Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Last Cut is the Deepest

The thing that hurt most about this particular cut was that it was entirely self inflicted. While the concession of late goals from winning positions by our national team is not something that has arrived with Trap (think Macedonia under McCarthy, Israel under Kerr, Slovakia under Staunton), most of those turnarounds have come on the road and it was the manner in which we ceded the initiative and the inevitability of what transpired that was most galling. Make no mistake, those 2 points were lost last night by the managers stubbornness and ego, nothing more. While there were positives to be taken from the last weeks work, a 4 point haul was what the players deserved for their efforts but when help was needed from the sideline late on it wasn't forthcoming.

Again, the wisdom of naming the team 24 hours in advance has to be questioned. For right or wrong the selection of Conor Sammon up front for his first competitive cap was always going to be controversial and the resultant hoo ha in the media only served to increase pressure on the lad to perform. I appreciate that at 74 years of age Il Trap has his habits that he's not going to change now but I fail to see the benefit of giving the media an angle to run with. By all means let the players know the team but what advantage is gained from making it public, regardless of whether you think that it's a help to the opposition or not? Despite this and despite my pre match prediction that the game would end in a draw given our history of following up points gained away from home by dropping points at home I had my usual sense of pre match anticipation all day and my itchy feet finally got the better of me at 4.30 when I slipped out of work and made my way to meet the usual suspects in the Beggars Bush for some pre match lubrication. Although the scene on the walk down the canal through the snow was more reminiscent of a Christmas card than an Easter fixture the feel good factor from Fridays result was tangible and there was a great atmosphere around the Ballsbridge area as both sets of supported mixed freely swapping scarfs and exchanging chants. Word had filtered through of the commendable efforts of the You Boys in Green supporters group who, having heard of an Austrian couple who been pickpocketed the previous day and had their wallets and match tickets stolen, had arranged free tickets via the FAI and organised a collection to reimburse the money stolen with an excess being donated to charity. A number of Austrian fans mentioned this classy gesture which once again goes to show why we're the best supporters in the world and no doubt this contributed to the general air of bonhomie between the two sets of fans pre match.

With all the troops gathered we set off to the ground around 7.20 and instead of the usual mad rush actually made it into the ground comfortably for the national anthems and a lovely tribute to the late Con Martin, scorer of Ireland's first goal in that famous 2-0 victory v England in 1949 when we became the first foreign team to beat them on their home turf. Funnily enough I was actually wearing a replica of the shirt the team wore that day which provided a lot more warmth than todays kits would have! Having positioned ourselves on the far right of the Singing Section we started getting behind the team. I thought we made a decent start and, despite Austria having the first strike on goal from a free that went safely past the post, had the better of the early exchanges with Long being incorrectly called back for offside while going through on goal and McClean winning the first corners of the game. However, just as the game was settling down, disaster struck. Reminiscent of the error he made in the Premier League a few weeks ago against Man City and despite having plenty of time and options to clear the ball Ciaran Clark dawdled on it trying to beat two attackers, was dispossessed and before we got catch our breath the ball had been squared across the box to Harnick who gave Forde no chance. It was an absolute howler from Clark and there really is no excuse especially having been caught doing similar a matter of weeks ago. He needs to cut that out of his game, I have big hopes for him as a player for the future but you'd hope that his decision making improves with age.

Given how Ireland have capitulated after going behind in recent games it was encouraging to see the response here though. Ireland quickly regrouped and upped the tempo and began putting the Austrian goal under pressure with McClean and Long looking particularly lively. Having being denied a certain corner when Long played the ball out off his marker we regained possession and started causing then some problems at the back. Every time they cleared the ball was coming back and eventually Long got onto a ball over the top from Glen Whelan and despite looking short on options at the byline held the ball up till Pogatetz dived in with as reckless a challenge as anyone would have been seen all week. A stonewall penalty and despite having missed 3 in the league this season Jon Walters stepped up and buried it in the right hand corner! One all and game on. The atmosphere upped a notch and at this stage was probably the best it's been in the new Lansdowne bar the celebratory vibe of the deal rubber play off 2nd leg v Estonia. Buoyed by getting back on terms so quickly and feeding off the crowd Ireland really got into the ascendency with an audacious back heel from Shane Long hitting the inside of the post and somehow rebounding to safety. At this stage Sammon was winning his share of headers and rather than settle for going in level at half time we kept up the pressure and when Whelan swung in another corner that had been won by McClean in stoppage time, Jon Walters did superbly under pressure to get his head to it and guide it into the corner! Lansdowne erupted and there was a real sense of optimism returning with the debacle against Garment retreating further into the memory. Austria barely had time to kick off before the ref blew for half time.

So far so good and it was great to see the team come back from a self inflicted wound and take the game to the opposition in the manner they did. The half time chat was all about whether we'd start the second half in a similar manner or whether we'd retreat so there was a palpable sense of relief as we started aggressively again and McClean nearly capped off what had been a very impressive display with a free kick that hit the side netting. Little did we know misguided that relief was. While Austria gradually got a foothold in the game, it was ebbing and flowing as any match does and we responded well by having another spell of pressure resulting in a series of corners around the 70 minute mark. One of these nearly resulted in the third goal we craved which would surely have wrapped the game up when an Austrian defender under pressure from Sammon headed straight at his own goal only for the Austrian keeper to pull off an amazing save. The next corner also resulted in a decent chance for Marc Wilson who headed just wide and you could clearly see from our position behind the goal in the South Stand how rattled and how relieved to only be a goal down the Austrians were. At that stage they were there for the taking, all it needed was to use the bench. Sammon had run his legs to stumps by then and had he been taken off at thst stage would have been given an ovation for his work rate and endeavour. I think it was tailor made for Wes Hoolahan (indeed, I'd have started him) but if Trap didn't trust him to do the required job then Kevin Doyle was the obvious change to make. Instead it seemed like once we didn't score from that spell of pressure we decided to take what we had.  St Ledger replaced an injured Clark and we sat further and further back inviting the opposition on to us. Into the last 10 minutes and we were holding firm but again we were crying out for a change. Bizarrely, Long, who looked our freshest player up front and had had an excellent game gets replaced by Green with Walters moving up front alongside Sammon. Both players were looking leggy by then and when the ball was coming up field it wasn't sticking. With another sub in hand surely now was the time to use it. But no, rather than twisting Trap decided to stick as we got pinned back time and again. The time was moving tortuously slowly by then but when the board came up showing a fair 3 minutes I started to think we might get away with it. Indeed, in the first minute of stoppage time we won a free in the corner in their half. Surely then was the time to use the last sub, calm things down and play the ball into the corner to run down the clock. No, instead a rushed free kick saw Walters lose possession and we were back under the cosh. There was a horrible sense of inevitability as we cleared a couple of half chances but couldn't relieve the pressure. Sure enough as the game got close to the final minute of stoppage time and as we roared our defence on Albala takes a final pot shot that clips off an attempted block from St Ledger to loop into the net giving Forde no chance. The sense of deflation was as sharp and quick as someone bursting a balloon. The atmosphere was killed stone dead in a split second.

The second thing that hurts so much is that the feeling was oh so familiar. Regardless of the manager, over the years we never seem to have the minerals required to see the job out against our rivals in the qualifiers. We've conceded goals in the last minute against Croatia and Macedonia in Euro 2000. Israel in WC 2006, Slovakia and Wales in Euro 2008 and Italy in WC 2010. Goals in the last ten minutes v Turkey, Holland and Switzerland in the same time period. Even under Charlton during our 'glory years' we blew Eruo 92 qualification by conceding 2 late goals away to Poland and we were rarely able to win the home games against our nearest rivals, drew with Belgium and Scotland in 88, drew with England and Poland in 92, drew with Denmark and lost to Spain in 94, drew with Northern Ireland and lost to Austria in 96. Under McCarthy more of the same, drew with Romania, Iceland and Belgium in 98, drew with Turkey in 00, drew with Portugal in 02 and lost to Switzerland in the aftermath of Saipan before he resigned. Brian Kerr comes in and we draw with Russia in the 04 campaign and drew with France and Switzerland in 06. Stan comes in and we draw with Czech Republic, Cyprus and Germany in 08. And since Trap came we've drawn with Italy, Bulgaria and Montenegro and lost to France in the 2010 series and drew with Slovakia and lost to Russia in Euro 201 2. This is no new phenomenon but the chance was there to buck the trend last night. For a manager of his experience not to take advantage of the bench in the last 5 minutes or even in stoppage time was criminal. I feel that he wanted to prove a point about Sammon which is whey he left him on when he'd clearly run himself into the ground and needed to be replaced by fresh legs. A chance to say 'Trap knows best'. Well, it's rebounded on him big time and it's us, the supporters, who are feeling it more keenly then anyone.

So, in the cold light of day, where does this leave us? I don't think that changing the manager is viable at this point, I don't believe the FAI have the money to pay him off and, despite the nature of the draw last night, barring the aberration against Germany, the campaign is panning out like most of the campaigns have the last 30 years, including our successful ones. We've generally beaten the minnows under Trap and I don't see that changing. Austria and Sweden have to play each other twice so someone will drop points there, 2 draws would be the best outcome. We haven't lost an away qualifier under Trap but I think we'll need to turn that into a win in the return v Austria and we'll need to beat Sweden at home. Do that and we have a chance. It's possible but the fact that goal difference rather than head to head determines the position if teams are level on points puts us at a distinct disadvantage. One things for certain, any wriggle room we had disappeared with that flash of David Alaba's boot at 9.36 last night.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Stockholm Syndrome

I don't think there's any Irish fan out there who can be unhappy with what we saw in the Friends Arena in Stockholm last night.  Right across the team people performed and there was a solidity that hasn't been witnessed in a long time, possibly since Paris in 2009.

After the sort of chaotic build up that seems to have become the norm under Trapattoni, he seems to have stumbled upon the most effective team he could have put out as a result of Glen Whelan's injury.  Although you had to feel for Robbie Brady, Walters has played on the right regularly enough through his career and given the relative inexperience of the team in competitive games it was an understandable decision.  That said, it brings into focus the pure folly of Trap's habit of announcing the team the day before the game.  Had the team that started the game simply been announced an hour before kick off it wouldn't have been questioned.  Although Paul Green's selection undoubtedly would have raised eyebrows in some quarters, with Whelan's injury it was the logical choice in the absence of David Myler from the squad and Darron Gibson's continued self exile.  Unfortunately by naming the team 24 hours previously, Green's selection ahead of James McCarthy became an issue as did the question of whether Brady would start or not.  Personally, I don't think that Trapattoni was questioning Brady's mental strength, when he talks about 'mentality' he means the focus to adhere to the all important system the manager puts so much faith in.  There was nothing wrong with wanting to work on that at the final training session and ensure he was ready but putting it in the public domain was pointless and only led to more confusion and controversy.  The fact that Trap has been using language like that since day one is irrelevant now that the knives are out and elements of the media are ready to jump on any vague statements rather than try and make sense of them.  In fairness, I don't think that his worries about Brady fitting into the system was the reason why he made the change, more that, as stated above the starting 11 had become more inexperienced with McCarthy's inclusion.

Onto the game itself and the first 20 minutes really were superb from Ireland.  Neat passing, good build up play with a number of corners forced before Sweden got into the game at all ending with a half chance on the far post for Walters.  One great chance then came to Robbie Keane who unfortunately took an air shot on the sort of chance we've seen him instinctively put away on many occasions over the years.  You'd have to question whether playing in the MLS gives the level of sharpness required to bury chances like that.  That aside, I though Robbie had a decent game before making way for Wes Hoolahan in what may be a taster of things to come. Shane Long then generated a great chance for himself before snatching at his shot an ballooning it over the bar.  Sweden began to come into the game but the back 4 all acquitted themselves very well with Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson also getting forward very well. I was concerned about Davy Forde's selection in goal but he played superbly and was up there for man of the match for me.  He was solid when he came under a pressure before half time and we went in at nil all relatively untroubled and having shaded the first half.

More of the same was required for the second half and I was delighted to see us begin it in the same vein as the first with the midfield again imposing themselves very well.  Although Green hit a few wayward passes, he covered the ground very well and broke up play far better than most expected.  His discipline also gave McCarthy the chance to impose himself on the game in a manner that augers very well for the future.  While his final ball in the last third on occasion let him down (one in particular when James McClean was free on his right), his general play and distribution elsewhere on the pitch was excellent.  He has to play on Tuesday regardless of Whelan's fitness and I'd also stick with Green as I feel he's more mobile than Whelan, particularly if Whelan is carrying a knock.

When we did come under pressure Forde again was more than equal to the task and pulled out some top drawer saves as well as dominating his area in a manner that I haven't seen in a long time.  While not putting Forde in the same class, even Shay at his best wasn't the sort of keeper to come and claim corners in the way that Forde's extra height enables him to do and seeing the ball stick to his gloves under pressure was very encouraging.  It was also good to see Trap make positive subs as the game wound down.  I'd like to see Hoolahan get more game time and it may be time to think of starting him and holding Keane in reserve to come on in the last half hour of games where his fresh legs may be useful against tiring defences.  I don't think that's very likely though given the managers history and I do still believe that Keane is our most natural finisher and most likely source of goals.  There's still a place for him in this set up and his experience is invaluable.

So onward to Tuesday now with renewed optimism. More of the same with a sharper cutting edge required. Same starting 11 with Hoolahan given more of a run after Robbie busts a gut for an hour will do for me