Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Caught with our Jocks Down

Following a couple of weeks of high farce from FIFA and John Delaney (and by extension, the FAI), events at the Dublin Derby at Dalymount Park on the day before had me heading to Lansdowne for the Scotland game with a spring in my step and hopeful that Bohs' stunning late comeback was a good omen.  The atmosphere at the original home of Irish football had been electric and was enjoyed by a large smattering of Scottish fans and indeed, the entire city of Dublin was awash with sporrans and kilts in the build up to the game.  The game against England the previous week had told us little as it petered out into exactly the type of match I'd expected with two managers who play the percentage game not wanting to run the risk of picking up injuries and the early kick off not helping what turned into a staid scoreless draw played in a very muted atmosphere.  But this week was the real thing with the latest in what seems to be an endless run of 'must win' games meaning that expectation levels built all week and by the time Saturday morning rolled around that sense of anticipation that accompanies any big game had reached it's peak and actually been heightened by the Bohs result on Friday.

Having picked up Frankie the Hands in town, we headed for O'Neill's on Suffolk Street to collect the Brummies and following a quick one, jumped into a couple of taxis to head down to our usual spot in the Beggars Bush.  The Scots were certainly adding a flash of colour to proceedings as the fans openly mingled and exchanged some good natured banter.  Most of the usual suspects were at the Beggars when we arrived but the bar was absolutely thronged and having heard from a couple of the lads that it had taken half an hour to get served, we made the call to hit the off licence and grab a couple of cans to have out in the sun on the grounds outside the National Print Museum.  Given the queue outside the Spar beside Slatterys, we obviously weren't the only people to have the idea but I managed to get in fairly quickly and we found a nice spot on the grass to spend the last 90 minutes before the game.  A few quick calls and a good crew gathered there to make the most of what seemed to be the first week of the summer weather.

The first big talking point of the day was around Martin O'Neill's team selection with his preferred XI bearing a number of differences to what I would have sent out.  I believe at this stage that Kieran Westwood should be in the team ahead of Shay Given.  The back four was what I would have selected and Glen Whelan and James McCarthy in the centre and Jon Walters and Wes Hoolahan also would have started for me.  However, I thought that Jeff Hendrick playing ostensibly in a wide position hadn't worked against England as I felt he kept tucking in to his more favoured central role restricting our width so I would have had James McClean in ahead of him and despite Daryl Murphy's excellent season for Ipswich, I still found it baffling that he was picked ahead of Shane Long.  I have to wonder what Long has done to be overlooked consistently by consecutive managers.  While he can be poor in front of goal, he plays at a higher level than Murphy and has been prolific in the past while playing in the Championship.  But O'Neill is the boss so it's his call.  The fact that the team showed 7 changes from the reverse fixture in Glasgow worried me and indicates that even at this stage the management team don't know their best team or formation.  From the Scottish end, the one thing that I found encouraging was the absence of Ikechi Anya from their starting XI as I had feared his pace would cause us problems having seen him cause Germany all sorts of issues earlier in the campaign.

Between the good weather and the bigger crowd than normal the atmosphere built nicely with a gang of Scots fans walking past belting out Amhran na bhFiann on the bagpipes adding a nice touch.  We headed down to the South end about 25 minutes before kick off and made our way to the usual spot at the back of the Singing Section just in time for the anthems.  It was great to see the ground full for the second competitive game in a row and our anthem was roared out with a huge amount of gusto.  A minute's applause followed following the deaths of Bill O'Herlihy,League of Ireland legend, Johnny Fulham and also to mark the tragic passing of Robbie Keane's two cousins which had certainly put football into perspective before the ref blew for kick off.

Ireland actually started at a great tempo albeit it was more all about perspiration rather than inspiration despite the presence of Hoolohan on the pitch.  While we were certainly dominant in terms of possession there was little created in the way of chances with Scotland actually being the first to get a shot off as Fletcher made Given stretch for a relatively straightforward tip over.  But this was the exception rather than the rule and we began to reassert ourselves once the resultant corner was cleared without any clear cut chances coming our way.  The atmosphere in the singing section was as good at this point as it's been since Lansdowne re-opened with non stop chants booming out as we tried to encourage the team but despite winning a couple of corners, nothing came close to breaking the deadlock with a wayward shot into the stands from Whelan summing up our lack of cutting edge in the first 20 minutes.  The aforementioned Whelan's next input was a moment I'm sure he'll want to forget as he collected the ball in midfield in acres of space, looked up to survey his options and promptly booted the ball straight into touch without putting it anywhere near a teammate!

Another couple of corners followed with Brady's delivery from the left being decent but Whelan's delivery from the right leaving a lot to be desired.  Tackles were flying in at this stage and things flared up around half an hour in as McCarthy went up for a ball with Russell Martin and caught the Scottish defender with his elbow opening a cut on his head.  The pace with which the ref ran over to the slight fracas that had developed afterwards had me thinking that he was going to pull out a red card so there was a definite sense of relief when the card colour turned out to the yellow.  I don't think McCarthy is the type of player to go in swinging elbows but I've seen players walk for similar before.  The game reverted to type following this with us dictating the tempo but not really looking like breaching the Scotland defence and it was from a bit of a hit and hope ball into the box that Ireland fashioned another corner after Whelan lofting a ball onto Murphy's head who got sufficient loop onto the header to force David Marshall to palm the ball over the bar.

Brady was on corner taking duties again and it was from his delivery that the deadlock was finally broken.  He played an in-swinger in and Murphy got his head to it again causing Marshall to palm it out to the feet of Walters who gleefully buried the rebound despite having been clearly offside when the original header came in!  Even allowing for arguments about first and second phases of play, it was extremely fortunate not to be pulled up by the officials.  None of this was any way clear to us at the other end of the ground and the sight of the ball hitting the net had led to absolute pandemonium in the South end of the ground!  And even allowing for the lucky decision, it was a deserved lead on the balance of play.

I had thought that we'd need another goal to try and put some daylight between ourselves and the Scots and to be fair to the team, they certainly attempted to finish the half on a high as the Scottish defence looked like it was creaking a bit.  Brady's delivery once again was causing problems with another dangerous cross from the left being headed out by Charlie Mulgrew for another corner from the same side the goal had come from.  And it was from Brady's corner that we really should have found that daylight as he pinged a lovely ball over that bounced right across the goal at the edge of the six yard box but unfortunately no one was quick enough to apply a killer touch to it.  That was the last notable action of the half and the Scots were clearly happy to get off the pitch to regroup at that point whereas as an Irish fan, I'd have been happy to see the half go on another ten minutes.

But half time it was and with it John Delaney's name again came to the fore.  It had been discussed and generally agreed across the various message boards that any protest regarding the litany of incredulous behaviour from the FAI CEO would generally take place at half time so we could concentrate on supporting the team while they were on the pitch.  And although there had been a number of "We Want Delaney Out!" and "Fuck Delaney and the FAI!" chants during the half, it was at half time that things kicked into gear again.  Despite the completely over the top searches that have been introduced for the last couple of games at the entrance to the Singing Section, a number of banners had got into the section and as they were unfurled, we had to initially witness the usual keystone cops attempts of the stewards to try and confiscate banners that breach no stadium regulations or laws of the land.  It's beyond pathetic that this prevention of legitimate protest is being undertaken and Mr. Delaney's good friend Denis O'Brien would no doubt be proud of it.  The news that Gardai had called out to an airfield where a light aircraft had been hired to fly a 'Delaney Out!' banner over the ground and that the pilot had then decided not to fly added and element of farce that Kim Jong Un would be embarrassed by, let alone our own Kim John D!  Following a stand off between the stewards and the protesters, the sheer number of fans chanting and passing the banners back and forth meant the stewards eventually gave up their efforts and things moved up another level when one fan dressed in full JD regalia of blazer and grey wig was hoisted aloft on a number of shoulders in Sopot style and started handing out brown envelopes to all and sundry!  I think that he did manage to hold onto his shoes though.

I've already blogged at length about my issues with Delaney's behaviour in the past but what's gone on after the farcical FIFA congress deserves comment.  The fact that the man can't see the hypocrisy involved in trying to portray himself as a beacon of UEFA transparency shining through the cesspit of corruption that Sepp Blatter's FIFA is while boasting about secret deals he's done with the individual in question shows yet again the utter lack of any sort of basic cop on that a man in his position should possess.  However, he seems to have an Irish politician's brass neck as shown by his blatant late night phone calls to convince various TD's not to call him to task in front of an Oireachtas committee and his utter inability to take responsibility for things that happen on his watch.  Parish pump bullshit at it's finest.  Add in the fact that someone in the FAI took it upon themselves to pulp and reprint the entire programme run for the game (without JD's knowledge of course) in the wake of the Ray D'Arcy interview at a cost of €10,000 due to the CEO's attack on FIFA corruption and the situation further enters the realms of the ridiculous.  When you consider how little money some League of Ireland teams have gone out of business over it turns from ridiculous to sickening.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the amusement at the protest and the feel good factor generated by the goal to completely disintegrate once the action started again on the pitch.  I mentioned earlier that I was surprised that Anya hadn't started for the Scots so it was no surprise to see him come on at the start of the second half.  And within a minute he was involved in a one two with Shaun Maloney which was very reminiscent of the interplay that led to Scotland's goal in Glasgow.  Once again the Ireland defence was asleep and once again the result was the same.  Although on this occasion Maloney's shot was well off target, a flick off Coleman's boot directed it into O'Shea's back as he turned away from the ball and although Given looked flat footed once again, it's doubtful that any keeper could have got close to the ball as it spun right into the corner to send the Scottish fans behind that goal into raptures.  The fact that the idiots in charge of the PA at Lansdowne decided that would be a good time to boom out 7 Nation Army when the opposition had scored just rubbed salt in the wound.

Despite this setback, our initial response was good and within another minute of tipping off we really should have gone back in front. Hoolohan got on the ball in a central position and threaded a beautiful ball into Murphy who had got in behind the full back on our left hand side. Although he took the ball into a good position, his attempt at goal from around 10 yards lacked a bit of conviction and Marshall manged to save with his trailing leg.  For a second it looked like Walters was on hand again to put away the rebound but the spin from the keepers touch took the ball away from him a bit and even though he got a shot off, Marshall was able to recover and put the ball away for a corner.  The initial chance really was clear cut and you'd have to say that an international striker should be finishing from there.

The missed opportunity seemed to suck the life out of us to a degree and Scotland enjoyed their best spell of the match in the 15 minutes afterwards although there was little in the way of goal opportunities.  The best chance they had was at the end of that spell when that man Anya got on the ball again and whipped a cross in which deflected off Coleman.  For a moment it looked like Given might be in trouble but credit where it's due, he sensed the danger and cleared it in a very unorthodox manner by clawing the ball into the ground where it bounced to safety. O'Neill made his first change shortly afterwards by bringing McClean on for Whelan and shifting Hendrick into the centre.  But although the Scottish storm had been weathered by now, we were still lacking in inspiration and any chance of getting a winner through a bit of creativity seemed to be given up on as Hoolohan was withdrawn for Robbie Keane.  It's clear that O'Neill, like Trap before him, thinks that Keane and Hoolahan can't play in the same team but it still felt like a retrograde step to me.

That said, despite his age, Keane still has a lot more quality in his movement than most of the squad and his arrival did signal a slight change in impetus.  He managed to get a decent strike off within a minute of coming on but unfortunately it was straight down Marshall's throat and easily gathered.  Scotland certainly seemed to be settling for the draw at this stage but despite our many late goals in the campaign so far, there was never that sense that another was coming.  Long finally arrived for Murphy on 80 minutes (which was at least 10 minutes later than I'd have liked) but the longer the game went on the clearer it was that we'd have to rely on a set piece to get something.  Brady's delivery was still causing problems and with around 5 minutes left he put a great corner onto McClean's head but the ball came off Hutton's head and out for another corner.  The fact that Hendrick then started taking some of the corners from the left instead of letting Brady out-swing a couple just added to the frustration as the game petered out to the inevitable draw that always seems to be the result in our must win games.

So, once the final whistle went, any feel good factor from the Bohs result on the Friday had well and truly dissipated.  The usual drowning of sorrows and post moterms followed but, being realistic, it looks like the campaign is effectively over and it has to be said that, bar the excitement generated by the late goals which have put a gloss on our results, it's been desperately disappointing.   While we should expect 2 wins against Gibraltar and Georgia in our next two games which will keep us in the running mathematically, we're essentially relying on a Gary Mackay style intervention from Georgia against Scotland to swing things back into our favour and then the easy task of getting a result against Germany at home and winning against Poland away.  Given how things have developed under O'Neill since he's taken over, I've seen nothing to suggest this could be the case.  I expressed concerns when he was appointed that without John Robertson by his side, we may end up with the Sunderland Martin O'Neill instead of the Celtic or even the Villa Martin O'Neill.  Unfortunately, it seems like it's the former we have.  It's questionable to see what Roy Keane has brought to the table other than a bigger circus from the media than Duffy's and Fossett's combined could bring.  Tactically we seem to be all over the place with numerous variations on formations and 22 different players starting the games in this campaign.  Decisions such as bringing the likes of Given back instead of putting his faith in the younger Westwood smacks of desperation. People defending the situation have been comparing it to the last campaign under Trap but that's a ludicrous comparison, it's his first campaign that it should be compared to.  And while we can certainly point to how difficult the draw made things for us, we had Italy and Bulgaria in the World Cup '10 campaign and went unbeaten home and away against them on our way to 2nd place in the group.  And again there is a relevant point that the squad has deteriorated over the last 5 years, when you look at the Scotland team that looks like finishing ahead of us, you can't say that they have better players than we do, it's just that their management team is getting the best out of them whereas ours clearly isn't.  The story leaking from the camp that the formation they were sent out to play such a vital game in hadn't been practiced at all in training is staggering if true.  O'Neill has never been a manager who gets involved in the general training drills like Strachan does and if you're going to take that approach then you need to have the right people around you.  It seems that in Robertson's absence, O'Neill does not.

So, where from here?  I'm not a fan of the vaguely ridiculous notion I've seen on some forums that the manager should be changed now to give a new management team 4 competitive games to build for the next campaign and he certainly deserves to see this campaign out.  Miracles can happen sometimes and I'll be there in Faro for the next game supporting the team and praying that results elsewhere start falling our way.  But fundamental questions around the entire set up in the FAI will remain.  Our CEO is all about the first team and seems to have little interest in how things are built up from the grass roots.  When you see how far we've regressed since Brian Kerr thrilled us with his all conquering underage sides it makes for a depressing thought.  A chance to build on that has been missed amid all the infighting and nonsense that makes up Irish football politics.  And unfortunately, when there's no one involved with the balls to ask any searching questions at the FAI AGM, let alone to tackle the top man head on it's hard to see that changing.