Monday, 30 March 2015

Pole Chancers

So another home game goes by and still we wait for a win against a higher ranked team than us and the win  that might finally kickstart both the Martin O'Neill era and the new Lansdowne roar.  UEFA's new 'Week of Football' format meant that our group's games took place on a Sunday and while that may suit the TV schedulers it doesn't do the fans any favours, particularly our 2nd generation supporters for whom even our home games require traveling to.  But we make do as we always do and with Monday safely booked off months ago, Sunday evening became the peak of the weekend rather than it's usual wind down status.  Having met up with the usual Birmingham Irish crew on Saturday and taken in a drab Dublin v Derry game in Croke Park before catching up over a few nightcaps, by the time Sunday afternoon finally rolled around were well up for creating a bit of atmosphere and town was buzzing with a huge amount of Polish fans visible in the city centre amongst the usual home support you'd see on a match day.  First stop was O'Neill's on Suffolk St where the Brummies had met up with the Quinn towers and after a couple of looseners in there the six of us jumped a cab and headed down to the usual spot in the Beggars Bush to hook up with the rest of the regulars.  After meeting with the usual away trip crew and some of YBIG's finest, the place was soon packed to the rafters and there was a proper big match feel to it with the usual pre match optimism mixed with the more pragmatic viewpoint as we tried to predict how the game would go.  Given our recent history at home, I was predicting a draw and that seemed to be the general consensus.

When the team was announced an hour or so before kick off, I was delighted to see Wes Hoolahan included but surprised to see Shay Given recalled at the expense of David Forde who can feel very hard done by given his performances for us since nailing down the number one spot.  I was happy enough with the team but curious to see how it would line up and I remain to be convinced that Robbie Keane and the aforementioned Hoolahan  dove-tail well together up front.  I thought that Keane would have been better suited to start in Glasgow considering how the team was set up over there and Shane Long is better suited to playing if we're using Hoolahan in the classic number 10 role. But O'Neill is the boss and he's always had his own way of doing things.  Robbie Brady's selection at left back was a bit of a surprise given how rarely he's played there and how recent his return from injury was.  He had played well there in the American friendly though and he is very good from a dead ball so I felt putting him in there was a gamble worth taking,

At this stage it was time to head down to the stadium and with our vocal chords nicely lubricated we made our way towards Lansdowne Road throughout a crowd mixed with plenty of red and white in amongst the green.  We got to our usual spot in the Singing Section just in time for the anthems and while the atmosphere was great in our end, it was still a bit of a shock to see that sheer volume of Polish fans all across the Havelock Square end and on into the East and West stands at that end of the ground.  Obviously I've seen the numbers that have attended our friendlies with Poland the last few years but it was still disappointing to see so many away fans at a crunch qualifier like this one.  I don't think you can blame the FAI for how they issued tickets this time with the availability of partial season tickets and the hat-trick initiative where tickets were sold as a package with the upcoming England and Scotland games, it's just indicative of the lack of love for this Irish team among the general public.  Considering there were also pockets of Polish fans dotted around the stadium I'd imagine there must have been close to 20,000 away fans there.

The one thing about the number of Polish fans there was that it certainly ramped up the atmosphere as our support set about getting behind the team to respond to the vociferous away support.  Unfortunately, this didn't seem to translate on the pitch and although we pushed forward on the right through Coleman in the first couple of minutes we were soon on the back foot as Poland started playing with far more assurance and confidence then we did.  We were struggling to hold on to the ball for any meaningful period of time and were letting Poland dictate the play.  To be honest, it was reminiscent of  the dying days of the Trap era and given how the game was developing, it wasn't a surprise when Poland took the lead.

The goal itself was disappointing on a number of levels.  It was a fairly hopeful long ball down the right from a Polish free which Brady got under and seemed to have enough time to at least lash the ball out of play.  However, having controlled the bouncing ball, Brady dawdled on it and allowed the Polish player, Peszko, to pick his pocket and take a return pass from Rybus before hammering the ball home across Given's body.  While Brady must take responsibility for the goal, I think questions should be asked of Given as well, while it would have taken a hell of a save to keep it out, he seemed to be slow in getting his hands up and his reaction to the shot in itself wasn't great.  At that stage we were making Poland look like worldbeaters and I was beginning to worry about our campaign ending halfway through it.  I thought Hoolahan had been playing too far forward for the half but to be fair to O'Neill, he changed things around coming up to half time with Walters pushing up to partner Keane and Hoolahan ostensibly moving to the left although he seemed to be playing more of a free role to try and link the midfield and attack.  All the same, I was relieved to get to half time with the score still at 1-0.

When the teams came out for the second half there were no changes and they lined up as they'd finished the half.  However, there had been a hint of the momentum shifting at the end of the first half and the Poles seemed content with their single goal lead and sat back somewhat.  About 7 minutes into the half we had our first significant opportunity when a cross from Brady took a deflection from a Polish defender causing it to loop over Fabianski and cannon back off the crossbar.  While it would have been a fluke the fact that we'd hit the woodwork ramped up the atmosphere another notch.  We carried on building a bit of pressure but seemed to be relying on set pieces to get a break with a free from Brady well over the bar the closest we came until O'Neill made his first throw of the dice, bringing James McClean on for Aiden McGeady.  McClean made an instant impact on the left within minutes when he dug out a great cross onto Keane's head with Fabianski somehow getting a hand to it to push it onto the post.  I thought the rebound was going to hit the keeper and bounce in but unfortunately it came back on the wrong side of the line and was cleared.

McClean really seemed up for it and a crunching tackle he made on around 74 minutes on Milik lifted the Polish player out of it and also lifted the crowd again.  By then I found it very surprising that Long hadn't been brought on yet and fully expected Keane to make way but to be fair to O'Neill he really went for by removing Whelan and going with the extra man up front.  Just before the change we'd had another couple of chances with a Keane pull back for a  Hoolahan shot being blocked and that man McClean involved again by putting a great cross in which Keane played back for the onrushing Coleman who unfortunately ballooned his shot wide.  So the pressure was still building but with time running out I found myself thinking we couldn't possibly get a third last minute goal in this campaign.  How wrong was I!

Right on the 90 minutes we'd won a free kick which Brady had dropped into the box and which Fabianski could only put out for a corner.  I always prefer when we're attacking the South end in the second half, it's always been where the noisiest Irish fans have congregated going back to the old South Terrace days and there was a ferocious amount of noise coming from us once we got the corner right up until Brady took it.  It seemed like it was now or never as Brady swung in a deep corner which somehow landed on the head of Hoolahan, one of the smallest players on the pitch, who cushioned a header down to Long.  Long took a great first touch before getting a bit lucky with his second when he got his shot off as it seemed to clip the defenders foot and loop in over Fabianski's dive!

Made in the League of Ireland!

As I said in the Germany blog, there's really nothing like a last minute goal when it comes to celebrations.  We've been waiting a long time for a magic moment and while everyone would have preferred it to be a winner, there was still an eruption of joy and relief that hasn't been seen yet in the new Lansdowne.  The Singing Section behind the goal went berserk and when the roar seemed to be dying down it picked up again and was nearly as sustained a celebration as the one that marked John O'Shea's goal in Germany.  With everyone's pulse quickened we realised that there were still 5 minutes of stoppage time and we bellowed at the team to attack and try and get a winner.  As it turned out, Poland had the first chance in the remaining injury time with a corner that was headed over but we managed to work it back up the pitch where Long was going through again only for the Polish defender to throw himself to the ground and win a soft free.  This was in keeping with most of the game as the ref had been awarding frees for dives all day, something which I'd be critical of the Poles for.  It was the worst I've seen at Lansdowne from an opposition team since the Israel game in 2005. We managed to get one final chance with another corner from the same side we scored from but although Brady lofted a similar delivery in, a green shirt couldn't get on the end of it and as it was cleared the ref blew for full time.  

So, now that the elation of the equaliser has subsided, you have to ask the question, was it a point gained or two dropped?  I was concerned before the game from reading O'Neill's press conference when he said that 'defeat was not an option'  and that he might settle for a draw.  The first half was awful to be fair but there was a marked improvement in the second and he might have finally stumbled across a formation that might work with Hoolahan in the team.  Where that leaves Keane is a question as I think a front line of  Long and Walters with Hoolahan playing deep would work better than Robbie ploughing his furrow up there.  At this stage maybe bringing him off the bench in the bigger games should be the option and start him against the minnows.  McClean has certainly given the manager food for thought and McGeady hasn't really built on his matchwinning performance in Georgia.  I'm not sure if sticking with Given in goal is the future and as I said earlier, Forde must be well put out by it.  It could be worth sticking with Brady at left back to get him into the team for his dead ball delivery but he'll need to improve his defending.  A team of Forde, Brady, O'Shea, Wilson, Coleman, McGeady, McCarthy, McClean, Hoolahan, Walters and Long is probably how I'd start v Scotland in our next must win game.

Despite the last minute goal there was still a bit of a sense of disappointment that another home game has gone by without a victory but it has to be said that the draw at least keeps the group alive but it also leaves no margin for error when we play Scotland in June.  Lose or draw that and what will be left will be a campaign as disappointing as Trap's final campaign.  Win it and the bandwagon will most likely roll on to October when we visit Warsaw provided we beat Georgia at home.  We never do it the easy way but hopefully the second half becomes our template rather than the first!