Sunday, 20 November 2016

Wien-ner Alright!

Family commitments in the shape of a wedding meant I had to sit this trip out and that I only got to see about 20 minutes of each half live.  And indeed, other personal commitments have meant that it was six days after what turned out to be our best away win in almost thirty years, before I got the time to sit down and watch the game in full.  It's never the same trying to analyse a match when you know the result before actually seeing how the game developed and when you've read numerous reports and listened to plenty of analysis as well but in the spirit of this blog, I'll try to judge it on it's merits as I saw it.

I'd had a text from a friend confirming the team an hour before kick-off and my first thoughts were that this was as strong a team as we could field given the significant injury list we were suffering.  It was good to see Harry Arter get his first competitive start and finally put to bed that ludicrous story, generated by Paul Merson and Jeff Stelling's lack of knowledge and jumped on by the permanently outraged bottom feeders that social media has given a public voice to, that Arter was considering switching allegiance to England.  I doubt the majority of those abusing him were even aware of his caps at Under 17 and Under 19 level and Arter's decision to ignore the story rather than giving it credence by commenting on it was the correct one.  Those journalists that did pick up on it, in the wake of the social media storm to the extent that Martin O'Neill was actually asked about it after the Georgia game last month, should give their heads a shake and realise that the echo chamber of twitter cannot be considered any sort of  reliable source.  Arter's ability rather than any worry about him jumping ship was why I was happy to see him start and with Wes Hoolahan also on the pitch, the team looked to have that bit of creativity that was missing from the Serbia game. The much improved Stephen Ward's absence meant that Robbie Brady was pushed to left back but at least his set-piece delivery was still available. The rest of the team pretty much picked itself, with the lack of available numbers up front meaning that Jon Walters was the only real option to play there meaning Jeff Hendrick would cover right midfield and the in-form James McClean would offer support from the left after being passed fit.  And while I was delighted to see League of Ireland stalwart, Daryl Horgan, make the match day squad, I agreed with the manager's decision not to throw him straight in for his debut in such a vital game. With Austria struggling for form since their disastrous European Championships, this looked a team that was set up to have a go at them.

However, despite the positive set up, it must be said that there wasn't much positivity on display in the initial twenty minutes of the match which I saw live before being called in for the wedding meal!  Austria certainly started on the front foot and we had to defend a series of corners and free kicks before creating our first opening around 15 minutes in with a McClean snapshot from a loose ball deflecting just wide.  Still, that was the only real opening we'd created by the time I took my leave but watching the game back, it was from here that we started to play ourselves a bit more into things. In fairness, despite the initial Austrian pressure, we'd looked comfortable in defence and Randolph had dealt with anything that came his way.  Our first corner had resulted in a bit of a scramble in their defence as Shane Duffy flung himself at the ball and the fact that we had dealt with their initial spell quite comfortably seemed to have impacted on their confidence levels which had remained low since the Euros. 

The next moment of note was one that would end up having a significant impact on the game as Glen Whelan pulled up holding his thigh with no-one near him, resulting in David Myler coming in from the bench.  The substitution didn't change things initially, as the half continued in a very stop/start manner with a lot of niggly fouls committed by both sides.  There were occasional chances with one of those fouls resulting in a Brady free which Duffy headed wide and Coleman getting a superb block on an Arnautovic shot, but it was only in the last five minutes of the half that things really opened up and the deadlock should have been broken.  First, Sabitzer was played in by Arnautovic and clipped a lovely chip over Randolph which came back off the angle of the far post and crossbar before Clark got a great block onto Janko's follow up.  It was a big let-off for us and a few minutes later we really should have rubbed salt in the wound when some nice interplay between Hoolahan and Brady resulted in a Brady cross that Walters should have buried from six yards out.  Unfortunately, he managed to get slightly under the ball and put the chance over, grazing the bar on it's way. A booking for Duffy, the first of the match, finished off the half and I've no doubt that O'Neill would have been happy going in all square.

 Looking back at the second half, Austria again seemed to start on the front foot but we seemed to have figured them out to a degree, so rather than sitting as deep as we had early in the first half we looked to have pushed a bit further up in the opening couple of minutes.  Hoolahan had been a little slack in possession on a number of occasions in the first half but was still trying to make things happen and had already tried to play Walters in with a lovely back heel just before his most influential moment of the game.  Play had moved back down towards our end where Austria's Tottenham defender Wimmer was contesting possession with Meyler. Although Meyler's hand came across Wimmer in the tussle, the contact was completely minimal and was the sort of thing that happens dozens of time in any game.  Inexplicably, Wimmer decided that there was enough in it to go down and then to compound that error, started moaning at the ref when Meyler took possession rather than making an attempt to win the ball back.  Meyler didn't need a second invitation to play on and used the space to drive forward before picking Hoolahan out in the centre circle.  Although I've since seen a lot of praise for all parts of the move, I think that the initial pass still left Hoolahan with a lot to do as it was actually just behind him and meant that he had to check his run. Paradoxically, this actually worked out for the best as the extra couple of seconds he needed to spin and gather the ball gave McClean the chance to charge a few yards further forward.  Hoolahan spotted this and his pass was absolutely perfectly weighted so that McClean didn't have to break his stride to get the ball onto his feet.  Walters made a great run into the box, dragging two of their defenders with him, which gave McClean a little bit of extra space and time to pick his spot and bury the ball home through the keeper's legs! 1-0 Ireland: just as I was getting my dessert! Word came in a minute later that we'd gone ahead so, needless to say, I had that weird feeling of delight that we were ahead coupled with being sickened that I hadn't even seen it on telly, let alone in the flesh! 

McClean as a whistle!

A few of us nipped out at that stage to catch the next 15 minutes of the game before the speeches and I was up and celebrating a couple of minutes later as Walters headed home a Brady free, only for it to be correctly called offside.  Still, as was the case against Moldova, it was positive that we had kept pushing on after scoring rather than sitting back, as has been our habit more often than not for countless campaigns.  Austria's already brittle confidence had taken another nosedive since the goal and another couple of chances went begging for us not long after with McClean hitting the side netting and Clark having a header from a corner cleared off the line.  At the other end, we seemed to be well able to keep the opposition at arms length with the only blip being a silly booking for Brady on 70 minutes for kicking the ball away which means he'll be suspended when the group resumes at home to Wales next March.  Having also been booked in a tussle with Arter a few minutes earlier, Baumgartlinger was lucky to stay on the pitch following what was, arguably, a worse challenge on Hoolahan.  Both managers were ringing the changes now but those changes were having little effect on the pattern of the game, although McGoldrick coming on for Hoolahan with thirteen minutes left indicated to me that we might start looking for a more direct outlet. That said, it wasn't as if we started to park the bus, McClean was still causing problems on the left until he was finally withdrawn with six minutes left to be replaced by McGeady.  It had been a superb effort from McClean considering he needed an epidural earlier in the week to enable him to play.  Naturally enough, the last few minutes we were concentrating more on defence and we did give up a couple of chances. Luckily, both fell to Janko, who'd been having a nightmare, and he really should have taken at least one of them.  First, he managed to shake off the impressive Coleman to get a free far-post header which he put harmlessly wide. Then, deep into stoppage time and just when we seemed to have weathered the mini-storm, Hendrick was dispossessed deep in Austrian territory and they broke the length of the pitch through Arnautovich.  He played in Alaba (who'd also had a nightmare) and his cross was mishit by Baumgartlinger straight to Janko about five yards out.  It looked like all he'd have to do was volley it home but for some reason he ducked down to head it and put it a yard or so wide!  All that was left was a final kick out from Randolph and the ref blew up for full-time. Our first away win against a higher ranked side for 29 years and our first against Austria since 1963! The fact that I missed it has me wondering if I was the Jonah all along!  Needless to say, the various updates on Facebook and texts on WhatsApp groups from mates at the game brought on more than a few pangs of jealousy but there'll be other games.  I just hope it's not another 29 years before another!

Way back Wien!
Looking at the game as a whole, it's clear that Austria are in real crisis.  Their big players were totally out of sorts, with Alaba, so often their talisman, looking a shadow of the player that tormented us home and away in the last World Cup campaign.  I literally lost count of the number of misplaced passes and mishit shots he had.  But we've faced sides that were out-of-sorts in the past on our travels and generally achieved draws at best, so credit has to be given to Martin O'Neill for the results this team have got over the last thirteen months.  We've now beaten 4 higher ranked teams in that period (Germany, Bosnia, Italy and Austria), had a successful Euros and broken our away hoodoo.  In recent games where we haven't played well, such as against Serbia and Georgia, we've hung in there and scraped out results.  We've also proved that we can bounce back from disappointing results, such as the Poland and Belgium defeats and picked up wins meaning it's been a long time since we've had two poor results in a row. Seamus Coleman has proved a very astute choice as captain and has really grown into the role. James McClean has been superb since becoming first choice and is fast turning into this campaign's Jon Walters.  For me, he has to be favourite for player of the year, despite a good claim from Robbie Brady.  And as I've mentioned before, the fact that the team seem to be able to cope with significant injury lists and not be too adversely affected by them shows that the squad in it's entirety has bought into the managers methods, personnel can slot in and be effective.  On a couple of occasions now, such as against Italy in the Euros, injuries have actually resulted in us nearly stumbling across our best team and it's possible that the injuries to James McCarthy and Glen Whelan before and during this game may well usher in a new central midfield combination with Arter doing well, if not outstandingly, and Meyler doing his chances no harm.  I think that an Arter/McCarthy combination may well be what we see v. Wales, given that Brady's suspension means that Hendrick can play on the right again, but McCarthy's place may well be in doubt in future and, while he still has a part to play, Whelan's long stint as a regular has essentially been over since the Euros with his starts since then having been to cover injuries and suspensions.

There's still a long way to go in the group and I predict plenty of twists and turns to come considering the fact that there's no traditional power in the group and there's not much between the top four seeds, as backed up with the Wales and Serbia draw.  Even though Austria are in trouble, remember that we looked in a similar position halfway through the last campaign and were able to turn things around.  Although there is no third place get-out-of-jail card for them to fall back on, the fact that there's no Germany or similar nailed on to top the group negates that to some degree. But for us to be sitting on top of the group with 10 points from 12, having only played once at home is beyond most expectations and puts us in a great position to kick on in the new year. The Euro '88 qualifiers remain the only time we've topped a qualifying group in our history.  It was a 1-0 away win against Scotland that kicked that campaign into life and we've now emulated that result with this win.  Hopefully we can go on and also emulate the final table without having to rely on a Gary Mackay to get us there! 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

They Think It's Moldova!

A home international on the Thursday and the Dublin derby on the Friday weren't exactly ideal preparation for the 7 hour trek to Moldova on Saturday morning, but the back to back 1-0 victories had the mind in good spirits even if the body was beginning to creak. The fact that the direct flight left at half past midnight on Friday meant it wasn't a runner so a Stansted stopover was required. As online check-in wasn't available on Air Moldova flights from London, it was a tight enough squeeze from landing at 13.15 and checking in by 13.40 but luckily there were no delays and a quick dash from arrivals to departures left me at the check-in desk with 20 minutes to spare. Brummie Bren was waiting in the departure lounge having bussed it down from Birmingham that morning and we'd enough time for a swiftie in amongst a good contingent of Ireland support taking the same route before heading to the gate. Our numbers were swelled by the RTE commentary team and an uneventful 3 hour flight was livened up by a quick chat with Ray Houghton as we came in to land. My first Ireland away game was at Giants Stadium for that famous win v Italy in 1994 so it was nice to have a reminisce about the game with the man who scored the winner that day!

The word from Moldova was that foreign bank cards didn't work in a lot of the ATM's over there so it was straight to the bureau de change in arrivals when we landed. As Moldova is ranked as the poorest nation in Europe with an average annual salary of approximately €2,800 or 61,000 Lei, I assume that any opportunity to get foreign currency in is taken hence the proliferation of bureau de changes. Once we'd sorted ourselves with cash it was over to the taxi desk to get in the queue to grab a cab to the hotel. And it was here that it became clear that this wasn't going to be your average away trip!

We'd got chatting to another lad from YBIG, Corkery, on the flight and ended up asking if he wanted to share a cab with us as his hotel was close to ours. Having got to the top of the queue, some lad with a clipboard took our hotel address, went outside and came back to bring us out past the cabs to some random skinhead dude who had no meter or taxi sign. Bren and Corkery got in the back leaving me to get into the front. Straight away the driver bangs on the stereo full blast and puts this cheesy Moldovan rave tune and puts the hammer down! He's weaving in and out of lanes of traffic roaring abuse at other drivers as this MC roars out Welcome to Moldova and various other unintelligible raps in Romanian, it was absolutely comical stuff! He then starts talking to me in Romanian, I think, and seemed to be asking me do I speak any other languages as he lists off that he speaks Russian, Romanian, Polish and Turkish! Asked him did he speak Irish for the laugh but he hadn't a word of English so that went right over his head but I think he was berating me for not having a selection of Eastern European languages! Of course he didn't seem to have a clue where he was going but managed to find the road we were looking for before missing the turn and having to take another lap around the back streets and then finally found the hotel. We got out and were going to give him 150 or 200 Lei but we couldn't see what notes we were giving him because most of the residential streets over there don't seem to have street lights. We ended up handing him a 20 Lei note by mistake and I thought he was gonna swing for us but one of the lads handed him a 200 Lei note and it was all smiles and laughter again before he headed off and took Corkery round the corner to his place. It was some taxi ride though and set the tone! 

 Welcome to Moldova!!

Having checked into the hotel and freshened up, we got word from a few of the other lads that they were heading down to a place called the Beer House so on checking Google Maps, we said we'd walk the 20 minutes journey to get our bearings. Only problem with that was the lack of street lights which meant we were stumbling through pitch dark streets. Add in the fact that it had been lashing all day, the majority of pavements are half-finished and full of potholes where they're not mud tracks and you can imagine how difficult that was! We both nearly went flying at least 3 times on the paths and then I had the pleasure of stepping straight into a 6 inch deep pothole full of water! Having spotted the Beer House across the road we saw an underpass to get to it but again it was totally unlit and we both said no fucking way are we going down there! The alternative of taking our chances through gaps in the traffic definitely seemed the safer option!

On entering the Beer House, we were greeted by a huge crowd of Irish fans with the Amsterdam lads, the London/Birmingham lads and various others that I hadn't seen since France already in situ. There was plenty of representation from across Ireland as well with lads from Dublin, Cork, Donegal and the Cliftonville crew from Belfast dotted around the bar. Northmen, Southmen, comrades all!

Before long everyone was catching up on what people had been at since France, especially those of us who hadn't managed to make Belgrade in September. Steve Amsterdam and his group had arrived the previous day and had taken a day trip up to the self-proclaimed independent territory of Transnistria that afternoon which I was gutted to have missed so I was keen to hear about that. When the USSR had disintegrated back in 1990 and Moldova was moving towards independence, an area with a significant ethnic Russian and Ukrainian population on the Moldova/Ukraine border broke away and declared itself the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic of Transnistria. Although it hasn't been recognised by the United Nations, so is still technically considered part of Moldova, a four-month war in 1992 resulted in a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone on the de facto border. Despite only being recognised by three other similar "frozen-conflict" states, it has put in place it's own government, parliament, military, flag, currency etc. and, with a heavy Russian peace-keeping presence, exists in this de facto independent state. The rumours are that the economy of this soviet-style state depends on smuggling and gun running! I'm always interested in seeing unusual new places but time wasn't to allow it and although the lads had visited on a day when it had lashed out of the heavens for the duration of their trip, I was still jealous as they showed me the plastic plectrum like coins used over there and told me of their encounters with the locals.

Here we go again!

After a few beers and a pizza, the tiredness from the journey was forgotten and following a few songs, the Beer House closed up around 2 and we made our way to a 24 hours bar aptly named Jack's around the corner where a good crowd of YBIGers were mingling with the locals so that gave another chance to catch up with a few more heads from home. The 24 hour licence meant the place was still in full swing as the clock ticked past 4.30 but with a walking tour of the city arranged for noon the next day, I took the sensible course of action and the few of us that were in the same hotel left the younger crowd to it and jumped a cab back to get some well needed rest.

 Subway Art

The sun streaming into the room had woken me only a few hours after getting to sleep but it was still an effort to get myself out of bed at 11:30 and move towards the same area we'd been in the previous night where the group for the walking tour were meeting. As the effort of getting up was beyond Bren, I had to retrace the route alone although this was a far easier proposition in daylight! About 50 of us had signed up for the tour so the local tour company had arranged for 3 guides to split us into groups. Our guide first took us through the underpass which was a little less threatening in daytime and actually had some really cool graffiti all the way through it. It still looked like it could be dodgy as hell at night though! A quick couple of stops up the road on a bus that looked like it was straight from the 50's and we were in the historical parliament area of Chisinau where there definitely seemed to be a bit more money around with plenty of monuments and nice architecture. Our guide took us around the civil service and parliament buildings, their Arc of Triumph, the city's Orthodox Cathedral and various museums taking us through a very nice park and down to a lovely boulevard by the River Bac while telling us the history of the city and country. The country itself has been regularly occupied throughout history, first by Crimea, then being part of the Ottoman Empire from the 1500's to the 1800's (bar a spell when it was united with other Romanian principalities and then as part of the Polish/Lithuanian commonwealth in the early 1600's) before finally succumbing to the Russian Empire who had already annexed half the territory during one of the many Russian-Turkish wars. The various influences can be seen in the multi-lingual ability of most of the people we met who spoke Romanian (or the Moldovan dialect to be precise), Russian, Turkish and Polish in addition to the bit of English many had. Having spent an enjoyable 3 hours wandering, we finished up close to the Old Bus bar where some of the lads who had been at the fans match on Friday had spent the previous night so we arranged to meet the rest of the gang there. Having met Corkery on the tour, the pair of us agreed that 3pm was a respectable enough time to begin the pre-match festivities once we'd got a bit of food in.

City Sights

By the time we'd ordered food, most of the other lads started to arrive so having treated ourselves to the most expensive item on the menu (a gorgeous steak that cost all of €7), we managed to get a table that sat about 15 of us. By the time the Quinn Towers produced a bottle of Jaeger the songs were flowing quicker than the drinks and the word that Georgia had managed a draw v. Wales in Cardiff had notched the mood up another bit! The 2 hour time difference meant that the local kick off time was a fairly late 9:45 so around 8 we started to gather people together to head up to the ground. Flagging taxis was proving problematic however, but the fact that locals seemed to be happy to stop and give you a lift for a few quid was mitigating that difficulty somewhat! And so it was that 3 of us ended up in the back of a car with 2 local students in the front having a good old waffle about the city en route to the stadium! The team had been revealed at that stage with no real surprises as Glenn Whelan came in for the suspended Jeff Hendrick and much to the relief of everyone who thought he should have had a run in the last 2 games, Wes Hoolahan replaced the concussed Robbie Brady. No complaints from me given how short we were in midfield.

Zimbru Stadium complete with extra tiers!

The area around the Zimbru Stadium was thronged with Irish fans but the talk we'd heard of a boycott by local fans due to ticket prices seemed to be accurate as there were very few around. While €5 a ticket seemed a bargain to us, given the average wage over there it was a lot to ask and the locals had voted with their feet. Although, it has to be said, there was a good clatter of them watching from the balconies of the block of flats that overlooked the pitch! The stadium itself looked nice for a compact 10,000 seater and was the sort of ground that I'd love to see built for the League of Ireland over here. Most of the Irish tickets had been sold for behind one of the goals and the numbers meant a bit of a delay getting in. We were just getting into the stand as the game kicked off. I had made my way down to the fence behind the goal to try and hang my flag and was arguing the toss with an over-zealous policeman who wouldn't let me use the last space on the fence while keeping one eye on the game when I spotted Hoolahan playing an inch perfect ball to Shane Long who ran onto it and ended his recent goal drought with a tidy finish! One-nil before two minutes had passed! And while I've written before about how we can retreat into our shell when we take an early lead, surely against the likes of Moldova this wouldn't be the case?

1-0 to the Boys In Green!!

At this stage it was pretty clear that I wasn't going to win my argument with the local police who were intent on watching the game through the gap between the flags on the fence rather than facing the fans as they were there to do, so I headed back up to the stand. Having lost Bren on the way in, I was glad to bump into Borussia, another of the YBIG faithful, so stopped there to watch the first half with him. Within another couple of minutes, we could have been two up as a James McClean cross nearly found Long and it was clear that we had really approached the game in the correct manner. We kept the pressure on without really threatening their goal with Coleman and Ward getting forward well. Hoolahan was still pulling strings and teed Whelan up on the 30 minute mark but his effort, once again, caused no problem for the keeper. The next involvement from Hoolahan saw him find Long with a pass, only for the Moldovan player Armas to injure himself scything Long down and end up being stretchered off on 36 minutes. The break in the game seemed to impact on our momentum a bit and Moldova had a little more possession coming up to the break giving them a couple of attempts and a corner but as the clock ticked down we seemed to have weathered that little spell without any drama. In fact, we were finishing the half down their end with Hoolahan again setting up McClean who shot just wide and even having given them possession entering stoppage time, the Moldovan keeper booted the ball straight into touch so it seemed that we'd go in at half-time comfortable at 1-0. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be the case.

I like Shane Duffy as a player, he's brave, strong and fairly uncompromising. However, if he is to become a dependable first choice then his positional sense is really going to have to be worked on.  The fact that his club manager, Chris Hughton at Brighton, was such a cultured defender for Ireland, albeit at full back, can hopefully help with that.  After all, it took Richard Dunne time to  grow into the great player he was for Ireland and Duffy has time on his side.  But he was caught out of position badly for France's winner that knocked us out in the summer and again, when the game was effectively finished as a contest, as he lost Griezmann and had to haul him down.  He was badly caught here as Hoolahan initially won the ball only to be dispossessed and it was pumped over the top by Gatcan. Had Duffy not pushed up over the halfway line then he could easily have dealt with it but he was caught under the ball and Bugeav raced clear and coolly finished past Randolph. It was a really poor goal to give away and eminently preventable. Within a few seconds of us kicking off again, the ref blew for half time and suddenly the second half looked a bit more daunting than it should have been.


We'd found the rest of the lads by the time Moldova got us underway for the second half and it was clear that the goal had given our hosts a huge lift. The first 10 minutes of the half was their best spell of the game as they forced Randolph into a couple of saves and shaky moments. However, as the game moved towards the hour mark, I felt that we started to regain control and do the right things again. Half chances fell to Hoolahan and McClean but we had a blow on 62 minutes when Long seemed to tweak the same hamstring that had caused him to go off late against Georgia and with the lack of strikers on the bench, Callum O'Dowda was brought on for his competitive debut with Walters moving into the central position. At this stage, some of our support around me were beginning to get a bit nervy although, unusually for me who's normally convinced things are sure to go wrong, I was actually beginning to feel a bit confident about how we were playing. O'Dowda got involved straight away and dropped a cross onto McClean's head, but the header was weak when it should have been headed back across the box. At this stage, Borussia beside me admitted that he was getting worried but whatever out of character, zen-like state had engulfed me, I just said "Relax, the goal is coming". And sure enough, two minutes later, it did!

There was an element of luck about the goal when it came, although credit has to go to Walters for his part in it. James McCarthy had got the ball on the edge of the box but had totally snatched at his shot. The ball ended up at the feet of Walters with his back to goal who killed it with a touch and looked like he was going to try and swivel and shoot until he saw McClean in a better position facing the goal. Walters simply stepped back and McClean stroked the ball into the corner to put us back in front. Cue an outpouring of relief behind the goal! Now it was just down to how we could close out the game.

As with the goal in the first half, I was glad to see that we didn't sit back and instead kept the pressure on. Moldova looked to be tiring and we created another chance straight away as Duffy headed a Hoolahan free wide. As it turned out, we didn't have to wait too long before the game was put out of Moldova's reach and when it came, it was another well worked goal with Hoolahan at it's heart.  Coleman had played a throw-in to Hoolahan who then nutmegged a defender before sliding a lovely ball through to Coleman who'd gone beyond him on the overlap. Coleman surged into the box and spotted McClean, who made no mistake on the volley as his captain picked him out. 3-1 and that was that! I was delighted for McClean, who I feel was our best player over the course of the double-header and although his quality can sometimes be hit and miss, his application, effort and desire to give everything to the cause is really admirable.  His performances, along with how Coleman has grown into the captain's role, were the big plus points of the two games for me.

McCleaning up! 

The rest of the game was more notable for the way that the Moldovans seemed to forget about playing the ball and very cynically started playing the man as soon as they went 3-1 down. There were some really bad challenges which resulted in things nearly boiling over a couple of times. A particularly bad kick into Walters' chest resulted in an angry reaction from him which the ref then punished with a yellow card for Walters. His reaction was totally understandable and it'll be very harsh if he misses a big qualifier as a result of picking up another one. Just before that a couple of late subs had seen Myler and O'Kane come in for McCarthy and Hoolahan and the fresh legs ensured we closed the game out comfortably to add another 3 points to those garnered against Georgia leaving us in a strong position with 7 points from our first 3 games.

Points in the bank!
Getting back to town proved to be a bit more straightforward than getting out as Steve had had the wherewithal to ask the cabbie who'd dropped him out to pick them up after the game and as they'd a spare seat on board I jumped with them as we headed back to the Old Bus Bar for a last few beers and songs. By the time the rest of the gang had arrived, we'd got the bars laptop hooked up to the stereo and had all the classics playing, from Put 'Em Under Pressure to Joxer, with everything from A to Z in between. By the time the shutters came down it was 3am and with a 12:30 flight the next afternoon and an 8-hour journey home, bed was the only real option.

Although this game was against the second lowest-ranked team in the group, and indeed there is a case to be made that Georgia are actually a stronger team, there's no question that this was the best performance of the group so far. It was also a performance that was needed, coming off the back of two poor performances, albeit that 4 points were taken from those two games, with a tough away game to Austria coming up in November. Most fans would have taken 7 points from the first three games at the start, and the results that Serbia and Georgia have picked up since we played them put our results against them in a very positive light regardless of the performances. The fact that we're able to pick up results when not at our best reflects well on the management and long may it continue. But the key now is to try to bring the level of performance we displayed in Chisinau to the stronger opposition we'll face in Vienna. If we can do this and avoid defeat over there,  
remaining unbeaten with three of our away games out of the way, this would leave us in a great position facing into the Winter break. The fear is that if we go there looking for the draw, we can be hurt by the world-class talent they have in Alaba and the quality they have in Amautovic if we're not on our game. Having dropped points to Wales and been beaten by Serbia, Austria really need the win so should be well up for it. 

On the flipside, if we can manage to get a win over there, we would be 6 points ahead of Austria and would essentially take them out of the qualification equation. In a group like this one with very little between the top four seeds, the chance to reduce the number of challengers to three at this early stage must be tempting. To maximise that chance, we have to play Hoolahan and given that there's only one qualifier in the next international window, the excuse that he doesn't have two games in four days in his legs won't hold water. And while he can sometimes lose possession and even totally miss the ball with an attempted shot, no one else in the squad could have played the sort of ball that sent Long through or the nutmeg that set Coleman up for the cross for McClean's second.  Having not started any of the away games against the other top 4 seeds in the last campaign, I'm thinking that he'll probably be left on the bench and that a credible draw will be the most likely outcome but who knows, maybe I'll be surprised?  Here's hoping!   

Friday, 7 October 2016

Forget Georgia

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.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Fired Man Sam

The one question that has leapt to my mind over the last week is "How much money is enough?".  The English game has long been characterised by greed, especially in the last 24 years since the FA backed the Premier League in it's breakaway from the traditional Football League pyramid. And while stories of clandestine meetings involving managers in motorway service stations where brown envelopes changed hands were commonplace up to 20 or 30 years ago, this was in an era when salaries were a miniscule fraction of the vast amounts of money that those involved in the game are paid today and a blind eye was generally turned to incomes being supplemented in that manner.  So, what possessed a man being paid £3m a year on an initial two year contract (with a possible option of two more) plus bonuses, to risk everything for an admittedly easy extra £400k?  And what does it say about his judgement? 

Sam Allardyce has always been a manager cut from old school cloth. Having been a player in the 70's and 80's, he would have cut his teeth and learned the ins and outs of the game in that period where wages were measured in hundreds of pounds a week rather than hundreds of thousands and where, as a result, the backhander and bung culture was rife.  Although he played a number of seasons in the top division, he was generally a journeyman throughout his career and has privately lamented that some of the decisions he made relating to his moves to different clubs during his career were made for financial rather than footballing reasons.  That clearly indicates that money has always been a significant motivating factor in his professional life.  Following a season cutting his managerial teeth with Limerick in the League of Ireland in 1991/92, his first experience of management in England was on a caretaker basis at Preston in Division 2, coincidentally in the same year that the Premier League was founded and the big money started flowing in from Sky TV.  After a number of successful years in the lower leagues with Blackpool, Notts County and Bolton, he finally reached the promised land of the Premier League in 2001 when he led Bolton to promotion right when the pot of money sloshing around the top flight of English football was getting bigger and bigger.  This new top flight was unrecognisable from the league he had been part of as a player and following the huge 1995 bung scandal that had cost Arsenal manager George Graham his job (where he was found to have received £425k from an agent representing 2 Norwegian players he signed), the behaviour of managers was expected to have changed as well.

Over the course of the next decade, Allardyce's career as a top flight manager turned out to be significantly more sucessful than his career as a player had been.  After consolidating Bolton's place in the league for the first couple of seasons, some astute signings saw them regularly compete in the top half of the table and even qualify for European competition on a number of occasions. Having just missed out on what he described as his dream job as England manager in 2006, subsequent spells in charge of Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland ensured he was never out of work for long and with the increases in the money coming into the English game showing no signs of abating, it's fair to assume that by the time he was once again linked with the England job this summer he was already a very wealthy man.  But he'd never been able to rid himself of the whiff of scandal that had attached itself to him during that period and which may have cost him his chance to manage England when he'd first looked for the job.

Undercover: Football's Dirty Secrets was a Panorama investigation in 2006 during which allegations of improper behaviour were laid at the feet of a number of people involved in the game including then Portsmouth manager and first team coach, Harry Redknapp and Kevin Bond and Chelsea youth director, Frank Arnesen,  However, the most serious allegations related to Sam Allardyce and his son Craig who was working as a football agent at the time.  The programme showed two pieces of footage, filmed secretly, of two agents saying that they had paid sums connected to transfers to Allardyce via his son and alleged that three payments from other agents relating to specific transfers had been made to Craig Allardyce, including some when he had been contractually banned from doing any deals involving Bolton.  As a result, Craig Allardyce quit the football agency business in summer 2006 and in interviews since admitted that his work in that field may have cost his father the chance of becoming England manager at that time.   Sam Allardyce himself denied any wrong doing, stating at the time that, "As a father it is painful to watch your son talk tall and exaggerate his influence for financial gain" and that he would be putting the matter in the hands of his lawyers who advised that he had a very strong case against the BBC. However, ten years later, no legal action in relation to the case has been filed and the allegations remain legally unchallenged.

Allardyce isn't the first manager to have allegations of corruption laid at his feet and nor was he the first to remain in gainful employment following such allegations. Indeed, even those who had been found guilty by the FA of corruption, such as the aforementioned George Graham, had found it easy to get back into management after having served his year long ban.  For the majority of clubs, there has been an attitude of the ends justifying the means and clubs of the stature of Leeds United and Tottenham were both happy to employ someone who was a proven results getter such as Graham.  So, although he had left Bolton not long after failing in his first attempt to get the England job, there were no shortage of job offers over the next ten years,  And while he may not have won any major trophies, he had done enough at the clubs he had managed in that decade to come back into the frame when the England job once again came up for grabs following their abysmal exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland.  However, given the desire of the English FA for their managers to be whiter than white in light of previous managerial scandals and the ongoing corruption scandals at UEFA and FIFA level, there were still some eyebrows raised when Allardyce was finally given the role in July of this year.  But, considering that this was the one job he had described as his "dream job" throughout his career, surely he could have been expected to keep his nose clean?

The reason generally given as to why the England job pays so well is that the amount being earned should be enough for the manager to solely concentrate on the job in hand rather than hoping to pick up any other earners for outside work.  And Big Sam was certainly making the right noises when his appointment was confirmed stating "I am extremely honoured to be appointed England manager, especially as it is no secret that this is the role I have always wanted. For me, it is absolutely the best job in English football, I will do everything I can do to help England do well and give our nation the success our fans deserve".  He started to deliver that success on the pitch with an admittedly patchy 1-0 win away to Slovakia in his first game and all seemed well with 2 games coming up next week.  What wasn't known was that, before he had even picked his squad for his first game, his agent had already set up a meeting with two "businessmen" to discuss a keynote speaking deal at four conferences in the Far East at £100k a pop.  Those businessmen, who were in fact undercover reporters, were purporting to represent a firm that was was trying to gain a slice of the huge sums of money moving around in English football.

Third party ownership of players refers to a situation where, rather than the club owning the full rights to a player, a third party company (normally run by an agent) holds onto a percentage of the players rights and is entitled to that percentage of any transfer fee if the player is subsequently sold to another club. Ironically, it was at a club that Allardyce would later manage, West Ham, that the issue of third party ownership of players first arose in English football.  In August 2006, much to everyone's surprise, West Ham had confirmed the purchase of two of the rising stars of South American football, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Over the course of that season, during which they were embroiled in a relegation battle, it came to light that both players' economic rights were owned by a number of companies run by their agent, Kia Joorabchian.  While such deals were commonplace in South America and the practice was not yet banned in England, it was deemed to be unfair and West Ham were subsequently fined a record £5.5m due to the irregularities discovered in the players contracts.  However, many would argue that this was a small price to pay given that Tevez's goals were the main reason that West Ham stayed up as Sheffield United were relegated. Indeed, it was a Tevez goal on the final day of the season that gave them a 1-0 victory over Manchester United which meant they finished 3 points ahead of the Sheffield club.  Given that one season in the Permier League at that time was worth a minimum of £60m, you can see why that £5.5m fine and the undisclosed amount that a case brought by Sheffield United was settled for seemed like a good deal for West Ham.  As a result of this, third party ownership was banned in England in 2008 and FIFA finally followed suit with a worldwide ban in 2015. But that hasn't stopped any number of unscrupulous people trying to get their slice of the pie by bending the rules and it was his admission on tape that there are ways and means around the ban (that his employers have in place) that probably sealed Allardyce's downfall.

Looking at the various videos, you could argue that had it just been any of the individual issues raised, he may have survived in his role. After all, while criticising the previous management team and mocking his predecessor, Roy Hodgson's speech impediment seems boorish and arrogant, there's nothing illegal about it. And while it's embarrassing to be caught on camera in England calling a member of the Royal family a "naughty boy" and giving out about another one not doing enough in his ambassadorial role with the FA, again he could have apologised and it would have been forgotten about fairly quickly.  Even his criticism of the player's psychology during major tournaments could have been talked around.  But although he at least had the cop on to admonish his agent when under the counter payments to managers was raised, the cumulative effect of all the above, along with his admission that there are ways around his employer's rules on third party ownership while meeting people he'd never met before brought his judgement into such question that his departure was inevitable.

Only he can answer why he thought that risking his dream job for the sake of a quick buck was worth doing. He's not an unintelligent man and, despite what I've always considered an unfair reputation as a long ball manager, was an early embracer of sports science and analysis in his management. Player's who have worked under him at both youth and senior level have spoken glowingly about the influence he had on then.  That said, some have also spoken about pressure being applied to them to sign with agents preferred by him.  He's since come out and said he was doing a favour for a friend and that entrapment has won this time out but there's no doubt to me that the greed prevalant in the game today was the main motivation here. In fact, even his agent had advised against going to the second meeting with the undercover journalists after becoming suspicious but Big Sam obviously knew better and attended regardless. The excuse that he came from an era where the backhander culture was rampant doesn't hold water these days either given the huge salary that he was on. Unfortunately, the "Greed is Good" ethos is now so ingrained in the game that it's impossible to see where it ends.  And it was that greed which ultimately made a relatively clever manager behave in such a stupid manner. With more and more money flowing in, each scandal that breaks just seems to move the game further and further away from it's traditional support base.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Murphy's Law

The most surprising thing for me watching the RTE coverage of last night's match was not how the game developed but the disbelief and outrage shown by Eamon Dunphy in his post game analysis, and then his admission, after an admonishment from Liam Brady, that he had learnt a lot. For this was a typical Irish performance with some of the good and all of the bad elements that have become a hallmark of this team since before Martin O'Neill's time.  Good incisive start and goal?  Check.  Lose our way after scoring and allow the opposition to start dictating?  Check.  Bang long balls forward, cede possession and ride our luck before eventually conceding at least one?  Check.  Regroup and start creating chances when we go behind?  Check.  Equalise and then revert to defensive type?  Check.  And while I'd hoped that our forward momentum post Euros could be sustained in Serbia, none of what transpired surprised me last night.  This is often how we play and considering he's paid to watch us, you have to ask if he ever pays attention.

On the plus side, I'd have taken a draw before kick off and there's no doubt that a point away to Serbia in horrendous conditions may well prove to be vital by the end of the campaign.  Again, the side proved that they're very difficult to beat and although we rode our luck on occasion, we shouldn't forget that the Serbian penalty was clearly a dive.  Of course the question is, would we have pushed on looking for a second goal had the score remained at one each or would we have continued to hang on for the one-all draw? And that's where the frustration comes from because we have shown under O'Neill that we can play reasonable, albeit direct, football when we try to but it seems that doing it when we're ahead in a game or when we have something to lose is generally beyond us.  Whether this is a mental thing or is an instruction from the management is the crux of the matter.

The last couple of hours build up to the game were dominated by talk of whether or not it would go ahead due to the biblical amounts of rain that had been falling on Belgrade the entire day.  Rumours of a potential cancellation had obviously reached those of our crew who had made the trip and I'd had a number of texts from Belgrade from the lads looking for updates.  So, I was relieved for those who had flights booked back on Tuesday when word came through about an hour and a half before kick off that the game was definitely on.  And more than a little jealous as I confirmed that to the lads and got a few replies confirming that they were on their way to the stadium!  The next thing to come through was the team and, to be honest, I had no issues with the eleven selected of Randolph, Ward, Keogh, O'Shea, Coleman, McClean, Whelan, Hendrick, Brady, Walters and Long.  Given James McCarthy's absence through injury, I had thought it unlikely that O'Neill would bring in the likes of Harry Arter for a first competitive start and couldn't have imagined him staring Wes Hoolahan in an away qualifier like this, especially with the conditions.  It looked to me like a fairly standard 4-5-1 with the potential for  Walters to move up beside Long should we look to go 4-4-2.  My hope was that Walters and McClean would provide enough width to get good ball into the box while providing defensive cover for Coleman and Ward who should also have had the potential to overlap forward with the 3 central midfielders providing cover in front of the defence.  Despite Long being up front on his own, it looked a reasonably attacking team.

Although Serbia had the first attack of the game, Ireland reacted positively and once Brady had cut out a Tadic cross, immediately moved forward with conviction.  McClean had gathered possession and his purposeful run was unfairly halted in line with the box on the left hand side.  Given the way we play, set pieces were always going to be important and so it proved again as Brady's delivery was palmed out unconvincingly by the Serbian keeper.  John O'Shea was first onto the rebound and knocked it back across the box where after a bit of pinball, it fell to Jeff Hendrick who managed to  get over the ball and send a first time volley towards the net.  Even then, it looked like the keeper would be favourite to collect it until the ball deflected off Ivanovich and hit the back of the net!  One-nil Ireland with barely 3 minutes on the clock!

While there's always elation once we score, I have to say I'm always happier if we go ahead with a few minutes to go, such as against Italy in the Summer, rather than a few minutes into a game because once we go in front, our approach invariably changes and our mentality seems to instinctively switch to holding what we have when I'd sooner see us continue to do the same things that gave us the lead.  We sat back v Sweden in Paris once we scored and conceded.  Had we scored earlier against Italy I've no doubt we'd have sat back.  And while we stayed competitive in a similar situation for the first half against France back in June before finally unravelling, we couldn't even get that far on this occasion.  It took Serbia maybe 15 minutes after the shock of the goal to start turning the screw as we very quickly started thumping long balls up to Long who wasn't having much joy in getting anything to stick in the wet conditions.  We weren't getting much off the referee either as he ignored what looked like clear bookings for Ivanovic and Tadic only to then book Ward for a perfectly fair challenge around the 20 minute mark.  By this stage, we were looking a little shaky with Randolph making up for an earlier fluffed attempt to gather a ball by getting down sharply to parry a Kostic shot out of danger.  And matters weren't being helped by Hendrick joining Ward in the book due to the referee's insistence on booking Ireland players for challenges that looked far more innocuous than the aforementioned Serbian challenges.  It's possible that this was putting a bit of doubt into Irish heads when it came to committing to challenges in the wet conditions but Serbia were well on top by now with our only break from a succession of corners coming when Long managed to get a block in to open up the chance of a break only to lose his footing as he tried to follow the ball forward.  While Serbia weren't creating many clear cut chances at this stage, we looked nervous at the back and our clearances were bordering on the panicky side with a distinct lack of composure. A similar lack of composure was notable up front with the clearest example being a complete mess of a corner where Hendrick, looking for a return, played it short to Brady only to be caught offside.  Given how reliant we are on set pieces, that sort of  sloppiness is frustrating in the extreme.  As if to prove the point, a couple of minutes later, another set piece that was delivered first time by Brady almost resulted in a second goal as Walters' header was kept out unconvincingly by Rajkovic in the Serbia goal.  Given how poor their keeper was looking, it was unfortunate that we weren't able to put him under further pressure and instead finished the first half on the back foot again with more shaky defending leading to the ball bouncing wide off Mitrovic's shins before he could adjust himself to get a proper shot off.  Half time and we were still leading but surely we had to use the break to regroup.

Unfortunately, the second half started in the same way the first had finished with our midfield sitting in front of the back four and handing the ball back to Serbia as soon as we gained possession.  I hadn't expected O'Neill to make any changes before the 60 minute mark, but given how the game was panning out, I was screaming for the likes of Hoolahan or Arter to come on just to get a foot on the ball and try and retain possession. McClean was next to engage in sloppy play as he tried to beat an extra couple of players when a cross was on but as it was, we managed to hold until the hour through luck as much as design with Tadic putting a reasonable chance over the bar before Coleman was next to give away possession cheaply via a foul throw of all things! It was clear that something was coming and instead of the tactical change I'd hoped for once we got beyond the hour, it, unsurprisingly, was a Serbian goal. 

Given the lack of conviction in our defending, it was hardly surprising that the goal itself was sloppy in the extreme.  An Ivanovic cross was aimed towards Tadic who was being covered by O'Shea.  However, O'Shea seemed to have switched off and managed to lose sight of the ball which bounced clear to Kostic who gleefully smacked it beyond Randolph.  While this seemed to rouse us from our slumber somewhat, there was still no sign of activity on the bench and although we began to push forward a little more, we really could have gone behind to a Tadic chance hit straight at Randolph before the game's most controversial moment ensured that we found ourselves 2-1 down. A ball over the top was chased down by Kostic with Walters in pursuit, only for Kostic to throw himself to the ground as soon as he reached the box.  Considering that it was right under the nose of the ref, a booking for a dive could have been expected but instead he pointed to the spot for a penalty which Tadic was only too happy to bury.  Immediately afterwards we made our first change with Stephen Quinn coming on for Ward and Brady moving to the back. Initially it didn't look like much was changing as yet more keystone cops stuff at the back from Randolph this time saw him spill a shot to the Serbian substitute, Pavlovich, who somehow managed to hammer his shot off the crossbar when he had the goal at his mercy.  Thankfully, the ball rebounded up and into Randolph's hands as at 3-1, it surely would have been game over.

This lucky escape seemed to fully snap us out of it and, as we tend to do when we have nothing to lose, we started playing again and had our best spell of the game.  First off, Walters put away a great header from a Hendrick cross only to be correctly flagged for a marginal offside.  This was Hendrick's last contribution as he made way for Daryl Murphy on 76 minutes in what would prove to be a pivotal substitution. Being honest, I was still hoping for the likes of Hoolahan to be brought on but given how bad the pitch was cutting up, it was clear that O'Neill had decided that route one was the way to go and at least we were now playing that style with a bit more aggression and commitment.  Serbia were now the ones looking nervous as they found themselves with something to lose.  First off, McClean got on the end of a cross but couldn't keep his header down. Then a kick out from Randolph was flicked on by Murphy to put Shane Long in who stretched his toe onto the ball only for the keeper to touch it out for a corner. And it was from the corner that the pressure finally told with Murphy breaking his duck for Ireland, 23 caps and 9 years after his debut!  Having waited so long for that first goal, it's unlikely he'll get an easier one as he was left totally unmarked from Brady's corner and rose to make perfect contact with a free header that had too much pace on it for Rajkovic to keep out.  Two-all and it now seemed the game might be there to be won in the last ten minutes.

Unfortunately, as I've already mentioned, our mindset seems to change as soon as we realise we have something to lose and after one set play which Serbia managed to clear, we began to retreat again.  This resulted in more comical defending as with every defender moving out other than Coleman, Serbia played a ball in to Ivanovic whose shot was saved by Randolph, only to ricochet off Walters towards the goal where Coleman, who had played everyone onside, was able to hack clear from right on the goal line.  Looking at the replay and given his starting position, I'd give Coleman the benefit of the doubt as I think it's unlikely he'd have been able to get out in time to catch Ivanovic offside so his decision to move back was vindicated.  However, had Ivanovic beaten Randolph with his initial shot, all that would be immaterial and the chance itself seemed to sum up the absurd nature  of the Irish defending throughout the game. The next few minutes dragged by as we sat back further before finally lifting the siege around the 90 minute mark with Walters winning a free.  A final substitution with Long being withdrawn for Ciaran Clark to give us another body at the back tightened things up and the game finally finished with Murphy forcing their keeper into giving away possession enabling us to run the clock down and escape with what could be a vital point.

So the positives.  Football is a results driven game and it can't be argued that a draw away to Serbia isn't a decent result.  It's also not the first time under this management team that we have come back to get points late in games where we have been behind and where we have been very much second best in terms of possession.  There's a steeliness and never say die attitude within the team and they don't know when they're beaten.  The old adage about a lucky general being better than a good one can be argued but we've got results from unconvincing performances often enough now for it not to be put down just to luck.  O'Neill is right when he says that other teams in the group will find it hard to come to Belgrade and get results so a part of me says just take the point, put it behind us and move on to the next game against Georgia and the away trip to Moldova next month.

But (and there's always a but) an element of frustration remains.  The fact that they were missing two of their most influential players in Matic and Koralov gave us an advantage that other teams probably won't have when they come to Belgrade.  Also, the players they have coming through from their Under 20 World Cup winners will surely improve during the campaign so getting them this early probably gave us our best shot at bagging 3 points.  They looked iffy  at the back when we got at them yesterday and their keeper looked very suspect but really wasn't put under enough pressure.  And, while the conditions were clearly appalling last night, it was the same for both teams.  We seemed to give up on even attempting to play passing football due to the pitch yet Serbia had spells when they knocked it around with ease. To come out of a game with a sum total of  94 completed passes for the team is beyond a joke. I also can't help but feel that sooner or later our tendency to sit back when we have a lead or are trying to secure a point will come back to bite us.  Our inability to manage a game when we go ahead is very worrying.

All that said, we rarely put together back-to-back poor performances and, most recently away to Scotland and Poland in the last campaign, we've lost games where we've ceded possession like that in the past. It's great to have a point on the board in advance of the home campaign kicking off and a win against Georgia would put us in a good position going away to Moldova.  Having 3 of the first 4 games away from home was always a tough start so rather than concentrate on the negatives, let's chalk up the point and move on.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hello To A New Campaign, Goodbye To A Legend

So, after what felt like the blink of an eye since our Euros came to an end, we find ourselves back at the coalface for the start of our World Cup qualifying campaign.  And, unfortunately for me, with the memories of a great trip beginning to fade, family commitments mean that I won't be able to add new memories from Belgrade for this game and will have to make do with watching it here in Dublin!  There's actually been a long run in to this group, with the strange workings of FIFA coming to the fore as they held the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in July 2015 rather than the normal December date.  The early nature of the draw, coupled with the poor form shown by Ireland at that point in the Euro qualifying campaign, had us seeded in the 4th pot for the first time since the Euro 2008 qualifiers after having been 2nd seeds for the ultimately successful Euro campaign. The problem with the draw being so early was that no chance was given to the manager to try and turn things around in the rest of the campaign so our seeding for this campaign was set well over a year before the first ball will be kicked in anger.

The news of this seeding had been a cause of concern for many at the tine of the draw but I've always argued that too much emphasis can be put on seedings and the luck of the draw can sometimes be just as important as the pot you're in, particularly with the vagaries of the FIFA World Rankings.  And so it came to pass as we ended up in a group that for me, is certainly easier than our Euro qualifying group despite us being two pots lower than we were in February 2014 when the draw for that group was made.

That said, it wasn't looking like our luck was particularly good when we landed in one of the six team groups, with Georgia and Moldova taking up the 6th and 5th seeded spots respectively.  The new UEFA TV deal ensures that England, France, Germany and The Netherlands have to be drawn into 6 team groups so being in a 6 team group increased the odds of getting one of those teams and even though Serbia had a poor Euro campaign which was marred by crowd trouble resulting in point deductions and games being awarded to the opposition, they still wouldn't have been my preferred 3rd seeds.

At the time of the draw, with a group consisting of Serbia, Ireland, Moldova and Georgia and the potential of France or Italy coming out of pot 2.  I was beginning to get worried given the general strength of the top seeded teams.  In that context, Austria wasn't the worst team to come out even allowing for the fact that we only took 1 point off them in the last Trapattoni World Cup campaign.  And our luck definitely seemed to have changed at the time, when with Romania, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia left in the draw, Wales were chosen as top seeds for our Group D.  With all due respect to the Welsh and even allowing for their excellent run to the semi-finals in France during the Summer, having them instead of Germany who've been our top seeds for the last two campaigns had to feel like a bonus. While I see similarities with our last group in that I think a lot of teams will take points off each other, on reflection, I'd sooner have a group consisting of Wales, Austria, Serbia and ourselves as the top four seeds than Germany, ourselves, Poland and Scotland.  But of course, the expansion of the Euros means that there is a radical difference in the opportunity to qualify with only 13 spots available in Europe for World Cup qualification as opposed to the 23 spots that were available for France.  It can't be forgotten that our route to France was secured with a 3rd place finish in the group which would result in a failed campaign this time out.  Hence, having Wales as our top seed should give us and the other contenders in the group a better shot at aiming to top the group than had we drawn one of the traditional giants of the game who, more often than not get the job done.  The potential of a hangover from Wales also can't be discounted as had been seen in the past when Sweden after World Cup 1994, Croatia after World Cup 1998 and Turkey after World Cup 2002 and Euro 2008 all struggled to build on what were unexpected semi-final appearances and failed to qualify from the following campaign.  But I guess all that remains to be seen!

From our perspective, we enter the qualifiers in a reasonable place with the feel good factor generated by how we played in our last two games against Italy and the hosts in France still in place.  The hope now has to be that this can be built upon and that the manner in which we approached those games continues and that we don't revert to the negative approach shown in France against Belgium and after we took the lead against Sweden.  It's hard to believe that the France game was the first game of Martin O'Neill's reign where he named an unchanged team.  But, with the suspension of Shane Duffy and the James McCarthy injury, this is not a luxury open to him on this occasion so I believe it's important that regardless of the personnel that come in to replace them, our approach needs to remain the same and we need to keep up the aggressive attacking style that served us so well against Italy and for the first hour against France before the attrition of a second game so soon after the Italy win took it's toll in the stifling heat of Lyon. The fact that there are doubts over the fitness of Seamus Coleman and John O'Shea is also a concern but the temptation to be conservative to compensate for the absence of first choice players must be resisted and a similar mind-set to the one we took to Sarajevo for the Bosnia play off would be ideal.

Although Serbia have struggled in recent years and have had points deducted in two of their last three campaigns due to crowd trouble, you have to look beyond their final places in those campaigns to try and judge them as opponents within the group.   They have a number of top class players who are Champions League regulars, including Ivanovich, Matic and Kolorov who people will be familiar with from plating with Chelsea and Manchester City and it's certainly a plus for us that the latter two are suspended for this fixture.  But they also have some very good young players coming through and a number of last year's Under 20 World Cup winning squad have now been promoted to the senior panel.

From the point of view of our preparation, there was little in value in football terms to be gained from Wednesday's match against Oman and one had to question how it is that we have ended up playing this opposition 3 times in the past 5 seasons.  That said, the game last Wednesday was certainly an occasion to be part of purely due to the fact that it essentially was an excuse to say goodbye to  a player who deserves to be considered amongst the greats of Irish football along with McGrath, Giles, Brady and his namesake, Roy and hopefully the feel good factor generated by the tournament in France will give another bit of momentum to the goodwill shown to Robbie Keane on his retirement. It was clear from the off that getting Keane onto the scoresheet one last time was on everyone's mind and, having been unable to convert a couple of half chances just after Robbie Brady gave us the lead, it was a real fillip for everyone in the stadium to witness one last goal for the departing captain to go with the consistent 'Keano, Keano' chants that had been echoing around the ground. And the goal, when it came, was a cracker with Walters and Long combining well before the ball came to Keane, who flicked it over the nearest defender and volleyed it into the ground and past the keeper.  It's a long time since I've heard a goal in a friendly celebrated with such fervour as every one of the 28,000 present let out  a huge roar as we witnessed the famous (and less than graceful!) somersault one last time.  As the game was over as a contest by now, it played out at testimonial pace although it was good to see Jon Walters bag a brace after his injury hit Euro campaign.  People were clearly hoping for another Keane goal to bring him past the famous Gerd Muller's international total but it wasn't to be and there was an emotional goodbye as he was called ashore for one last time.  It was nice to see YBIG mark the occasion as the Singing Section banner with the silhouette of Keane with his arms outstretched in celebration was unfurled as he left the pitch.

For me, the criticism that has been levelled at him from some quarters over the years has simply smacked of begrudgery and doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  "He only ever scores against the minnows", I've often heard said.  Outside of the fact that we can only play one or, at most two, of the traditional giants of the game in each qualification campaign, Keane has scored vital goals in competitive games against Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, not to  mention goals against the likes of Yugoslavia and Russia.  He has scored in play-off games against Turkey, Iran, France and Estonia.  He scored 3 goals in 4 games at the only World Cup he played in.  And even many of his goals against what are perceived as minnows have been vital for us.  He has scored in games we've won by a single goal against the likes of Malta, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.  He has scored in every year since his debut in 1998.  I'm old enough to remember Ireland's top goalscorer being Don Givens with 19.  I can remember an 'A' international against Malta just before the World Cup in 1990 being reclassified as a full international after the fact just so that Frank Stapleton's goal would bring him up to 20 and give him the record.  I can remember seeing John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino trying and falling short on 19 before Niall Quinn finally managed  to get to 21.  Robbie Keane has 68 goals for  Ireland.  The argument should end there, it's a phenomenal total and if someone is scoring with that level of regularity then the other complaints about his work rate or the fact that he waves his arms around also fall down.  I don't want someone who is scoring at that rate to be wasting energy chasing lost causes or haring down into the channels.  I want him conserving his energy to get onto the end of  something when the chance arises.  The fact that a number of his big goals came so late in games for us (Germany, Spain, Italy, Cyprus for example) gives him a pass on that for me, flogging him for 75 minutes and then substituting him was never what he was about.  And while, I really appreciate and admire the lung busting runs and harrying of defenders that is the stock in trade of the likes of Shane Long, that just wasn't Robbie's game.  And with all due respect to Long (who needs to try and take on the mantle in the short term), I don't think anyone believes that he will get anywhere near 68 goals in his Ireland career and it's unlikely that I'll see anyone do it in my lifetime. We won't see his like again and, having witnessed 60 of those goals in person, all I can say is thanks for the memories!

In terms of his departure, it's probably more off the pitch than on the pitch that he'll be missed now given how O'Neill had phased him out of the team in recent years.  And it's further credit to Keane that despite the vaguely ridiculous theory that was mooted a few years ago that he would walk away if he was no longer first choice, he never bitched or moaned when he wasn't playing and instead was practically acting as an additional member of the backroom staff as the previous campaign reached it's critical phase and indeed during the finals.  So now it's time for some of the younger players who came of age in France to step up and provide some of the leadership that will be needed.  Obviously the two biggest pluses of the tournament were Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, who interestingly became the first player to score in 3 successive internationals since Keane himself.  Hendrick's move to the Premier League with Burnley is good to see and, while it's a shame that Norwich seemed to price Brady out of a move to that level, that's their prerogative and I don't see him being the sort of player to sulk or spit the dummy as a result.  Both players will be vital this time out and, having missed the Euros, I'm looking forward to seeing Harry Arter finally embedded into the squad along with Callum O'Dowda.  Despite his error against France, Shane Duffy's development at the back has been encouraging and the fact that John O'Shea hasn't followed Keane and Given into retirement at this stage is a positive from the point of view of his experience remaining on board.  Up front, it's as you were bar Keane with the expectation that Long and Walters will make up for the lack of natural instinctive finishing with their exceptional workrate. It's actually up front that I'd like to see someone come through out of nowhere as Walters and Murphy are both now 33 and we look light for goals there. And although Recce Grego-Cox from the Under 21's has had some Premier League and Championship experience in the last couple of seasons, his age of 19 and the fact that he has just gone on loan to Newport County in League Two indicates that this campaign will most likely be too early for him. Therefore with the back up options being the likes of Anthony Stokes and Adam Rooney who have been around the squad for a while without making much of an impact, it's up top where we really need to avoid injuries.

In terms of tonight's game then most people would probably take an away draw before kick off and I'd be happy enough to avoid defeat.  That said, we have started with away wins in each of our last 4 campaigns although Serbia are a step up from Georgia, Kazakhstan and Georgia again!  From my perspective, it's been killing me getting messages from the lads who've travelled on the various WhatsApp groups set up on previous trips so I'm already looking forward to next month's trip to Moldova and the November trip to Austria!  Hopefully, we'll have a start to match that of the Summer behind us by then!