While I find myself as frustrated as anyone with the manner that Ireland approached last night's game with, I still find it baffling that anyone, whether they be fans, pundits or journalists, expresses any surprise that we play in this fashion. And while the first half performance was particularly abysmal, the game itself panned out in a very similar way to the last campaign's home game against the same opposition just over a year ago. In fact, having been drawn against them for 3 out of the last 5 campaigns, in all 5 of the competitive games that we have played under both Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill, Georgia have arguably played better, more incisive football than we have. Yet somehow we have managed to win all 5 by a single goal. It seems safe to say that this is one team we seem to have the indian sign over.
My evening had started with the usual stroll across the city to the Beggar's Bush to meet the usual suspects and a number of YBIG's finest were already in situ when I arrived around 5:15. As the weather was fine for an early October evening, we parked ourselves outside and spent the next couple of hours discussing Dublin's latest All Ireland triumph and comparing routes for the weekend's trip to Moldova as well as finalising plans for meet -ups over there. Talk only really turned to the game once the team was announced an hour before kick off. I had hoped that Wes Hoolahan would play having been left on the bench in Serbia but although there were a number of changes from last time out, he had to be content with a place on the bench again. In spite of that I was reasonably happy with the team selected which was very close to the team that had beaten Italy in France during the Summer and arguably stronger than it with Clark for Keogh and Walters for Murphy the only changes from then. Looking at the personnel, it looked like a 4-5-1 or (4-3-3 if you prefer) with McCarthy returning to anchor the midfield, Brady and Hendrick playing in the middle and Walters and McClean on the flanks to support Long up front. I possibly would have played Keogh ahead of Clark but on club form at present there was a logic to that selection and the general consensus was that the team picked should have more than enough to it to collect the 3 points.
In comparison to last year's game there seemed to be a far healthier crowd than the 27,000 who showed up then and the extra bodies getting in, along with the usual bag search that only seems to happen on entry to the singing session, meant that the game was a couple of minutes old by the time we reached our regular spot. We'd seen a hopeful shout for a penalty turned down as we walked in when Long was bundled over in the box just after he released the ball but unfortunately that was as good as it got in the first half. Unlike what we saw against Italy and in patches against Sweden and France during the summer, there was no zip or urgency to our passing and we seemed content to pump long balls into the corners for McClean, Long and Walters to chase and, as often as not, this was simply resulting in us giving up possession and allowing Georgia the time they needed to play themselves into the game. Once the first 15 minutes had passed, it was the Georgians who looked far more comfortable and the first reasonable chance duly came their way when Kazaishvili hit a snap shot on the turn that just went past the post. Warning signs were now flashing for Ireland but no one seemed to be paying heed as we ceded possession again and again. And although we earned a couple of corners just before the half hour mark, the fact that the last of these ended up with Coleman passing the ball back to Randolph in the Ireland goal rather than moving it forward seemed to sum up our mindset at that point.
In fairness to the 40,000 crowd, there was an effort to get the atmosphere going in the hope that it would shake the team out of their stupor. In particular, there was a group in Section 113 to the right of us in 114 who kept getting chants going and it was great to see the Singing Section expand over that direction. But despite their best efforts, nothing seemed to be improving on the pitch and we were absolutely blessed not to go behind on 37 minutes. A cross from the right was met by the unmarked Mchdildze who crashed a header off the bar. The ball then rebounded to Kashia who looped a header back over the stranded Randolph only for it to bounce off the post with our defence at sixes and sevens before Hendrick was finally able to hook the ball clear. It's very rare to see the ball hit the woodwork twice in the space of a couple of seconds but, as it transpired, that wasn't the most bizarre thing that would happen in the match. A Walters attempt at hooking the ball over his shoulder towards goal, which went over, was as much as we could muster in reply and Georgia came back again to finish the half on the front foot with Randolph forced into a couple of saves and the half ended with us having to defend a corner. It was as much of a relief to get a 15 minute break from watching this turgid rubbish as it was to get to half time on level terms. Surely the management team would have to tear into them at half time. And at least we would be attacking our end in the second half.
As you'd expect from O'Neill, there were no changes at half time despite the inept performance as it's normally his style to allow players the opportunity to put things right rather than making early substitutions. And although we still weren't playing at anywhere near our best, there was a noticeable improvement as we started to get on the ball a little more. That said, when Coleman miscontrolled a ball from Brady and let it run out of play on around 52 minutes, I started to think that this was more of the same and that we'd drift out of the game again. But instead of letting that mistake get to him, Coleman seemed determined to make amends the next time he got on the ball as he drove down the right wing at their left back. However, even he couldn't have imagined what happened next!
Having beaten the left back, Coleman carried on his run into the box before attempting to square the ball to Walters. Instead of hitting Walters, the ball ricocheted off a defender, bounced off Coleman, ricocheted back off Walters, bounced off Coleman again before a third ricochet off another defender brought it back to Coleman's feet in front of an empty net where he toe poked it home! He deserved the goal for his persistence but it was the sort of goal you're more likely to see during the kids games that get played during half time rather than during the match itself! In fact for all that the likes of Dunphy bang on about street football, all that this was missing was a rebound off a lamp post and the bumper of a parked car! Still, it was great initial run to get to the by-line and they all count.
Because of how bizarre that goal was, the celebrations carried a little bit of disbelief with them. But the goal had lifted Ireland and there was a far more raucous celebration 2 minutes later as Coleman got forward again and delivered a cross that McClean buried with a bullet header. It took a good 5 seconds or so before we realised that the linesman had, correctly as it turned out, raised his flag for offside so the goal was ruled out. McClean followed this by going close again, although this was more thanks to some farcical goalkeeping from Loria who had been flapping at crosses all night and looked like he could be nervous had we put him under more pressure. This time it was just a fairly hopeful shot that he somehow deflected behind him but unfortunately he was able to reach back and gather it at the second attempt before it crossed the line.
By now, we were relatively comfortable although we had begun to sit back a bit deeper but all the momentum was taken out of our game on around 75 minutes as Brady was knocked out cold following a clash of heads with Kverkvelia as he bravely tried to get onto the end of a Shane Long knock back. The incident happened right in front of us and you could see straight away that Brady was unconscious before he hit the ground. Although one of the Georgian defenders put him into the recovery position immediately, the fact that there was no movement from him whatsoever was obviously a concern. By the time he was stretchered off 5 minutes had elapsed, it was a relief to see that he had started moving by then but I think it's safe to say he won't be fit for Moldova on Sunday. The fact that his replacement was Glen Whelan rather than bringing on Hoolahan in a like for like switch was a clear indication that we were now digging on to what hold we had.
Sure enough, we sat back and invited Georgia on but in truth, their sting had been drawn at that stage and although they pushed on, it was without any real conviction. The 7 minutes stoppage time indicated by the officials meant a bit of a nervy finish to the game, although we nearly put it to bed two minutes into the seven as McClean came close again, crashing a header from a super Walters cross off the underside of the bar only to see the ball bounce out just in front of the line. Long then picked up a knock and was replaced by John O'Shea to get another body into defence. There was still time for one more attempt from Georgia as Okrishvili caught a ball cleanly on the volley but it was straight at Randolph and he gathered comfortably. That was the last meaningful action and as the clock ticked up to 98 minutes, we saw the last few of them out relatively comfortably finally managing to bank the 3 points as the ref blew for full time.
So, 2 games in and 4 points banked which is a reasonable start and leaves us level with Serbia, Austria and Wales following their results last night. But the performances to get those points have left a lot to be desired. Having hoped that this team had found a template to move forward with after the Italy and France games, we simply haven't been able to build on that. The safety first approach preferred by the manager and indeed, his predecessor, seems firmly imprinted on the players and we seem to find it very difficult to play with a degree of composure when we have something to lose. The shackles only seem to come off once we have nothing to lose. Even the substitutions yesterday added to that cautious attitude and that has to transmit to the players. The side-lining of Hoolohan since the Euros is also baffling and you have to hope that it won't be a theme in this campaign given that there won't be too many more campaigns left in him at his age. With Brady most likely out with concussion and the needless booking picked up by Hendrick seeing him also ruled out of Sunday's game, our options in midfield are looking pretty tight so you would assume that Hoolahan should start, but the lack of trust that O'Neill seems to have in him means that that can't be taken for granted.
On the positive side, it's a results based business and the team is still picking up points and remains unbeaten in the campaign. The draw between Austria and Wales was a good result for us and I can see many more draws being played out amongst the top 4 seeds in the group. Given Moldova's two defeats so far, the hope would be that we should gather a further 3 points on Sunday. The manager would certainly have taken 7 points from the first 3 games once the fixtures were set and we remain on target for that. And while I'd sooner see us pick up those points in a more confident manner, I've always said that I'd rather see the team win ugly than lose beautifully. And while the performances can be forgotten, the points are permanent.