally a better team than when he didn't. Indeed, despite a couple of lax passes, he was still one of Ireland's better players on Thursday. Throughout his career, he did the job he was asked to, whether it was by Giovanni Trapattoni or Martin O'Neill.

Glenn Whelan's career highlight v Italy in happier times

The fact that both managers operate in a safety-first zone meant that Whelan took some unfair flak. But he is a good pro who will be missed and will always have that stunning Croke Park strike against Italy to look back on as one of the great Ireland goals.

The half petered out with the North taking control forcing Randolph to save again from Whyte and then from Stuart Dallas to ensure the half finished goalless.

Half-time saw the introduction of a young forward off the bench but after all the hoo-hah of the week, it wasn't Michael Obafemi making his debut but Portsmouth's Ronan Curtis, who has made a great impression at League One level after moving from Derry City in the summer. O'Dowda had been invisible in the 10 role and was the man to make way.

A Seamus Coleman run and shout for a non-existent penalty was as good as it got for Ireland before the usual plethora of substitutions kicked in around the hour mark.

McClean was withdrawn which dialled down the vitriol from the Northern Ireland fans and Callum Robinson also came ashore with Enda Stevens and Seanie Maguire coming on.

It made little difference to the direction the game was now flowing in. First, Michael Smith nearly took advantage of a goalmouth scramble only for Randolph to deny him. Then yet more calamitous defensive play, this time from Lenihan which gave Jordan Jones a very similar one-on-one as Whyte had in the first half. Much to everyone's relief, the outcome was the same when in real terms it had no right to be. 

Any resemblance to a recognisable shape had departed Ireland by now and with gaps appearing all over the pitch, we were succeeding in making Michael O'Neill's men look like tiki-taka experts with their best move just falling at the last hurdle before Steven Davies could get a shot off. 

Seanie Maguire's rotten luck with injuries continued as his night was cut short 13 minutes after it started with Scott Hogan coming on as Obafemi was ignored again although the injury opened up a seat on the plane to Denmark for him. Cyrus Christie followed Hogan off the bench to take up some sort of midfield position and he managed to force a corner which came to nothing as the game fizzled out for a scoreless draw. Unsurprisingly, Randolph was announced as man of the match. Without him, there's no doubt this would have ended up another defeat.

The difference in the approach of the two Ireland's and the two O'Neill's was summed up in the post-match interviews. Northern Ireland's Gavin Whyte spoke about his team's organisation and how the manager has every role drilled into them, even if they're coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Ronan Curtis revealed that no one had spoken about what was required of him until he was told to get ready at half-time.

These are two ordinary sides with average players. Both lost a World Cup play-off and will finish bottom of their Nations League group. Yet one looked organised and simply lacked a cutting edge throughout their campaign and again on Thursday. The other looks rudderless, shapeless and not only lacks a cutting edge up front but is also very shaky at the back. One camp seems happy and content while the other is beset with leaks, misunderstandings at best and arguments at worst.

 One manager is getting paid roughly €600k while the other is getting three times that with his assistant taking home a higher salary than the Northern Ireland boss. And for what?

Bar a late victory against a second-string USA side during the summer, Ireland are now winless in 10 games. The two goals scored that night remain the only goals scored at home since Shane Duffy put us ahead before our Danish capitulation a year ago. In our last 17 games, we've won 3, drawn 6 and lost 8. In terms of tactics and on field organisation and execution of a gameplan,  the football is far worse than I watch inferior players produce week in, week out at Bohs.

There's no indication that this will change despite O'Neill's bullish insistence that he will qualify us for Euro 2020 because, in his own words, he's "good". At this stage, he's just about the only one left that thinks so.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Not Quite Another Ryan's Slaughter

Considering that fingers can certainly be pointed in Darren Randolph's direction for the goal that proved to be Wales' winner Tuesday night, it's ironic that it was probably his stoppage-time save that stopped the atmosphere turning really poisonous. At least that's how it felt after George Thomas fluffed his lines when one-on-one with the Middlesboro stopper in the 93rd minute. While there were audible boos from the crowd when the ref blew up a minute later, I've no doubt a second goal for Ryan Giggs' team would have amplified them to a level that would have been far more difficult for Martin O'Neill to farcically shrug off as being aimed at the referee.

The most frustrating aspect of Tuesday for me was that the first half was undoubtedly an improvement on what we had seen against Denmark on Saturday. Yet, once Wales went ahead, the old failings came to the fore once again as our play lost any semblance of shape in our attempts to salvage something. The chaotic nature of the last twenty minutes could as easily have resulted in a two or three goal slaughter rather than an equaliser. We ended up with neither and instead took another nick in what seems like a death by a thousand cuts for this regime. 

There was still a bit of a matchday buzz around the city as we made our way over from the Northside with food and drink pit stops in Fagans, Mulligans and The Gingerman. But it was mostly coming from the Welsh fans dotted around the city and when we arrived at the Beggars, there was a lot more room than normal. 

To be fair, it was a midweek game and once it got to an hour before kick-off, there were plenty of bodies milling around. However, I do wonder if the fact that so many tickets were given away for free through schoolboy clubs meant that a good chunk of the crowd was coming in with their kids for the match alone. I've no issue with anything that encourages the next generation of fans to come along but the sheer volume of tickets rumoured to be handed out does raise questions about how fair that is to those loyal supporters who pay for the dubious privilege of watching this team. 

With Callum Robinson's cameo one of the bright points from Saturday's draw and rumours about Shane Long's level of fitness, it was no surprise to see Robinson named to start. Aiden O'Brien's performance in the Poland friendly had obviously been enough to see him given the nod in place of Callum O'Dowda who was suffering from concussion. Otherwise, it was the same team as three days before with the Cyrus Christie experiment in central midfield continuing. 

Meanwhile, the loss of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey had left Wales without their two best players. Ethan Ampadu, their Irish qualified young prospect who had done so much damage to us in Cardiff was also missing so the team Giggs sent out was hugely inexperienced with an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old and three 21-year-olds lining up. And for all the talk about the lack of Irish players playing in the Premier League, our team contained six players currently playing there compared to three for Wales.

The Welsh are a nation who know how to belt out an anthem and their rendition of Land of our Fathers was certainly rousing while the malaise around the Irish set-up seemed to have made its way into the stands with a half-hearted Amhrán na bhFiann bringing us to kick-off.

After the criticism of the overly defensive nature of Saturday's set-up, it was clear early on that our defensive line was further up the pitch, meaning that the formation looked more like the promised 3-5-2 as opposed to the five at the back that was consistently apparent against the Danes.

James McClean was getting forward well from his left wing-back position and had got stuck into both Joe Allen and David Brooks in the first six minutes before winning Ireland's first corner on eight.

The corner came to nothing but Ireland really should have taken the lead a minute later. Wales were playing the ball out at the edge of the box when a slip from Matthew Smith let Christie in on goal. A desperate swipe from Smith's trailing leg clipped the ball and forced Christie into a more central position and it may have been that which caused him to take it on first time when advancing closer on goal was the better option. Regardless, Wayne Hennessy in the Welsh goal scrambled back and the lack of pace on the shot meant he was able to push it past the post. It really was a gilt-edged chance and should have seen Ireland ahead.

A defensive error by Shane Duffy at the other end nearly let in Tom Lawrence for Wales' first chance but luckily the ref had spotted a handball and the game settled down in a bit of a nip and tuck manner again. While Wales had about 60% of the possession, neither side was in the ascendancy and it was definitely a better watch than the Denmark game. There were encouraging signs from the likes of Robinson and James McClean was looking more comfortable playing in the higher line, as was Matt Doherty.

However, comfortable saves from a Tyler Roberts shot and a Duffy header were the only real incidents of note until the 40th minute when Ireland actually managed to string a number of passes together and work the ball to Robinson in an encouraging position. Unfortunately, his shot from just outside the box was charged down by Lawrence. 

And that was pretty much it for the first half. Nothing spectacular but a step up from the weekend and the hope was the second period would see it raised another notch.

While things did move up another notch after the break, unfortunately, it was Wales that did the raising as they started doing more with the possession we always cede to the opposition. The first ten minutes were uneventful enough bar the usual McClean booking and O'Neill was the first manager to blink with the ineffective O'Brien replaced by Shane Long on 56 minutes to a fairly indifferent response from the support. But he hadn't even had a chance to settle into things before the defining moment of the game.

It was a very rash decision from Harry Arter to go to ground as it looked like Tyler Roberts would be doing well to create a chance from an overhit pass. But go to ground he did and that was the start of a series of errors. Darren Randolph's wall was all over the place and you could clearly see the gap that Wales' Joe Allen was standing in from our vantage point at the other end of the ground. 

Regardless of that gap, Harry Wilson's strike was fairly central and should have been meat and drink to the keeper even allowing for the fact that Robinson turned his back to it. Why Randolph thought it was a good idea to second guess Wilson and take a step to his left is beyond me but it left him stranded as the ball sailed in, to the delight of the Welsh fans behind that goal.

Mind the gap

Given the utter lack of a cutting edge these days (the only team Ireland have scored more than one against in a competitive game in the last two years is Moldova), it was hard to see where an equaliser would come from. But the approach that was taken to chase the game was scattergun in the extreme.

I don't know if it was the fact that he had turned his back on the ball in the wall but Robinson was hooked not long after despite looking like our biggest threat. Seanie Maguire replaced him. Given the two play together at Preston, would letting them play together not have been a better option than bringing a misfiring Shane Long on?

Long did find himself through on goal a few minutes later and was lucky he was rightly called offside considering he managed to hit the bar rather than the net with his finish. 

The longer the game went on, the more desperate we seemed to become and any semblance of structure went out the window. A couple of Hendrick efforts were blocked. Scott Hogan was introduced replacing Kevin Long which seemed to leave us playing a 2-5-3 formation.

The harum-scarum nature of the game at this stage meant we were really susceptible to counter-attacks and Arter did well to get back and block Lawrence after losing the ball himself. James Chester put a header wide when he should have buried it. Lawrence and Roberts snatched at chances.

We were still creating the odd half chance but it was aimless stuff in the main. Maguire put a header into Hennessy's hands and Duffy lashed at a chance but put it well over. A couple of long throws were launched into the box and pinged around but nothing really came close. Maguire hit another shot over the bar before McClean hit a stoppage-time effort straight at the keeper. 

Another Hendrick corner went straight into Hennessy's hands again before what looked a final attack was launched with another booming clearance from Randolph. Duffy actually won the header from the centre-forward position with Ireland seemingly playing four up front by now, Arter was caught in possession and Thomas really should have hammered the nail into the coffin but was tentative with his shot and Randolph saved with his foot. 

There was still time for another Ireland corner which Randolph came up for and the confusion he caused led to the ball bouncing back to Arter. But his shot was slashed at and his claims for a penalty smacked of the desperation that had marked our second half play. The ref wasn't buying it and promptly blew up leaving the players slumping to the turf and the fans booing roundly. The rest of our night was spent picking over the bones of the last week. And mostly moaning about it.

How low can we go?

It's not an exaggeration to say that the national team are at a very low ebb right now. And it's very difficult to see things changing in the near future. The last year's results have been the worst since the Steve Staunton era. Nine games have brought a single win and even that came with a last minute winner against a second string USA team. The five competitive games we've played have seen two scoreless draws and three defeats, two of them heavy. 

But it's the nature of the defeats that are the real worry. The competitive games have all been against teams supposedly from the same level as ourselves. The format of the Nations League is set up to ensure that. Yet, we've looked woefully short of where Denmark and Wales are despite both playing without their top players.

While the Under 19's brought some light to the situation with their win against Holland on Tuesday and will enter December's daw for the elite phase of the European Championships, there are clearly issues within Irish football as a whole. Under 21 results have been poor for a long time now and after eight years in charge, a change from Noel King should be implemented.

Unlike Wales, the Senior team has remained a distance away from the underage set up in terms of playing style etc. While results were being achieved, there was an argument that that was all that mattered. Discussion needs to happen in that regard now but that's a longer debate for another piece.

At present, any analysis has to look at how the management are fulfiling their role. Martin O'Neill himself admitted in an Off The Ball interview last August that he doesn't believe he has the players for long enough to work on systems in training. He consistently talks down the ability of the players he does have without taking any responsibility himself. Numerous ex-players such as John Giles, Keith Andrews and Gary Breen have pointed this out as a recipe for disaster.

He's admitted that he doesn't tell players they're playing until an hour before kick-off with his logic being  "Well, I've always done that for a start and I did that the night we played in the UEFA Cup final for Celtic against Porto who went on to win the Champions League the following year," 

It's a laissez-faire attitude that doesn't seem fit for purpose fifteen years on from that UEFA Cup final. Especially considering that O'Neill is the fourth highest paid international manager in Europe. It's obvious that the individual involved won't change. The last 12 months should therefore mean that the manager should be changed before the full qualifying campaign starts. Yet his salary means it would take a huge leap of faith for the FAI to do that and it's one leap I just can't see them taking.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Nothing Fresh In This Stale Danish

It's indicative of just how far Ireland's stock has fallen in the last 12 months that a 0-0 home draw against an opposition shorn of their one truly world-class player can be heralded as progress. Yet, that's the position we find ourselves in as the Martin O'Neill reign stays afloat with the clean sheet at least buying a little more time for a management team that still feels as if it's holed below the waterline.

The gloom of the morning that greeted me as I opened the curtains provided an apt metaphor for the mood that surrounds the Irish camp these days. The manner of the Welsh defeat and the subsequent hoo-hah about Stephen Ward's leaked voice message had meant that the set up had rarely been out of the sports pages for the last month. This was surely a chance to try and aim for the fresh start that had been promised at the start of this Nations League campaign. Although the repetitive nature of the fixtures this draw has thrown up had undoubtedly added to the stale feeling around the set-up.

While the Declan Rice saga shows no sign of abating, it seems like an eleventh-hour phone call from Roy Keane to Harry Arter had been enough to persuade him to return to the squad. And the award of September's Premier League Player of the Month to ex-Bohs full-back, Matt Doherty, had meant that there was at least a football based narrative around the build-up with the clamour to include a player strangely ignored by O'Neill in the past despite excellent Championship form dominating discussions.

Speaking of Bohs, there was the small matter of a Scottish Challenge Cup tie against English Conference side, Sutton United the same afternoon as the match. And, after a 30-minute struggle with a failing Eir broadband and 4g network to try and arrange a cab, myself and Bren, the sole representative from the Birmingham Irish crew arrived up at Dalymount for a taster before the evening's main event.

The nature of that competition, into which the Scottish League have invited two teams each from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England's National League (previously the Conference) meant that normal regulations didn't apply with fans allowed to bring their drinks into the stands, which added to a very nice atmosphere between the home support and the 250 Sutton fans who'd made the trip.

The game itself fizzled out into a nil all draw but the penalty shoot-out that followed was worth the admission alone as Bohs keeper and recent Irish squad member, Shane Supple, took it upon himself to turn things around after Bohs had missed their third and fourth pens. I've never seen a keeper save a pen, score the next one himself and then save another but that's what he did before Rob Cornwall scored in sudden death and Sutton's next pen hit the bar and bounced back out off the line to send Bohs through to the last eight. It doesn't make up for the heartbreaking nature of the FAI Cup semi defeat to Cork last week but it'll keep the season going a little longer.

From there, another cab through the incessant drizzle brought us over to the Beggars where the usual regulars had started to gather under whatever shelter was available. Despite the negativity surrounding the team at the moment, it was a bit of craic to catch up with those that had travelled and to try and work out exactly what sort of formation was going to be played when the team was announced.

With three centre-halves selected it was clearly three at the back with wingbacks on the flanks but with Doherty finally selected for a competitive game, presumably on the right, where were Cyrus Christie and James McClean going to play? Callum O'Dowda's inclusion was a positive but again, I was struggling to work out exactly where he'd line up with some reports stating he'd have a central role. So where would that leave Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter?

Rather than waste time second-guessing, we wandered down to the ground in what was a fairly subdued atmosphere in time to see the standard minute's silence although it was nice to see a tribute to a young Bohs supporter, Oran Tully, who tragically died recently aged only 19 having bravely battled serious illness since he was a small child. Oran would have been well known in League of Ireland circles for his video blogs and had been on Sky Sports My Special Day programme a few years ago. A further round of applause on 19 minutes in the singing section also marked his passing which was a nice touch.

The game itself began cagily but an early flashpoint arrived when Hendrick decided to play on when Denmark and Thomas Delaney, in particular, had clearly decided to stop playing after Arter went down in our half. With the Danish players standing around, Jeff decided to scamper through on goal only, in an action that really sums up Ireland right now, to drag his shot wide. Even against a defence that stops playing, we still can't get a strike on target.

Needless to say, the Danes weren't impressed with this shithousery and, led by an irate Kasper Schmeichel, surrounded Hendrick as a bit of finger-jabbing and pushing and shoving ensued. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he actually scored with O'Neill suggesting afterwards that he may have instructed his players to stand by and let Denmark score. Some might argue that that's essentially what we did against Wales but that's another debate...

By now, it had begun to sink in that my eyes weren't deceiving me and Cyrus Christie was actually playing in central midfield. I'm actually a fan of Christie and think he can be unfairly maligned on occasion but I can't imagine what sort of signal his inclusion in that position sends to the likes of Conor Hourihane, David Meyler and  Shaun Williams (who was a rare bright spot in recent friendlies) as they sat on the bench and saw a man who's never played that position professionally selected ahead of them.

To be fair, Christie did alright in terms of work-rate and getting a foot in but it meant a midfield bereft of guile and, as is the norm, completely unable to retain possession or create much of anything. Instructions seemed to go no further than battle away and ensure you're in it till the 70-minute mark and have a go then. Although given how often we collapse on the occasions we do score early, maybe it's for the best.

Set plays seem to be our only chance to create opportunities these days with Shane Duffy usually the target. The Brighton man should have done better when he got onto the end of a Hendrick free on 35 mins and that was as good as it got for Ireland in the first half. Denmark weren't offering much more, to be honest despite dominating possession and their closest effort saw Sisto hit the outside of the post just before half-time.

O'Dowda had taken a knock yet played on during the first half but was obviously feeling the effects so was replaced by Enda Stephens at half-time. So, another defender on and McClean moving more central.

While Denmark started the half brighter, the game was still a very grim watch as we dug in with a 5-3-2 formation where any possession we had was generally recycled to Randolph to clear upfield. Harry Arter's last meaningful act was to clear a goalbound header from Kjaer off the line around the hour mark before he was surprisingly substituted, stopping on his way to the bench to enjoy a warm embrace from Roy Keane. Well, obviously that didn't happen but that scenario seemed as likely as an Irish shot on target by that stage.

The introduction of Callum Robinson did seem to spark a bit of life into the team and Ireland's best spell followed. He at least tried to get onto the ball and be positive with it and that elusive shot on target came not long later.

Robinson did well to get the ball wide to Stephens on the left wing. His cross was flicked on by McClean to Long who laid it off to that man Christie who was striding forward from his central berth. He connected sweetly with the ball but Schmeichel beat it away comfortably.

Denmark seemed content with a draw by now although a mix up between Duffy and Christie let Sisto play Braithwaite in but Randolph had little trouble saving the shot. A second strike from Delaney was dealt with just as comfortably and one final late sub saw Aiden O'Brien on for Shane Long with a couple of minutes left.

There was still time for one last moment of stoppage time controversy when Shane Duffy went down under a Dalsgaard challenge after a Christie cross into the box. For a second, it looked like the ref had bought it only for him instead to flash a yellow card in Duffy's direction for diving. That was that.

If one looks to be positive then at least you can say that we stopped the rot and didn't lose. In fact, should we beat Wales tomorrow, we'd be going to Denmark next month where a win would see us top the group.

But is stopping the rot enough against what, without Eriksen, is a very average Danish team for whom a draw was as much as they really wanted or needed? After all, we got the same result against a better Denmark team in Copenhagen last year in a similar performance equally bereft of creativity. And we all saw how the wheels came off after that.

There are still plenty of worrying underlying issues with how we play. The formation seemed to flood the defence and the midfield yet still leave huge gaps between each third of the pitch. Letting a defender who hasn't played centre midfield since he was 14 know he's to play there an hour before kick off seems an abdication of basic management preparation.

We consistently have under 40% possession regardless of the quality of the opposition. Our go-to pass is generally backwards. We've had 7 shots on target in our last 9 games since the midway point in last year's October fixtures. Our record since then is Played - 9, Won - 2, Drawn - 3, Lost - 5. Goals For - 6, Goals Against - 14.

In fact, a run like that in league football would see a manager under pressure in the modern game. A run like that against the backdrop of a player making themselves unavailable due to the actions of the assistant manager, an admission of another row with a senior player, our best prospect considering a switch to England and more leaks than a sieve coming out of the camp and it takes on an altogether different hue.

All management reigns come to a natural end. In Ireland's case, that end never seems to be foreseen and it's generally a result in one campaign too far that indicates no way back. I've yet to see a manager turn things around after that result but I've seen a few campaigns wasted after it.

With Mick McCarthy, the Euro '04 qualifier 4-2 defeat by Russia in a post-Saipan world indicated the beginning of the end. Steve Staunton's reign never should have started and the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus was a result that there was no comeback from. Giovanni Trapattoni never recovered from Euro '12 but it was the 6-1 defeat by Germany in the next campaign that really meant the end.

If the 5-1 Lansdowne defeat to Denmark last November wasn't that result for Martin O'Neill, the last thing he'd have needed was the hammering that Wales gave us last month. Yet, the fact that he now has a chance to take on that same opposition without Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Amdapu gives him a perfect opportunity to hit the reset button in a meaningful fashion and become an exception to the rule.

While Christie acquited himself reasonably, there's no reason why he couldn't play on the right of the three central defenders to allow a natural centre mind such as Williams in to try and link the play up. Hendrick is ineffective that far forward and needs to be withdrawn back to where he was most effective at the Euros in France.

Conversely, Arter is more effective further up the pitch than he was deployed on Saturday. With three central defenders playing, the defensive midfield role doesn't need to be as tight to the defence as it was where Arter nearly seemed to operate as a fourth centre-half on occasion.

Wales have dipped significantly since we made them look like world-beaters a month ago. Denmark beat them comfortably later that week and Spain put four past them in a friendly four days ago. Considering that, and the Welsh injury list, it's imperative that we approach the game in a more positive fashion that we've recently seen. A win on Tuesday has the potential to change the entire narrative around the team. Sending out a team set up to do that shouldn't be too much to ask.

Monday, 3 September 2018

ComMONication Lets Us Down?

It's had its critics but I've been broadly in favour of the Nations League concept since it was first announced. There were too many meaningless friendlies on the calendar and there'll still be the same number of Euro and World Cup qualifiers so surely having an additional four competitive games is a good thing? Plus, even though it worked to our benefit last time out, I wasn't a fan of a third-place finish in a group being enough to get a play-off.

So tying those four finals places to the Nations League rather than rewarding third-place finishes makes sense to me. The opportunity to possibly get promoted and test yourself against the top tier nations was another positive for me. I was looking forward to hopefully getting a draw that opened the possibility of a nice couple of trips to somewhere new or at least somewhere we hadn't played for a while. What I didn't want was what we got.

The draw last January quickly put paid to the positivity I was feeling about the tournament. The odds on Wales and Denmark coming out from their respective pots to our group were 25/1 but that's what came to pass. Outside of the fact that we've visited Cardiff and Copenhagen in the last year, the wounds from the beating Denmark subjected us to at home still feel fairly raw.

While we feel that we owe Denmark one, there seems little confidence that delivering revenge is likely. And to flip that, there's no doubt that Wales will feel they owe us one after October's smash and grab in Cardiff.  So, having had our last three competitive games against that opposition, our next four will also be. Will familiarity breed contempt?

Speaking of contempt, it seems to be in plentiful supply within the Ireland camp if reports are to be believed. The charm offensive launched by the FAI by making Martin O'Neill available for a series of media interviews ran aground fairly quickly with the news that our main prospect for the future, Declan Rice, had decided against committing his future to Ireland.

Rice mulling over future

As this week's game against Wales is a competitive match, an appearance would tie the West Ham centre-half to the green shirt. Given that Rice had played the last 3 friendlies and was front and centre as New Balance launched the new Ireland away kit earlier this year, the assumption was that his future was secured.

Yet with Harry Arter now joining Rice in declining a call-up, the focus has switched to the summer altercation between Arter and Roy Keane that O'Neill confirmed occured last week. 

Rumours abound that Rice was unimpressed by an exchange during a spat between Keane and Arter where the latter had drawn the former's ire. So we're now left with what seems to be Alan Browne's head photoshopped onto Rice's body in the publicity shots for the home jersey launch as Rice mulls over his international future with England sniffing around.

I can't condone Arter rejecting the call. Regardless of whatever issues he has with Keane, representing your country should be more important than the management set-up you're playing for.

Arter attack?

But questions have to be asked about what exactly happened and what was said that has caused the rift. The irony of the reported situation where Arter took exception at being accused of faking injury by Keane can't be ignored. Nor can the fact that Keane also had an argument with Jon Walters at the same time.

And given that O'Neill said last week that the argument had "definitely been defused", which clearly isn't the case, it makes it difficult to take his assertion that this is unrelated to the Rice situation as gospel.

O'Neill himself has admitted that he hasn't spoken to Rice 'directly' since the player's decision tu step back. Yet Gareth Southgate stated over the weekend that he has. Supporters are entitled to query why O'Neill has not.

Regardless of the truth, what the FAI have been pushing as a fresh start following last year's Danish debacle and O'Neill's extended flirtation with Stoke last January is unraveling very quickly. 

Clearly, everyone from the FAI to the management team to the support needed a period of reflection following that Denmark defeat. The manner of it raised huge questions over the wisdom of the FAI offering O'Neill a new contract before the campaign was finished. Although the Wales result came just after that contract offer, the play-off capitulation surely had everyone second guessing their decision.

The manager clearly was, as his flirtations with Everton and, particularly, Stoke showed. From the FAI perspective, they certainly didn't seem to be pushing to get his signature onto the verbally agreed contract.

My belief has always been that if an Ireland boss delivers a second place finish, he's done enough to earn another campaign. We've only topped one group in our entire history back in Euro 88 qualifying so second has to be considered reasonable.

Much as I was unhappy with the football delivered in the last campaign and I certainly wouldn't have been offering a deal with two games to go in the group, the results from those two games would have been enough to sway me. While the play-off defeat was devastating in its nature, I wasn't going to change a belief I've always had based on one defeat.

However, the attitude shown by the manager since has me seriously questioning it. The nature of the Denmark game and the seriously questionable tactical decisions made during the game were rightly scrutinised and criticised in the aftermath. I struggle to believe that someone involved in the game as long as O'Neill wouldn't expect that.

Clearly, his ego doesn't like the criticism and that's fair enough. But the patronising manner that he's dealt with that criticism left a bad taste. His attitude towards Tony O'Donoghue in their interview after the match and again after the Nations League draw was bizarre and one can only imagine what sort of reaction O'Donoghue might get if he broaches the subject of Rice and Arter this week.

The constant references to what he achieved as a player under Brian Clough a generation ago and his run to the UEFA Cup final with Celtic 13 years ago are beginning to grate on supporters as well. As is his admission that he sees no value in working on set pieces during international breaks. Considering how porous we have looked defending them recently, then surely tackling this should be a priority, whatever about practicing attacking set plays. 

The game has moved on and people want to see something from the manager that recognises that. Yet, as ever in football, success will be based on results. And in general, that's one thing that O'Neill has been able to point to in his career.

The thing is that delivering them after losing two of the ever-dwindling number of squad members operating at Premier League level looks a lot more difficult than it did two weeks ago.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

No Mercy From Christian And The Lord

Scripture taught us that Christians are supposed to show mercy. But there was none to be found on this damp November Tuesday. And by the time the Lord dealt the final blow, it was numbness rather than pain that we felt.

The only charity on offer came from Martin O'Neill's tactics and the Irish players. A campaign that had begun so promisingly had finally crumbled, with the win in Cardiff shown to merely have papered over the cracks.

Like the campaign, the evening itself had started positively with the atmosphere crackling as what would be a full house made their way from work to fill the lounges and bars around Lansdowne Road. Our regular haunt, the Beggars Bush, was packed to the gills with many punters taking advantage of a new initiative where you could get two pints in one plastic glass rather than having to fight through the scrum at the bar once you'd finished your first!

All our usual crew were present and correct and there were also plenty of faces who'd been regular campaigners in the days before parental responsibilities took over. The importance of this game had clearly been enough to prompt them out of retirement! 

Those of us who'd made the away leg were still looking a bit shook with the quick turnaround but a couple of pints eased us back in and the positive result from Saturday had led to a sense of cautious optimism. My prediction had been a battling exit due to a score draw but as kick off approached, it was hard not to begin to believe. We'd made a habit of getting results when the chips were down in the last couple of campaign. We had Germany. We had Bosnia. We had Italy and Wales. We were only 90 minutes away from getting through to the World Cup and still all square.  Surely this squad had one more do or die result in them.

The team, when announced, wasn't overly surprising with the only change being the return from suspension of David Meyler in place of Callum O'Dowda. I had thought that Shane Long would start instead of Daryl Murphy but Martin O'Neill seemed to be setting up to keep things tight as long as possible before springing the pacey Southampton striker from the bench when the game opened up in the last half hour. The lack of Wes Hoolahan, while disappointing, was expected and most of us reckoned his introduction would come close enough to Long's in the second half.

The ground seemed to be hopping as we walked up and a rammed singing section was still bouncing when we made our almost ubiquitous strong start. We were only six minutes in when a floated Brady free wasn't dealt with by the Danish defence leaving Shane Duffy with the chance to get his head on the ball before Schmeichel could reach it. All it needed was a touch over the Danish keeper with the net unguarded and it was bedlam in the stands once Duffy got that touch and the ball dropped into the empty net!

It all started so well....
( Photograph:Seb Daly/Sportsfile/Getty Images )

Leaving aside his decision to try and get the final touch on would have been a winner against Austria, Duffy has been one of the standout players of this campaign. The hope now would be that the pattern after his similarly early goal in Georgia where we immediately ceded the initiative wouldn't be repeated. 

The hope initially seemed forlorn as we retreated back and let Denmark come at us. Two smart saves by Darren Randolph from Kvist and Sisto kept us in front and by the twenty minute mark, we seemed to have weathered the storm.

Little did we know what was coming......

Once we started pushing forward again, we started creating chances of our own, as first a Murphy flick from a Cyrus Christie cross fooled half the ground into thinking we had a two goal cushion but alas, it was the side netting only.  A minute later, James McClean got played through by Brady and was inches away from a tight angle. This was more encouraging than how we'd reacted to our early goals in Serbia and Georgia and as we approached the half hour mark, that sense of belief was still present. It wasn't for much longer.

It's pretty basic to defend a corner but we seemed asleep as Denmark won one and played it short to Sisto. Harry Arter still looked like he should be able to prevent the ball coming across but was made look a mug off as Sisto nutmegged him and forced the ball across. Christensen only got a poke to it band it squirmed back off the post. Had Christie not been trying to cover that post, Randolph could have dropped on the ball but instead, it bounced back off Christe's outstretched leg and squirmed over the line. A really avoidable away goal and one that totally changed the complexion of the tie.

Still only needing another goal to win, now was not the time to lose our composure but the heads seemed to go as we barreled forward to chase it immediately. Stephen Ward had charged forward to join the attack but was caught out badly as he attempted a one-two with Robbie Brady and as soon as Poulsen picked his pocket we were in all sorts of trouble.

One run from Poulsen and two smart passes got the ball to Eriksen in acres of space. He had all the time in the world but didn't need it as he stroked the ball first time in off the underside of the bar. From one up and creating chances to two one down and facing elimination in three minutes. 

 At this stage, I just wanted to get to half time and let the management reassess where we were. With Denmark in the box seat, there wasn't much pressure from them so we were able to get forward but our play was pretty desperate for the remainder of the half. Poor deliveries from Arter and then Brady wasted good positions while McClean's tumble in the box would have been a very soft penalty had it been given. Still, with only a goal in it as the whistle blew, now was the time for O'Neill to earn his corn.

As the teams emerged fifteen minutes later. there was an audible sense of bafflement as both Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady emerged. It actually took a couple of minutes for myself and those around me to work out who had gone off as it made absolutely no sense that those players would be brought on for Meyler and Arter. Surely, it must have been Brady who went off, not both central midfielders? But no, Brady was still there and he and Jeff Hendrick seemed to be playing in the holding midfield roles?  Having started O'Dwda in Copenhagen why was McGeady now preferred? Having recently put enough trust in Meyler to make him captain why was he being hooked at half-time? What the hell was going on?

What's going on?
( Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters )

Marin O'Neill has had a very successful career. He clearly has something about him in terms of management and getting players to play for him. But no one will ever convince me of the logic of those substitutions. We effectively had to move four positions around to accommodate two subs. We were still only a goal away from drawing level. Even had we got that goal with fifteen minutes to go, we could have built some momentum and maybe made the Danes a little nervous. 

One sub would surely have been enough. I had anticipated Long coming on for Murphy, who had been looking a little leggy after starting on Saturday. Patience was needed. Instead, the management seemed to press the panic button and the horror show that followed was the direct result of that. When event the Denmark boss Aage Hareide ends up thanking an opposition manager for playing into his sides hands then it's clear that the tactical errors were catastrophic. 

The first quarter hour of the half whizzed by with Ireland playing with no discernable shape. McGeady got the ball in a couple of promising positions only to waste them and the team as a whole seemed utterly at sea. That said, our tempo increased somewhat and a header saved by Schmeichel from Duffy sand a surging run from Christie gave us a little hope.  

However, with Eriksen the one world class player on the park, giving him all the space in the world was a recipe for disaster and it didn't long for that disaster to occur. Again, we were authors of our own misfortune as a free in a promising position was wasted as Brady booted the ball straight through to Schmeichel. Less than a minute and about twenty passes later, that man Eriksen was back on the ball to curl it past Randolph from twenty yards. Game over.

Long finally got introduced on 71 minutes, bizarrely replacing centre-half, Ciaran Clark. Even more bizarrely, this saw Ward moved over from left back to take over in a position I've never seen him play. 

There was still no recognisable shape and it wasn't long before Eriksen punished us again. Ward had had a torrid time at left back and the move to the centre didn't do him any favours but it was another horrible error from him as he made a complete hames of a clearance. Having effectively laid the ball on a plate to Eriksen, the Danish playmaker hammered home the shot to claim his hat-trick. 4-1 down and thoughts immediately went back to 1985 and Eoin Hand's last game in charge when a great Danish team humiliated us by that scoreline.

No Christian charity for Ireland
(Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP) 

The stadium had half emptied by now, disgracefully so in my opinion. With no chance of a comeback, the intensity of the game had dropped off completely. We were still trying to get a consolation but the only real chance we had fell to Long who showed how bereft of confidence he is in front of goal by scooping the ball over the bar when he should have buried it.

The atmosphere was flat as a pancake everywhere bar the away end and the celebrations got even louder as their cult hero Nicklas Bendtner came on with six minutes to go. I always thought his "Lord Bendtner" nickname was a mickey take but their fans genuinely love him. All I wanted was the full time whistle but all their fans wanted was a goal from him. Doesn't take much to guess who was going to get their wish.

Even though the ref had played advantage after the Lord was tripped by McClean in the last minute, once Randolph saved the resultant Sisto shot, he called the play back and gave the penalty. Up stepped Lord Nick who smashed the ball past Randolph to complete our humiliation. Once the final whistle went, I couldn't get out of the ground quick enough as the Danes celebrating wildly on the pitch.

Oh, Lord.....
( Photograph: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile/Getty Images )

Looking back at it 24 hours later, I'm still struggling to work out what O'Neill was playing at during half-time.  Last night was far worse than anything under Trap. Least the Spain and Germany humiliations were against world class teams that went on to win the tournaments. The home campaign as a whole was an utter embarrassment. Draws against Wales and Austria and a defeat to Serbia followed by last night's humiliation is nowhere near good enough.

I'm actually staggered by the lack of any tactical game plan or shape last night in the second half. It was as if he thought I'll give the critics what they want and bring Wes on but I'll hobble him by taking our entire centre midfield off and then bring McGeady on with him. Obviously, that wasn't his thinking that but it was utterly baffling. The lack of direction by the management team transmitted itself to the players and the lack of a coherent gameplan was as obvious as it was worrying. There was a feel of the end of the Trap era about last night's capitulation.

The arrogance shown by O'Neill is his dealings with the media and in particular, RTE's Tony O'Donoghue, is also grating at this stage. The man is paid exceptionally well and dealing with the press is one of his responsibilities. His petty sniping and the way he consistently bangs on about trophies he won in the past come across as arrogant in the extreme. The last trophy he won was 12 years ago and he hasn't won a trophy outside of Scotland since the turn of the century.  It's no longer relevant. To walk out of an interview because a couple of difficult questions were rightly asked is disgraceful behaviour. The fact he's done it more than once reflects very badly on him.

It also indicates to me that he's not prepared to face up to his mistakes and try and rectify them. I find that deeply concerning. Yes, we don't have the best players in the world and we have no one the calibre of Christian Eriksen but watch a Premier League, or even a Championship, game and you can see our players do things they seem incapable of in an Ireland shirt. If they are not getting instructions from O'Neill to simply hoof the ball forward, then they certainly don't seem to be getting instructions not to do it. Why not? What is going on in camp? Things will have to change.

I have always said that a manager who delivers a play-off deserves another campaign and despite how bad we were, I'll stick with that. I wouldn't have offered it to him before he made the play-off but having got there he deserves another shot. I have to say that I wouldn't mind if he walked away though and if he had a chance of a Premier League job I reckon he'd take it, Whether anyone will offer him one after that inept showing is debatable. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dane-ger Here

So we're still in the tie after what was a predictably turgid 90 minutes but I've no doubt that, as is the case with most of the support, Martin O'Neill would have taken that result before kick-off.
For once in my life, I'd actually managed to organise myself sufficiently to book a direct flight before prices went through the roof. In fact, I'd even taken a gamble and booked Friday to Sunday before the fixture dates were confirmed on the basis that due to the rugby international at Lansdowne on the Saturday, Monday and Tuesday were the only possible dates for the home leg leaving Friday and Saturday the only away options. Flights duly booked and with what seemed a favourable draw, it was just a case of counting the days till take off.

After a month of countless messages on various WhatsApp groups (mostly about tickets or the lack thereof to be more accurate), I got my own ticket confirmed the week before the game. Luckily, I had 6 away tickets on my record with the FAI, which was where the cut off was set for independent travellers. I actually had 7 aways but having been rejected for the Bosnia play-off two years back, I had to source a ticket elsewhere so got no credit for it. 

While it's welcome that there are now visible criteria that away fans have been made aware of, there is a whole other question about how someone with, say 5 aways in the last two campaigns can miss out (as regular traveller, Conor McShane did), while there were clearly hundreds of fans with tickets there that had nowhere near that record. It's an argument for another day and I'd like to think that the recent meetings with the FAI that myself and the rest of the YBIG Independent Fans Mandate group have been productive and are moving towards a fair, transparent system. There aren't many games where demand exceeds supply but this one was as bad as I've ever seen it.

Anyway, with my ticket collected last Thursday, all was set for my Friday lunchtime SAS flight which got me into Copenhagen around 5. Despite it being pitch dark and lashing rain on landing, making my way into the city was well handy, with Central Station only 3 rail stops from the airport.

Brummie Bren was rooming with me on this trip and, having arrived a couple of hours earlier, was waiting when I got in. One quick freshen up later and we were on the road to The Dubliner, an Irish bar which had positioned itself as one of the hubs where our fanbase was congregating.
Philly, Greg and Fuggy had also landed earlier and had grabbed a decent spot with a couple of tables and by the time we arrived, the place was absolutely hopping. In fairness, and showing my age here, it was nearly too hopping for my liking but with the Amsterdam and Barca crews en route, leaving wasn't an option so the next few hours were spent chatting (or should I say roaring over the noise!) as the various groups of friends arrived.

The Dubliners!

Another indication of our advancing years is the fact that we generally remember to eat these days so myself and Bren nipped off for a bite into a nice restaurant next door where we had our wallets well and truly rinsed. Trust me, if you think Dublin is expensive, think again! Still, the pulled pork burger was pretty good and we had a bit of craic chatting with a few locals before venturing back to the Dubliner to watch the Italy v. Sweden play-off.

By this stage, with the earlier rain having eased, there was a huge crowd skulling cans out on the streets, so the atmosphere was pretty full on, inside and out. After watching the Swedes beat the fancied Italians with a fairly fortuitous goal, thoughts started turning to whether this might be a weekend for the underdogs.

Trying to get all the different groups we tend to hang out with on these trips together is essentially like herding cats. In fact, it's worse. So the whole time we were in The Dubliner, there were messages coming through from other factions with the Quinn Towers, Terry the Tash and most of the London crew checking in from another boozer called The Southern Cross. After their early start, the Swords mob had headed for home by now and with the Amsterdam boys looking to get food, we managed to get a good crowd out of The Dubliner and towards the Southern Cross. That said, we lost most of them on the way to reaching our destination, a lovely basement bar that was a little quieter than the madness we'd left!

Having ensconced ourselves into a corner where a Danish lad was out drinking with his adult son, we had a great yap about the great 1980’s/90’s Danish team and about my theory that Christian Eriksen's performances in this campaign since Denmark started playing a more direct style is reminiscent of Liam Brady’s renaissance in the Euro '88 campaign under Jack having been poor in the '84 and '86 campaigns. Having to explain to his son who Liam Brady was hurt me a bit though!

The Great Danes!

After reaching the pub, there was one man notable by his absence, we were told that Terry the Tash had taken a tumble on a wet Burger King floor while getting food and fucked his leg up rightly. I've said for years that eating Burger Kings will be the death of him but this wasn't how I expected it to put him in hospital! It's been a long time since this man missed an away fixture but, although I'm reliably informed he'll be there on crutches on Tuesday, Saturday was a bridge too far. Get well soon, mate!
Brummie Bren has always fancied himself as a bit of a dartist and, to be fair, I once witnessed him take out a 170 checkout on an American board in Nagano during World Cup 2002 and instantly back it up with an 8 ball clearance from the break in pool. Now, the way he tells it, you'd swear there were 200 people in the pub giving a standing ovation rather than the 20 that were actually there. I mean, I wound up on the decks banging out tunes on vinyl that night and would love to say there was a jam-packed dance floor screaming for more rather than the aforementioned 20 people! But there wasn't (although the manager did try to book me for the next weekend but alas, I was in Tokyo by then!)

Anyhow, since then, there's always been a bit of slagging about the story, and the Quinns, being decent players themselves, have always said they'd like a pop at Bren on the oche. We've been talking about it for years but it never happened. Until now.

With a dartboard on the wall and a fair drop of drink taken, it was only a matter of time before someone arrived back from the bar with a set of arrows. I'd love to say that the young bucks were able to show him how it was done. But, no. Despite the wily old fox scoring appallingly, once he got down to the double he was imperious. I even had to suffer the indignity of missing a double 4 by a fraction and watch him take out 5 by hitting the double 1 by accident on his first dart and backing it to hit 1 and another double 1 to take the leg! The waxy get!
With fairly lax licencing laws over here, it was nearly 6 by the time we got back to the hotel and I was rudely awakened at about 11 by the Amsterdam crew who fancied a bit of tourism before the madness of game day. As Bren had to collect his ticket at the ground at 1, I threw my shit together and, bleary-eyed, made my way to meet the gang in the lobby.

It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny day but was absolutely Baltic outside. A half hour walk took us down to the famous Copenhagen Street Food Market where everything from Ostrich burgers to vegan bean wraps are available. The market itself is in a nice area by the docks and a stone's throw from our next stop, Christiania.

What's up, dock!
Christiania is an old military barracks that was taken over by hippie/anarchist squatters in the 1970’s. Claiming to be self-governing, it's entire ethic is anti-establishment and despite issues and efforts to bring it into line, it is allowed exist and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
When you walk in, it looks like a standard enough alternative marketplace with stalls selling clothes, jewellery, food and other locally produced goods. However, turn a corner and suddenly you're faced with an entire marketplace where people are selling every form of cannabis under the sun! While everyone is familiar with the Dutch model where shops have licences to sell weed, this is next level. Essentially, the authorities turn a blind eye and despite efforts to regulate it, it survives and thrives.

On yer bike!
A big part of the ethos seems to be that hard drugs are not allowed in the area (nor is photography) and there are signs and graffiti promoting this all over the place. But weed is a different matter and is totally accepted. Needless to say, this reporter made his excuses and left!
After wandering back down to the town and making a quick stop at the Dubliner, the outside of which was like Dante's Inferno by now, the clever call was to go back to the Southern Cross where any tickets that had been sourced could be given to those who deserved them. Once that was boxed off, we had a good bit of craic with a few locals before we started walking towards the ground with the Swords crew. After stopping for a carry-out and a pie and realising how far the walk actually was, a great call to get a taxi and forget the walk was made. Even though it took nearly as long as the walk and left us the wrong end of the ground, it was still worth it to get out of the cold!

Once we were in, I managed to find a corner for the 69ers flag before finding a spot to stand with Steve, Muriel and their kids and got ready for kick-off. To be fair to the Danes, the pre-game formalities were pretty impressive with a huge red and white firework display signalling the end of the anthems and ratcheting the atmosphere up another notch.

View from D1

I was happy enough with the team named as Martin O'Neill didn't surprise me with his selection of Daryl Murphy up front but did surprise most of us with his pick of Callum O'Dowda in midfield rather than Glenn Whelan. Was this move a sign that we'd take a more positive approach than seen recently?

It didn't take long after kick-off to realise that no, it probably wasn't. I'd read an interesting article from ex-Ireland international, Darren O'Dea earlier in the week where he made a good point that I hadn't really considered before. His point, essentially, was that he'd never seen a team as effective at controlling a game when they don't have the ball as this Ireland team. It's a fair argument and he pointed to last month's Wales game as a prime example.

So with us conceding possession again, the first ten minutes passed by with little in the way of free-flowing football from either side. That all changed a minute later with the first real flurry of action, which Denmark may yet rue not making the most off.

Kjaer sprayed a long diagonal pass to Larsen on the left wing who took a touch and hammered the ball goalwards. Darren Randolph did very well to parry it but my heart was in my mouth as the rebound fell straight to Cornelius who looked sure to score. Lucky for us, his nerve deserted him somewhat and while his shot had power, it was straight back at Randolph who somehow got the ball to stick to him. First test passed. Now it was up to us to try and play our way into the game a bit more.

It took another 5 minutes or so but eventually, we got a little foothold in the game. We weren't pressing the Danes too far back but managed to hold the ball for a while and win a couple of frees while withstanding anything coming back at us handily enough. The problem though, was that as has unfortunately been the case for most of the campaign, Robbie Brady's delivery was nowhere near as good as it can be.  

With Denmark themselves reverting to a more direct style, it was through route one that their next chance presented itself about half an hour in. And it was one they really should have taken. Kasper Schmeichel had hoofed a long ball forward but it looked like a bread and butter clearance for Ciaran Clarke. However, instead of getting the ball out of danger, his attempted clearance was cushioned back to Eriksen, who stepped forward and let fly. Randolph again did well to parry but the rebound fell to Sisto, who had an empty net to aim his shot at. Somehow, he snatched at it and dragged the ball right and wide.  

That aberration aside, we settled back into our comfort zone and actually created a couple of chances of our own before the end of the half. James McClean made some headway to square for O'Dowda whose shot was blocked. A couple of minutes later, Cyrus Christie made a run reminiscent of our injured captain, Seamus Coleman, and surged past Larsen to close in on goal. However, putting his laces through it might have been the better option as
 Schmeichel managed to claw away his attempted flick. Hendrick managed to get to the rebound but saw his shot blocked behind for a corner. Which once again, we promptly wasted. Still, we were now at half-time and still all square.

I've mentioned before that these sort of big games attract a different crowd than your average away trip. Like Wales, it was more a tournament crowd which is fine, the more the merrier is generally my ethos. That aside, it has to be said that it also brings out an element more akin to a stag party who don't seem to know when enough is enough. I enjoy a drink as much as the next man on away trips but the levels of drunkenness by a minority in our section of the ground was way over the top. Whether it was the strong Danish beer or the fact that the kick-off was an hour later than the norm at 8:45 Danish time I don't know but you wouldn't see as many fallers in the Grand National as I saw in Block D1. 

I'm talking lads that were incapable of getting up once they hit the deck and myself and another lad actually had to spend a few minutes trying to convince one lad who was absolutely comatose on the steps to move onto a seat where he could get a bit of air and not have someone else fall over him. It's definitely becoming more of an issue at the bigger games and for the life of me, I can't understand why you'd get yourself into a state where you won't remember being in the ground, let alone see the game. And there were plenty around in that state. Where exactly they had got their tickets from is again a discussion for another time.

With our Samaritan duties complete, we settled back to the match as the second half started in similar scrappy fashion to the first. Both sides had resorted to long balls by now with the only moment worth mentioning a half-hearted Eriksen claim for a handball against Arter which would have been even worse than the penalty decision that did for Northern Ireland against Switzerland on Thursday.

A couple of Danish corners came to nothing as our attempts to frustrate Denmark continued apace. We even created a half-chance ourselves at the midway point as a Brady free dropped to Clark just outside the six-yard box but the big centre-half couldn't adjust himself to get a shot off.

The introduction of the much-maligned Danish cult hero Nicklas "Lord" Bendtner livened the home crowd a bit as we entered the last 15 minutes but we still looked quite comfortable as O'Neill responded with a substitution of his own which saw Shane Long replace Murphy.

Still, the cat and mouse continued with the referee being generous to both Arter and McClean by keeping his hand in his pocket when he could potentially have put either of them out of the home leg by flashing a yellow. Arter was replaced by Whelan not long after.

A couple more set pieces came and went with a Duffy header saved by Schmeichel as close as we got to scoring. There was time for a couple more heart in mouth moments as the game ticked into injury time. First off, Larsen managed to get free and swung a cross into Poulsen who made a good connection with the header only to put it straight at Randolph who tipped it over acrobatically.  A couple of minutes later, the ball made its way to Larsen again whose shot deflected off Christie and squirted wide. 

With the corner duly cleared, a further bit of time wasting saw Hendrick replaced by Conor Hourihane before one final effort from Larsen went nowhere near and the ref blew for full time. Nil all and all to play for in Dublin.

Full time

Another cab back to town saw us head back to The Southern Cross to meet a few of the gang including a couple of my cousins who'd trekked down from Sweden for the game. The post-mortem on the game was followed by yet more darts till we hit the wall and headed back to the hotel via KFC en route. Another trip done and now it's on to Tuesday.

A family affair!

Reading the reports of the RTE coverage en route to the airport made for a sobering experience on Sunday morning but I find it hard to agree with the sensational nature of the analysis. While it wasn't pretty, personally I thought we played better than we had against Wales, with that vital goal coming from the sort of mistake that Denmark didn't make on Saturday. Although we conceded more in the way of half chances, I felt that we stuck to a game plan and played further up the pitch than we did against Georgia away, for example. Maybe the fact that Denmark also play in a fairly direct manner suited us and I left the ground fairly satisfied, albeit with that feeling tempered by the lack of an away goal.

Going into the second leg, it's the away goal that I'm most in fear of. I feel that we have a goal in us but with the onus on us to get that goal, we will have to commit forward more. We conceded first at home to both Austria and Serbia but the Austria equaliser remains our only home goal in the campaign against the top 3 seeds in our group. I would like to see Wes Hoolahan start but given how tight the game is, I feel that O'Neill will prefer to keep things tight and avoid conceding as long as possible before making more positive changes in the last half hour or last quarter of the game. So I reckon we'll see David Meyler in for O'Dowda and possibly Shane Long come in for Murphy.

With ninety minutes separating us from a first World Cup in 16 years, we're so close I can nearly feel it. My head is telling me a score draw is the most likely outcome while my heart is screaming out for a comfortable win similar to the Bosnia play-off last time out. Fingers crossed it'll be the heart that prevails.