Saturday, 17 June 2017

Post St Pats match interview with Bohs boss Keith Long

Q: A big win tonight and really a game of two halves?

Keith Long: Yeah, we had a fantastic second half, I was really pleased with it. We came out and set the tempo well. Oscar Brennan showed great desire and hunger to win the ball for the first goal. Then we saw great quality from Keith Ward to put the pass through for Dinny Corcoran which sliced open to Pats defence for the second chance and Ward did great again to set up George Poynton for to stick the third into the far corner. So really pleased with the performance in the second half especially after it had been so disappointing in the first. It’s a massive three points to get in Inchicore for us.

Q: How do you explain the contrast in the performance in each half?

KL: We were a little braver in the second half. I thought we showed Pats too much respect in the first half, we stood off and let them pass the ball around us a little bit. We brought Paddy Kavanagh on at half time and it could have been any of 5 or 6 we could have taken off, Kaleem Simon was the unlucky one. So we made some changes, tried to get after the game a little bit, press the opposition and play on the front foot. The opening goal came at a goof time to spark and ignite us and we grew from there.

Q: It’s a big three points and obviously a derby win, which is important to everyone at the club but to see yourselves moving up that table, starting the second half of the season that couldn’t be better overall?

KL: Well, in my time at Dalymount, we’ve been slow starting after the break so I stressed it when we came back in last Sunday after our break that we wanted to do well and put in a big performance. We’ve been good away from home this season but we let ourselves down in our last performance against Pats at Dalymount where they gave us a 4-0 beating in what was probably our worst performance of the season so we wanted to put in a big performance and gain some retribution and we did that tonight. We’re pleased, it’s a Dublin derby we wanted to win and I felt our second half performance deserved the three points. But we won’t be complacent in any shape or form, we have to show the hunger and desire that we showed in the second half throughout the campaign if we’re going to be safe.

Q: You’ve had trouble with strikers earlier in the season with Akinade out and Corcoran picking up an injury but Corcoran is now back and firing again and Akindae seems to be not too far away?

KL: Well, Dinny is crucial to us, we nearly have to wrap him in cotton wool, his goals have been vital for us throughout the season, he’s a great finisher. He didn’t get a lot of game time here at St Pat’s
last year but he does his business in a quiet fashion on the park and he scored goals and that’s what we like him to do. I was delighted for him tonight, particularly after the year he had last year here.

Q: What are your objectives now, are you looking at a place in Europe?

KL: Well, our objective is to stay in the Premier Division, there’s 6 or 7 teams here with not much between them. I mean. We’ve won tonight and extended our difference over Pats to eight points, had they won it would only been two so it’s very tight. The table is very congested and volatile, it changes every week so we can only focus on our own performance and try and deliver. Winning games is really important, we drew last time and were disappointed in that even though the draw against Drogheda was probably a fair result. We put in an excellent second half performance tonight and if we can continue to do that over the 90 minutes you’d like to think we can pick up some points along the way. But listen, it’s going to be very very tight with lots of twists and turns and ups and downs between now and the end of the year. Our primary objective is to stay in the division.

Q: The injury to Rob Cornwall?

KL: It’s his shoulder but it’s too early to say. He’s been very very good for us throughout the course of the season. Hopefully we can get him back on the pitch soon enough. Warren O’Hora came on and did well. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to select Warren all season as he had an offer of a scholarship to the States which he couldn’t take if he played for the first team. He’s been the captain of our Under 19’s but he’s made the decision now to try and get to the UK and now we can play him in the first team he can try and make that happen.  It’s like a new singing for us.

Q: You must have been delighted how the game finished considering how poor things were in the first half?

KL: Yeah, we were disappointed in the first half, we stood off Pats and allowed them too much time on the ball and showed then too much respect. I’m not sure why, our game-plan during the week was to try and press them high and win the ball high up the pitch and break from there. But first half we were off the pace so had to adjust things at half time. We came out strong in the second half and got an early goal. I felt we could kick on from there and thankfully we did. We got a second and third goal and overall I felt we looked very efficient and certainly had a clinical edge to us.

Q: All 3 goals were quote similar, breaking at pace with a good ball over the top with Corcroan and Ward causing problems.

KL: We asked Wardy to play higher up the pitch as a 10 rather than a 6 or an 8. He was dropping too deep between the lines and into the wrong lines on the pitch in the first half and playing more as a 6 instead of a 10. When he gets balls in that position, he has the quality and he sprung Dinny Corcoran with a sublime pass to split the Pats defence and Dinny doesn’t need a second chance, it was a cultured finish, he opened his body and slotted it in the corner.

Q: It was a great pass for the third as well, Ward had Dinny and Poynton to choose from and make the right decision.

KL: He did and Georgie has a couple of goals and assists for us since he moved out to the right. It’s a bit of a change for Georgie, he’s probably more renowned as a central player but he’s contributed with some goals and assist and that’s what you want your team to do. It was important after the break to come back and get the win and hopefully that will stand us in good stead.  

Q: How are things on the squad front?

KL: Izzy Akindae is now back in training, he played 45 minutes in a bounce game during the week and Steo Donnelly has come in from Usher so hopefully we can attract one or two more.

Q: Any further updates on injuries, how is Eoin Wearan doing?

KL: Well, as I said, Izzy is back training but is probably still a few weeks away, we have some friendlies pencilled in to try and get him up to speed. Eoin is probably ahead of schedule but obviously it is a cruciate. I wouldn’t rule him out for the entire season but it might be September before we see Eoin.

Q: I know there’s a member’s drive on at the moment to try and raise some funds for players.

KL: You look at the support tonight and you just think it’s a great club, I’m privileged to work for it, I really am. I’m proud to be the manager of Bohs, I really am. It’s important that we give them something to shout about, they support us through thick and thin. We’ve been disappointing at home this year, I’ve said that prior to the break but we’ve come away tonight and sent them home happy. If we can affect the team in a positive manner by recruiting some good players to strengthen us and improve the group that’s what we’ll try and do.  

Q: Reports this week that Gareth McCaffrey might be joining, any comment?

KL:  I don’t have a comment on that.

Q: Do you like him as a player?

KL: I don’t really want to comment or speculate on any particular player to be honest with you, Gareth McCaffrey is a free agent, he played against us for Rovers and did well when we went to Drogheda but the window isn’t open for another fortnight and won’t comment on any player until he’s signed and over the line so until then I don’t have anything to report. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

Revenge for Bohs at Richmond Park

St Patricks Athletic 1-3 Bohemian FC

Bohs took revenge for their 4-0 reverse to Pats earlier this season in an archetypal game of two halves at Richmond Park which leaves Pats firmly entrenched in the drop zone. The bunched up nature of the league this season, coupled with the fact that a quarter of the league will be relegated means that most games involving the teams from mid-table down are already becoming six pointers. The Northsiders will be delighted to pull further away in their first game back after the mid-season break.
Pats showed three changes with Peers, Barker and Cregg in for Kelly, Verdon and Kurtis Byrne while Bohs solitary change saw Simon in for the suspended Fitzgerald. The game started very cagily with the only action of consequence in the first half hour being the enforced change of Kurtis Byrne for Alex O’Hanlon. Although his namesake, Conan Byrne, had been growing more influential, when the lead goal came, it came through his substitute.

There seemed little danger on 40 minutes when O’Hanlon received the ball out left on 40 minutes but the Bohs defence stood off as he cut across the box and picked his spot. Bohs looked increasingly ragged at this point so Keith Long must have been happy to reach the break just the single goal behind.

Long made a change at half time with Kavanagh coming on for Simons but whatever he said to his players had the desired effect with Bohs starting the second half on the front foot and drawing level on 51 minutes. Again the defence looked favourites when the ball came to Brennan but he used his strength well to hold off the attention and sweep the ball past O’Malley into the corner. That really sparked the game into life as both sides pressed for a second goal and it was Bohs talisman, Dinny Corcoran, who provided it. Conan Byrne had just another free kick saved by Supple and Bohs broke immediately, working the ball to Corcoran on the left from where he coolly beat the keeper.

The temperature was rising by now and a melee following a Bermingham foul on Poynton saw Brennan and O’Hanlon join him in the book after they squared off. Both sides continued to press but it was Bohs who made the game safe with the best goal of the night on 86 minutes. Again it came on the break with Keith Ward scampering through after Pats had committed men forward. He had the option of picking out Corcoran or Poynton and it was the latter he chose who made no mistake to clinch the game.

St. Patrick’s Athletic: Conor O'Malley; Lee Desmond; Ian Bermingham; Rory Feely; Conan Byrne, Graham Kelly; Jonathan Lumney; , Darragh Markey (Jack Baiyly 85); Christy Fagan; Kurtis Byrne (Alex O’Hanlon 21) Sam Verdon (Aidan Keena 75)

Subs Not Used: Barry Murphy; Ciaran Kelly; Steven Grogan; Billy Dennehy; Alex O’Hanlon

Booked: Bermingham, O’Hanlon

Bohemian FC: Shane Supple; Daniel Byrne; Rob Cornwall (Warren O’Hora 76); Derek Pender; Oscar Brennan; Ian Morris; George Poynton; Kaleem Simon (Paddy Kavanagh 46) ; Fuad Sule (Philip Gannon 66) ; Keith Ward; Dinny Corcoran

Subs not used: Greg Murray; Dean Casey; Eoghan Morgan; Jamie Doyle

Booked: Sule, Brennan, Byrne

Referee: Neil Doyle

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Only The Names Have Changed

So, in typical Irish fashion, a game that we probably should have lost but could have won in the last ten minutes ends up a draw. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise as these sort of results are exactly what we've been getting against teams similarly ranked to ourselves going back to the days of the Jack Charlton era.

While we've produced some big wins against top seeds such as Spain, Holland and Germany over the years, the amount of home draws going back to Scotland in 1986, covers almost every campaign up to the draws against Poland and Scotland again last time out. In fact, only World Cup '90, Euro 2000 and strangely enough, Steve Staunton's ill fated Euro '08 campaign buck the trend with yesterday's opponents already featuring having secured a two all draw during the World Cup '14 campaign.

And now we have another frustrating result to add to the list. No matter how often the players or management change, familiar failings recur.

The pleasant weather during the walk across the city had switched to torrential rain and back again over the course of the afternoon but had settled into a fine summer's evening as the hours ticked by to kick off. With this being such a vital game, we had our full compliment of eight season ticket holders present and pretty much our whole ex pat away crew had come over with the Brummies and the rest of the UK dwellers all present as well as Gary and Lina from the Dam and the Quinn Towers all the way down from Newry.

The Beggars was pretty packed with plenty of Austrian fans enjoying the craic and both sets of fans displaying the sort of misplaced optimism that never seems to get knocked out of football fans who should know better!

Having set my preferred team out in last week's Uruguay blog, I have to confess to being disappointed when news of the team came through. For all Martin O'Neill's talk of going at Austria from the start, this was a team picked and set up not to lose the game.

While playing Kevin Long at centre half was a surprising call, persisting with Darren Randolph in goal, when many had been calling for Kieren Westwood, was less so. However, it was his midfield selection that signalled his intent with Glenn Whelan in the anchor role and no place for Wes Hooahan further up the pitch.

I actually quite like Whelan and think that some of the criticism he has taken over the years, particularly from Eamon Dunphy has been unwarranted and has been scapegoating at its worst. However, it's my belief that Harry Arter can play in that deeper role and would offer more fluency going forward. Jeff Hendrick could then drop further back as he's clearly not a number 10 and that would create space for Hoolahan in that 10 role.

I can understand why O'Neill might have concerns about playing less defensively against a Germany or other top level side, against the mid ranking teams we should be prepared to be less cautious and given how well we played with Hoolahan in the team for the reverse fixture in Vienna, it was a very conservative team selection to leave him out. There is also an argument that, at 35, Hoolahan may not have the legs for 90 minutes but I'd counter that by saying start him and give him 60 minutes or so to try and win the game rather than 30 at the end to save it.

The fact that Austria were missing five of the players that played in the Vienna game due to suspension, injury, retirement and even a players wedding emphasised how negative a selection it was as the opposition were there for the taking.

We arrived at our usual spot as the anthems were being played and it was great to see Lansdowne Road full for the second qualifier in a row. The atmosphere in the Singing Section was good as ever with the brass band that had been present for the Wales game thankfully binned.

The game itself started pretty cagily in contrast to the "going to war"analogies peddled by Roy Keane before the game as both sides started to feel each other out. Austria were playing more of the football but we were dealing with it comfortably enough, By the time we got halfway through the half, the game had degenerated into a very scrappy affair.

Our first chance of note came on the 23 minute mark when Whelan, who actually had a reasonable game, played Stephen Ward in down the right wing. Ward's cut back was laid off perfectly by James McClean (who seemed to have swapped positions with Hendrick by now) for Jon Walters but, instead of just putting his laces through it, his attempt at a side footed finish went horribly wrong and the ball went high and wide.

That seemed to rouse Austria somewhat and a succession of corners on the half hour mark eventually led to the opening goal. It was a well worked corner in fairness but it really could have been defended better. David Alaba played the corner in low and hard and the fact that both Prodl and Dragovi dummied it seemed to cause a bit of confusion in our defence. By the time the ball reached Hinteregger, we'd been stretched and he made no mistake with a sweetly hit finish into the bottom left corner. Had we had a defender stationed on the near post he'd have been able to clear it off the line but without that there was no chance of Randolph or anyone else keeping it out. 1-0 Austria but would that prove to be a wake up call?

The short answer was no as we reached half time without managing a shot on target the whole half. Things surely had to improve in the second half but in my opinion it was going to take a personnel and tactical change to do it.

Half time saw no changes but there did seem to be a better intensity to our play after the restart. A Duffy header went wide early on. Austria were still looking dangerous on the break but we were pushing them further and further back without creating anything clear cut.

The change when it came didn't see Hoolahan come on as hoped with Daryl Murphy replacing Ward resulting in a shuffle to the formation as Robbie Brady moved to left back and we switched to a 4-4-2. It was a decent change to make as Walters had been a little isolated and the physical presence offered by Murphy was likely to cause problems for the Austrians.

We were clearly going even more route one but despite a number of free kicks and corners, we still hadn't created a huge amount but at least had a bit of a head of steam up. Hoolahan was finally introduced on 70 minutes but I was surprised that it was Arter, who is our best passer of the ball after Hoolahan, to make way.

The crowd were now really getting behind the team now and there was a sense that something might be coming. Hoolahan nearly made an immediate impact by playing a fabulous cross that fizzed across the box but Murphy couldn't stretch enough to connect with it and an Austrian defender was able to steer it back to his keeper.

The final sub followed shortly with Aiden McGeady on for Whelan with thirteen minutes left as we went more attacking to try and salvage something from the game. We thought we'd done it on 80 minutes when Long got onto a Brady corner but, unlike us in the first half, Austria had a defender on the post who cleared it off the line. Four minutes later Randolph justified the decision to stick with him as he made a great save to deny Grillisich and keep the game alive.

Things were very frantic now as time ticked by and myself and the rest of our crew were at the stage when we'd have taken your hand off for a draw given how little time was left. But none of us could have predicted just how frenetic things would get as the last three minutes of the 90 plus the four minutes stoppage time provided more incident and talking points than the previous 87!

The equaliser, when it finally came was route one at it's finest and, like Shane Long's Germany goal, any Jack Charlton side would have been proud of it. There didn't seem to be much danger when Brady launched a clearance high up the pitch with Walters having Prodl and Dragovic for company as he chased it. Prodl was looking a big leggy and left Dragovic to deal with the danger but Walters put him under serious pressure and cleverly used his strength to disrupt Dragovic's balance and ease him to one side.

There was still plenty to do as the ball bounced a second time but Big Bad Jon never took his eye off it and arrowed a cracking volley into the far corner. Lift off in the stands and suddenly Austria looked very vulnerable and the team scented blood.

Captain Fantastic!

Lansdowne Road was still bouncing ninety seconds later and went into another stratosphere for ten seconds or so before the Spanish referee painted himself as the villain of the piece. McClean was running riot on the left by now and some more direct running had resulted in a corner which Brady swung in. Murphy managed to get his head to it but it looked like Linder had it covered in the Austrian goal. That didn't stop Grillisich deciding to take matters in his own hands and take responsibility for clearing it. However, all he succeeded in doing was slice his clearance high into the air and back towards the near post where Lainer was still stationed on the goal-line with Walters for company.

It was clear that he didn't fancy clearing it as you could see him looking at what was coming in rather than solely focusing on the ball. What was coming in was Duffy who only had eyes for the ball. Whether Duffy should have gone for it is debatable as there was a fair chance the ball was dropping in anyway and Walters looked in a good position to get to it regardless. I'm loath to blame Duffy for going for it though but by leading with his arm, he gave the referee a chance to give the decision against him,

You can generally tell if a foul has been committed by the reaction of the opposition and I think it's telling that none of the Austrians were complaining as they all expected the goal to be allowed despite Lainer ending up in the net as Duffy bundled ball and man home. Even Austrian defender Prodl admitted the goal should have stood after the game and had this been a Premier League game I've no doubt it would have been awarded.

Anything Wrong?

Looking at it in real time, no one in the South Stand saw anything wrong and the ecstatic celebrations were going for a good ten seconds or so before the realisation that it had been disallowed dawned on people. Still, there wasn't much time for the disappointment to sink in. Ireland instantly regained possession and another ball over the top sent Walters through but just as he lined his shot up, Lainer came running across behind him meaning that Walters connected with him as he drew his leg back. This sent Walters tumbling and took all the pace off his shot which ended up sending the ball wide to McGeady instead of at the goal.

Everyone including myself screamed for a penalty but the ref wasn't having it. McGeady tried to pick out a cross to the two men on the far post as Walters lay prone but he couldn't get beyond the defender with it. The ball then came back to Hoolahan who fluffed a shot and Austria hacked it clear. They were looking so ragged now that it felt like a second goal was inevitable but once the four minutes of stoppage time were signaled the Austrians settled somewhat and despite our best efforts we failed to create anything as clear cut as we had in the previous ten minutes and had to settle for the draw. The question is why we had to wait until so late in the game to start playing the sort of football needed to win games like this.

Goals and Highlights

The management and players were uniform in their criticism of the referee after the game and they have a point in some instances. On a number of occasions, the ref looked like awarding a free only to let play develop for a minute to see if an advantage would develop. That's all well and good but each time it became clear straight away that there was no advantage he simply let the play go rather than go back for the free.

Disallowing the goal was harsh although he can point to how high Duffy had his arm as he jumped. For the penalty shout I think he probably got it right having seen the replay, There was also a clear back pass in stoppage time that their keeper picked up he missed as well though which could have given us a free in a great position.

More importantly, the management and team also need to take a look at themselves. Why do we react so badly to any situation where we're deemed favourites? Our mindset seems to be set to underdog mode meaning that we're at our best when we're up against it. This is well and good against the top teams and has served us well against Germany, Italy and even for sixty minutes against France.

However, there are numerous games we can point to where a more positive mindset could have yielded better results. Scotland and Poland home and away in the last campaign and now Wales and Austria at home in this one, for example. The one game where we seemed to embrace the pressure to dominate at home in the last campaign was the play off against Bosnia.

Given that Hoolahan started all three games I've mentioned in the last campaign, it's not as simple as some would have you believe that his inclusion turns us into world beaters. However, I think it's clear that his presence does alter the way we play. Simply having someone who's prepared to look for the ball and be positive with it encourages the other players into playing more positively. While he himself wasn't brilliant when he finally came on on Sunday and Whelan actually did quite well on an individual level, it's the ripple effect they have on the rest of the team and on the opposition that's relevant here.

As mentioned earlier, there's no reason why we can't play our best two passers of the ball in Hoolahan and Arter in the same team but it seems to a chance that Martin O'Neill isn't prepared to take.

The news that Serbia and Wales had drawn put a better complexion on things and softened the disappointment of the two dropped points with the table remaining as it was showing a four point gap separating Serbia and ourselves from Wales and Austria with one less game left. On the positive side, we proved yet again how difficult we are to beat and have another late goal to add to the list. After years of conceding late goals we're now the ones scoring them which is something in the credit column for the manager.

Next up is Georgia away which is always a tough game but one I'm really looking forward to as my travels haven't taken me to that country as yet so it'll be a first for me. A win there would set us up perfectly for the home game the following week against Serbia but who'd bet against that match ending up as a draw? One thing we don't do is make things easy for ourselves!      

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Christie's Left Foot Writes Another Chapter

With nothing of value learned from the previous Thursday's Mexican stand-off in New Jersey, it was good to have another friendly before the serious business of next week's home qualifier against Austria and the Sunday evening of a bank holiday weekend was a nice time for it. With the rest of the squad joining those who had traveled, the expectation, as we strolled across town towards the Beggars, was that we'd see something a lot closer in terms of team selection and formation to what we'll see against Austria. From the opposition point of view, the absence of Luis Suarez due to the injury that kept him out of the Spanish Cup final was the main talking point. From our perspective, it was obviously a bonus that he was missing but, as a football fan, there was also a hint of regret that we'd miss the chance to see one of the best players in the world in action.

In keeping with the expected attendance, the Beggars wasn't as busy as you'd get for a competitive game but there was still a good crew there and the consensus was generally positive as news of a much changed team came through an hour before kick-off. Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie and Shane Duffy were the only three who started in the States to hold their places, with Kevin Long, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Jonny Hayes, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Jon Walters coming into a more familiar looking 4-5-1 formation. After a bit of chat and the usual last minute delays as spare tickets were distributed, we made our way into the singing section. The smaller than normal crowd meant that the searches on entry were quicker than has often been the case recently so we were in our usual spot well ahead of kick-off. The attendance looked sparse enough with a number of season tickets and tickets bought as part of the duo package with the Austria game clearly not being used. Although, to be fair, the reported crowd of 27,000 was still almost double that of the one-all draw thirty one years ago against the same opposition in a game better known for the first goal of Jack Charlton's reign so it's not as if small crowds for end of season friendlies is a new thing! As usual, there was still a decent crowd in the singing section that did their best to get behind the team as the game kicked off.

Ireland v Uruguay 1986 Vintage

We started fairly positively, winning a free and then a corner early on but neither set piece came to anything. In the absence of Suarez, PSG's Edinson Cavani, was providing the star quality for Uruguay but his evening came to an early end when Randolph took a bit of a chance with a ball across his goalmouth that just evaded Cavani as he went full stretch for it. That was a lucky escape but also served to take Cavani out of the game as he seemed to pull something as he stretched and was soon signalling to his bench that his day was done. So, thirteen minutes in and Uruguay's first choice front pairing were now both absent. While the change was being prepared, another corner  was won following a Brady shot and from the resultant cross Duffy was inches away from making it one-nil but just failed to make contact with his diving header.

Once he finally joined the fray, I'm sure our defence was happier to be dealing with Cristhian Stuani of Middlesbrough rather than Cavani. To be fair, Stuani got involved fairly quickly forcing Randolph into a save and as the game settled down and moved towards the half-hour mark both sides were creating chances. First off, Urreta played in Laxalt for Uruguay who put the ball over the bar when he really should have scored. And within a couple of minutes they were regretting that as Walters scored a goal that both Suarez and Cavani would have been proud of.

One to Remember From Walters 

The ball had found its way to Brady on the right after a challenge on Whelan. Whelan then played it into Walters who had his back to goal at the edge of the box. Walters' touch to control was a little heavy, which seemed to encourage Whelan to come back for the ball. This in turn encouraged one of the Uruguayan defenders to wave his leg at the ball which only succeeded in teeing it up for Walters. Big Jon still had a lot to do but produced a glorious finish as he lifted the ball over the keeper into the top corner.

This should really have been the trigger for us to push on but instead it powered Uruguay up a gear as they forced a number of set pieces over the next ten minutes. Having got away with it twice when a free from  Urretaviscaya was cleared by Duffy for a corner, from which Caceres then hit the bar, it proved third time lucky for the opposition. This time it was another free kick around the area that was lofted into a mass of bodies in the box by Sanchez. There seemed to be more than enough defenders there to deal with it but, in a worrying reflection of the late season form that cost him his place at West Ham, Randolph made the wrong choice in coming for it. Not having got close to claiming the ball, he was left in no-man's-land as Gimenez got a combination of his head and shoulder to the ball to loop it into the empty goal.

One to Forget For Randolph

In fairness, that was the cue for Ireland to start playing again and a minute before half time Walters really should have put us back ahead after getting on the end of our best move of the half. Arter, who was having an excellent game, played a long diagonal ball which Coates failed to clear. The second ball made it's way out to Christie on the right wing who played a deep cross to Brady. He volleyed the ball back to Walters who was waiting two yards out. From our end of the ground everyone was convinced it was a goal and leapt up to celebrate only to unbelievably see the ball come back off the crossbar! It was one of the moments where you're struggling to believe your eyes and most of the half-time talk revolved around people trying to work out how he could have missed an open goal from there, especially after scoring such a cracker earlier in the game. I'd expect Walters has taken some ribbing about it but that's football, I guess.

One to Forget For Walters

The start of the second half saw a couple of changes as Wes Hoolahan replaced Whelan and, in what may prove to be significant given recent form, Kieren Westwood came on for Randolph in goal. As Uruguay had also made three subs, it was a bit of a scrappy start to the second half and in keeping with that, it was a somewhat scrappy lead goal that put Ireland back in front on 49 minutes. Uruguay were finding it hard to clear their lines, a couple of Irish balls weren't cleared beyond thirty yards. The ball was eventually played to Christie on the right. Although he was covered, a nice little body swerve bought him a bit of space and Christie's left foot was deployed to great effect once again! I've seen a couple of people argue that it was an effort at a cross but I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt as what was a fairly weakly hit effort rolled into the far corner. It was actually quite reminiscent of his goal away to Gibraltar in the last campaign only hit with his left rather than the outside of his right. Either way, it's encouraging to see Christie step up in Seamus Coleman's absence so I was delighted to see him get his goal and play as well as he did. I've been impressed by him when he's been called on despite concerns over his defensive positioning. He's obviously not at Coleman's level but he's proving himself a more capable deputy than many thought he would.

Chrstie's Left Foot!

The game was actually being played at a pretty decent tempo for a friendly but as it reached the hour mark, a further raft of substitutions broke things up a bit more with Aiden McGeady, Alex Pearce and Daryl Murphy on for Hayes, Duffy and Walters followed by Federico Ricca being replaced by Pereira for the visitors. A disallowed effort from Stuani had us worried for a second before we saw the flag and Westwood comfortably dealt with one effort as well as pulling off a great stop from Giminez  before the final Irish sub came on for Hendrick and finished the game as a contest.

James McClean has really stepped up since being brought into the side for the Italy game at the Euros. As I've written before, he's been our player of the qualifiers so far and is nailed on to start next Sunday in my opinion. Having captained the team for Thursday's game in New Jersey on his 50th cap, the fact that he didn't start this game can be discounted and even if there was any doubt, he surely dispelled it with his cameo here. Within three minutes of entering the fray, a loose Silva pass deep in Irish territory was cut out by Hoolahan who helped it on to Murphy. Murphy, in turn, played a ball more akin to something Wessi himself would have pulled off to give McClean something to chase. Finding himself in a footrace with Giminez, McClean put the burners on and hurdled a last gasp challenge from the Uruguay defender before advancing on goal and dispatching it past Conde. It was a very confident finish and was essentially a carbon copy of his finish from the same position in Vienna last November. 3-1 on 77 minutes and that nearly became four as McClean again came through on the same wing only to be tackled by Giminez just as he was about to shoot. He could potentially have got the shot off earlier but that's being hyper-critical to be honest.

McClean as a Whistle

A couple of Uruguay shots that gave Westwood no trouble and the announcement of Harry Arter as man of the match (I'd have given it to Christie) were all to report from the rest of the game and, given that Uruguay are ranked 15th on the world, it was an encouraging performance and win ahead of next weekend's vital qualifier against Austria. Having learnt nothing from the Mexico game, there's plenty of food for thought after this game with potentially a couple of places up for grabs.

Randoph's form in goals was a concern before this game and that concern won't have been allayed by the Uruguay goal. I've always rated Westwood but Randolph has taken his chance well since coming in for Shay Given and has never let us down in a competitive game. He's actually been very good for us in general. I'd personally play Westwood but I think O'Neill will stick with Randolph, I just hope that's not a mistake. He's a loyal manager but there's an argument that he stuck too long with Given last campaign when he could have done better for the goals at home to Poland and possibly Scotland (although the two deflections on the latter probably give him a pass on that). O'Neill doesn't seem to trust Westwood going back to their time together at Sunderland, even his praise of him after Sunday was tempered with a comment about having to have his head right. “I knew Westy at club level and you know my view of Westy - he's a really talented goalkeeper. Just get his head right and he's great". This indicates to me where he's leaning for that position.

Christie and Ward will start at full-back as will Duffy at centre-half.  Kevin Long was possibly a surprising choice to start v Uruguay and has had a great end to the season after making his Premier League bow with Burnley and now winning a couple of caps. But I think he's very unlikely to start and wouldn't be surprised to see John O'Shea slot back in, although it's a toss-up between him and Richard Keogh.

It's in midfield where the big decisions are to be made. Harry Arter's career for Ireland has been stop-start to say the least with Sunday being only his fourth cap since making his debut two years ago. He's come in for what I would deem to be unfair criticism about his commitment, mostly down to some ill-informed comments made by Paul Merson who suggested he should be in the England squad even though he'd already played for Ireland against England at that stage. A combination of personal issues and injuries have hampered his Ireland career since then and the fact that he has missed a couple of squads only to play for his club the following weekend has added more fuel to the criticism. In fairness, some of our greatest players in the past (Ronnie Whelan and Roy Keane to name some of the more high profile ones) have had similar criticism aimed at them so it's hardly a new thing. Judging him on how he played in his competitive debut v Austria in November and his performance on Sunday, then he has to play in my opinion. Glenn Whelan has been a great servant but as he was the one that was dropped during the Euros and only got back in through injury, his place has to be under threat even in the absence of James McCarthy. McClean, Brady and Hendrick are nailed on to start so Whelan's place will really come down to whether O'Neill is prepared to play Wes Hoolahan in the Number 10 with Walters up front. If he does, then a starting XI of Randolph, Ward, Duffy, Keogh (Or O'Shea), Christie, McClean, Arter, Brady, Hendrick, Hoolahan, Walters looks the best team to pick with the alternative being that Walters moves out right, most likely at the expense of Hoolahan with Hendrick moving further inside and Murphy starting up front.

Whatever team he puts out, there's no doubt that the squad will have been given a boost by the manner of the victory on Sunday, albeit that it was only a friendly. Given that a win would essentially get rid of Austria by opening a seven point gap, hopefully we'll see something that shows some attacking intent.

Friday, 2 June 2017


I'm struggling to work out what was the more pointless action, me staying up till 3:45 am to watch the Ireland v Mexico friendly or the actual sending of the management and squad (or at least a skeleton of it) to New Jersey to play the fixture at all.

Although the USA will always be associated with one of the greatest moments in our history after Ray Houghton's goal in the 1-0 victory v Italy in our opening World Cup '94 fixture, it's been a less than happy hunting ground other than that. The 1994 campaign petered out in disappointing fashion including a defeat to Mexico now more famous for John Aldridge's conniption fit on the sidelines. Even before then, the 1992 US Cup brought a team (that really should have been preparing for the European Championship after being pipped by England despite an unbeaten qualifying campaign) over for defeats to the USA and Italy before a victory against Portugal. However, that trip was overshadowed by the first shots in the Mick McCarthy / Roy Keane spat being fired on the journey home following an afternoon's unscheduled drinking. Four years later, another US Cup saw McCarthy as manager taking over a squad in transition (after Big Jack's team imploded during the Euro '96 run in) only to have his appointed captain, Keane, not show at the airport for departure without even notifying the manager that he wouldn't be travelling. This overshadowed the games (another defeat to the US, a draw with Mexico and a win v Boliva) and provided another marker in the McCarthy / Keane dynamic as it trundled towards it's conclusion six years later.      

Another four years brought another US Cup with the team and fans still smarting from the injury time Macedonian goal that cost us qualification for Euro 2000. Even whatever scant consolation for missing the festival of football in Holland and Belgium may have come from winning the tournament was denied when, despite a credible draw v Mexico and a win against South Africa, a 1-1 draw as the result of a clearly offside goal awarded to the USA cost us the trophy. As this was the last US Cup to be played, it was another seven years before Ireland returned, this time under the guidance, for want of a better word, of Steve Staunton. Another trip more remembered for something other than the results, this one saw the two 1-1 draws against Ecuador and Bolivia being relegated to side news as the headlines focused on Stan's decision to bizarrely award 20 year old Notre Dame college student Joey Lapira a cap in the first game, becoming the first amateur player to represent Ireland since Bohs' Willie Browne 43 years earlier.

Our final two jaunts brought a 2-0 loss to Spain in 2013 towards the end of Trap's reign and, as Martin O'Neill tried to get to know his options in 2014 a 1-1 draw to Costa Rica, notable for a rare missed Robbie Keane penalty, followed by an absolute chasing by Portugal in a 5-1 defeat as both our opponents prepared for the Brazil World Cup and we prepared for another summer on the sidelines. Suffice to say, the only thing to benefit from these regular transatlantic trips seems to be the bank balance of the FAI as the US based diaspora make us an attractive draw for the third party companies who arrange these games. In football terms, any benefits have been negligible.

And so, on to last night's game which, it's fair to say, followed the pattern outlined above. It was clear from the unbalanced squad selection (two keepers, seven defenders, six midfielders and only two strikers) that the management didn't seem to be taking this seriously. Six centre halves making the cut but only one full back? Why not bring the likes of Matt Doherty who's been playing well at left back for Wolves, could do with being blooded and would have jumped at the chance to go? The team selection seemed to back this up with an experimental 3-5-2 formation seeing Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and John Egan line up as the back three in front of Darren Randolph with James McClean and Cyrus Christie providing support as wing backs. I can see the logic of those selections within that formation but the selections of two wingers, Daryl Horgan and Callum O'Dowda, in central midfield raised a few eyebrows as did seeing Conor Hourihane line up in the holding role given that he's more known as an attacking midfielder. Personally, I'd have preferred to see Wes Hoolahan start and someone like Eunan O'Kane, who actually plays centre midfield, tried rather than putting square pegs in round holes, but, if you're going to persist in doing so, then a meaningless game is the time to do it. Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick unsurprisingly completed the side as the only two strikers that traveled.

Funnily enough, we actually started the game quite well with Christie getting forward to great effect on the right wing and winning a number of dead balls. In fact, Ireland nearly went ahead four minutes in as a cleared corner was played into McGoldrick who crossed to see Murphy just fail to make contact.  It was immediately clear what the problem was. Despite us being on the front foot, the game was really open with Mexico creating chances either side of ours and our midfield had very little shape to close those spaces. Still, we kept pressing forward and won another corner but it was from that corner that our lack of shape in midfield was ruthlessly exposed. Mexico had been employing a tactic of leaving a number of players up the pitch to prevent us getting bodies up for corners. The corner was played short to Christie whose cross was easily headed clear. With our midfield completely missing in action, Hernandez broke unchallenged through the wide open spaces before passing out to Jesus Corona on the Mexican left. Despite still having plenty to do, he easily shrugged off any defensive attention to curl a great finish into the top corner. A Corona making our lads look like lemons, I guess. Fifteen minutes in and it already looked an uphill task.

Things went from bad to worse 8 minutes later as a simple ball over the top into the box left our defence totally exposed and ex-Arsenal striker Carlos Vela slowed his run enough to initiate contact on his back from McClean as he tried to make up ground. Stone-wall penalty with which Raul Jiminez sent Randolph the wrong way to double the Mexican advantage.  We looked absolutely ragged by now and spent the rest of the half desperately hanging on as Mexico cut us open with ease. The siege was finally lifted towards the end of the half as a goal-bound Hourihane effort was deflected wide, but as the half finished we were lucky to still be only two down.

Given how that half developed and how at sea we looked, I was expecting a few changes at half-time but with none forthcoming, the second half started in the same vein as the first and it was no surprise that we found ourselves three down within ten minutes. Again Mexico cut a swathe through the centre of the park, this time moving the ball out to the right to Oribe Peralta who had a free run at goal. Although Randolph did well to deny Peralta both initially and on the follow up, the ball squirted across to goal to Vela who had a tap in to make it 3-0.

Mexico quickly made a few subs but it was another ten minutes before we did the same with Wes Hoolahan, O'Kane and Kevin Long replacing Murphy, Hourihane and Egan. Another couple of subs followed on 73 minutes with Stephen Gleeson on for Horgan and Alan Browne replacing Christie.This eventually seemed to lead to us moving more towards a 4-5-1 with Richard Keogh moving to right back and McClean dropping into the left.  The changes paid off within a couple of minutes as a McClean foray forward led to a cross only being cleared as far as Gleeson who marked his fourth cap, over a decade after winning his first on a previous US tour, with a tidy finish.

Any hope that this might lead to a barnstorming comeback quickly dissipated as our basic passing remained poor and despite looking a little more comfortable in our shape with Hoolahan and O'Kane in the centre, a nice run and shot from O'Dowda and a good effort from McClean that were both comfortably saved was as good as it got. Mexico were still lively enough to keep Randolph busy and when the ref finally blew for full time, it was a relief that the margin of defeat hadn't been a lot higher.

So, was there anything at all that can be learned in the context of the vital upcoming qualifier at home to Austria on Sunday week? To be frank, I don't think so. It was clear that the players picked weren't comfortable with the 3-5-1 formation but I'd have to wonder how much work in training was actually done on it. I don't think there was ever a chance that we'd adopt that formation in a competitive game with anything riding on it and even if we did, I doubt that we'd be playing two wingers in the centre. It seemed to me that the formation was chosen to try and fit the players he'd brought into the team but playing so many square pegs in round holes seemed counter productive. More likely, this was a game that O'Neill could have done without and we should see a better indication of how we'll line up against Austria in the Uruguay friendly this Sunday.

In relation to the players, there aren't many that can be said to have come out with any credit. McClean put his usual shift in although the penalty is a black mark. Randolph kept the score respectable and Christie was probably our best player going forward. Other than that, none of the starters could be happy with their night. From the subs, O'Kane and Hoolahan at least seemed a bit more comfortable in the middle when they came on and Gleeson will be happy with his goal. Whether that formation would have worked better with O'Kane and Hoolahan in the centre is moot but it surely couldn't have been much worse. All in all, another American road trip to forget.