Thursday, 7 September 2017

Revenge Serbed Cold

It's disappointing that what was one of our better performances of this group ended up being our worst result. But having rode our luck in Belgrade a year ago to escape with a point, the Serbs extracted revenge in clinical fashion and the optimism of the first hour evaporated in a string of poor final balls and snatched shots as desperation took hold.

The majority of us who gathered as usual in the Beggars after work on Tuesday evening were still looking a bit worn out from all the travel with the likes of the Quinn Towers only getting in that morning. Even those of us who'd arrived home on the Sunday were still feeling the pinch and the disappointment of the result but the energy levels were lifted by the bulk of our home season ticket crew and the Brummies who'd missed Georgia but had flown into Dublin the night before this game. There was a good crowd in the area with a full house expected and despite how poorly we'd played the previous weekend, the hope was that we couldn't be as poor again and that a win would get us back on track.

The team duly came through a little earlier than the normal hour beforehand and all were agreed that, despite not being certain what formation we'd line out in, an eleven of  Randolph, Christie, Clark, Duffy, Ward, Meyler, Hoolahan, Brady, McClean, Walters and Long looked more positive than had been selected for a while. The only questions were would it be a straight 4-4-2 or a diamond formation and whether the positive selection could be matched by the play on the pitch.

As normal, we arrived at our usual spot in a packed Singing Section just before the anthems and then witnessed a very special moment as our fallen comrade, John 'The Bear' Dowling, was remembered with his picture on the big screen being greeted by a solid minute's applause as the Lansdowne Road crowd paid their respects. I doubt there was anyone in the stadium that wasn't moved by it and it definitely helped ignite the atmosphere as the game kicked off.

It was clear early on that Martin O'Neill seemed to have gone for a diamond formation with Shane Long and Jon Walters up front and Wes Hoolahan playing at the tip of the diamond behind them. However, it was Serbia who created the first chance as some nervous play by Meyler on 3 minutes led to Shane Duffy having to charge down a Matic shot.

The atmosphere had kept going from the off and it seemed to have rubbed off on James McClean as he fell back into his old habit of getting too involved and was lucky to escape a booking about ten minutes in as he clattered into Rukavina and was given a serious talking to. Unfortunately, this was a sign of things to come with McClean. While I wouldn't have been unhappy to see him taking a card late on to get his suspension out of the way against Moldova rather than the final game against Wales, I didn't want him to walk a tightrope the majority of the game.

The first corner of the game followed closely from Serbia and the atmosphere was further enhanced as Kostić hit the ball straight out of play without even reaching the near post. Ireland then responded with some good pressure to win a throw closely followed by a corner and it was from that corner that the most enjoyable 20 seconds of the game materialised.

As we were attacking the North end of the ground in the first half, it was impossible for us in the South to get any sort of a view of the Serbian defensive line. So after the short corner was worked back to Hoolahan and his clipped ball was powered home by Duffy, our end went ballistic. The fact that the FAI insist on playing goal music and that the person in charge of it also didn't realise that Duffy was a good yard offside meant that we were still celebrating long after the flag went up and it was only when the music cut off that we twigged something was wrong. Playing music after a goal is a bug bear of mine as I don't see any need for it. The atmosphere is going to be bouncing anyway so what's the point in drowning it out with Seven Nation Army? After it being accidentally played when Scotland equalised in the last campaign, it's now twice that it's been incorrectly put on. Again, what's the point?

Despite the disappointment of the goal being chalked off, it seemed to lift Ireland and a few jokes were cracked among us about the fact that it was too early for us to score anyway given how we've defended early goals this campaign. We actually started to string a few passes together with Hoolahan at the core. Long had a good effort tipped over about twenty minutes in. After a few borderline Serbian challenges, we finally got a free in a good position but, as has often been the case since the Euros, Robbie Brady's delivery failed to beat the first man.

We were certainly holding our own by now although Randolph had to get down well to keep a good Mitrovic effort out as we entered the last ten minutes of the half. Meyler was putting himself about nicely and we were mixing up our direct approach with a decent bit of football in a way that had been missing in the previous three qualifiers. I felt we had been the dominant side for most of the half and although Serbia began to get a bit of a hold of the ball in the last 7 or 8 minutes, a couple of excellent tackles from Meyler and McClean really got the crowd going again. When the half-time whistle came, the general consensus with those around was that all were satisfied with what we'd seen.

The first ten minutes of the second half saw more of the same with Ireland winning a couple of set pieces including a corner which was, once again, poorly delivered by Brady. However, while we were having our fair share of possession, we weren't really testing Stojkovic in the Serbia goal with a Long effort comfortably saved being as good as it got in that spell. And unfortunately, we were made to pay for that lack of cutting edge a minute later.

The worst thing about the concession was that we had a number of half chances to clear our lines. A Brady header clear from a Tadic cross didn't have enough purchase on it to reach McClean even though it looked like McClean might be able to win possession back from Tadic again but the Southampton man wriggled free and fed Kostic. With Cyrus Christie pulled inside, Kostic fed Koralov in the space on our right and, despite his best efforts, Walters couldn't get back in time to prevent Koralov unleashing an absolute rocket. Although Randolph got a hand to it, the pace it moved at meant that all his touch did was deflect the ball onto the underside of the bar on its way into the net. 1-0 Serbia and suddenly we had a mountain to climb.

The goal really sucked the atmosphere out of the stadium and the hope was that we could regain some of the composure we'd been showing in the previous 35 minutes. However, with Hoolahan not getting on the ball as much, O'Neill decided to roll the dice five minutes after the goal and it was Wes who paid the price.

While I'd have preferred to see Arter come on, given the manager's history, the fact that it was Daryl Murphy shouldn't have been a surprise. Like a wedding DJ trying to get people onto the dance floor, O'Neill's philosophy when things need changing is to go back to the 1980's and pump it all night long. The message a substitution like that sends out is essentially to stop playing football and revert to banging balls up the pitch. And, in fairness, it paid off in a way on 67 minutes as a long ball from Brady wasn't dealt with by Vukovic and with Murphy bearing down on goal, Maksimovic took him down while stretching for the ball. The ref had no doubt it was a straight red card and the sight of it re-energised the crowd as we faced into the last quarter with an extra man and a free kick at the edge of the box.

A couple of minutes had passed by the time Brady got to take the free but once again, it was wasted as he struck it straight into the wall. The irony of the situation now was that, had Hoolahan been on the pitch the space generated by the extra man would have suited him down to a tee but had Murphy not been on, the red card may never have come. O'Neill seemed to realise this and shortly after sent on Callum O'Dowda for Stephen Ward as we shifted to three at the back. The unfortunate thing is that, while O'Dowda looks like he may have potential on the ball, he doesn't have the experience or guile to dictate play like Hoolahan.  That said, he was involved in our best chance to get something from the game as he played a cross in to Murphy who was blatantly manhandled as he challenged for the ball only for the ref to wave his protests away.

Our composure had totally deserted us by now with Christie's follow up shot blazing over the bar in what was becoming a pattern with McClean having done similar a couple of minutes before. As mentioned earlier, McClean has a habit of letting his emotions and pride in the shirt get ahead of him and that was the case again here as he got his customary booking and hit another couple of shots over when recycling the ball would have been a better option. I couldn't count the amount of times that players took wrong options with poor final balls and wayward shots but Christie, McClean and a newly introduced Conor Hourihane were all guilty of it. With news filtering through that Wales had finally taken a late lead against Moldova, our situation was looking more desperate by the minute.

Any hope I had that the introduction of O'Dowda might lead to a more nuanced approach didn't last long as we persisted with the long ball game rather than trying to make use of the extra man. In fact, it would have been impossible for anyone who walked in halfway through the second half to know which team had an extra man. Instead of pulling players out wide to create space, we persisted in putting high balls into the box that were meat and strong to a team as big and strong as Serbia. Why persist in letting them keep it compact in the centre when it wasn't working even when they were down to nine men for a couple of minutes as another of their defenders was off getting treatment? Let's not forget this was the second game where our approach prevented us taking advantage of an extra man after failing to do so against Wales in March.

A half-chance for Murphy hit straight at the keeper was as good as it got as we moved into stoppage time. While the Serbian tactic of time wasting was as frustrating as it was unsurprising, our use of the ball by now was non-existent and our brute force approach wasn't paying dividends as silly fouls gave away possession time and time again. A final flurry finished with Randolph coming up for a last corner in the 5th minute of stoppage time but another poor delivery was easily dealt with and the Irish players slumped to the ground as the ref blew up for full-time.

I'm not going to do a post mortem on the campaign at this stage with two games left and an outside chance of still making a play-off. But questions have to be asked as to how we've let such a promising position six months ago drift away so badly. The annoying thing is that we showed on Tuesday that we can play reasonable ball when the right team and tactics are employed. In fact, I'm convinced that, had we approached the home games against Wales and Austria and the away game in Georgia in the same manner as we did on Tuesday, that we'd still be in the driving seat in the group. Instead, the managers innate conservatism meant that we set up not to lose those games and in doing so ceded the initiative to our rivals.

While losing Seamus Coleman was a massive loss and injuries to James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and even Aiden McGeady haven't helped, it's clear that with Hoolahan in the team, we play a different sort of game and, in the long run, a more effective one. Most of our best moments in recent years such as the goal in Gelsenkirchen and those against Sweden and Italy in the Euros have come with him on the pitch. I appreciate that he's getting older and I've always said that I can understand why a manager would take a different approach against the top sides. However, I can't understand why he's not trusted against the lower seeds when we play them. It's not just what he does on the pitch, it's what he enables other players to do as well.

So, we now face our last two games having picked up 10 points from our first four and only 3 from our second four. That said, having picked up 4 points despite been outplayed by Georgia at home and Serbia away, maybe we shouldn't be surprised at how we've unraveled considering the only two good performances have been away to Moldova and Austria. Even in those games we gave up chances but the chickens seem to be coming home to roost. Even turning things round and winning our last two games may not be enough with our group currently bottom of the second place table with only eight of nine runners up making the play-offs. As for Serbia, the 3 points gained here have made them almost dead certs to reach Russia next summer. Revenge for them after that point we pilfered in Belgrade was indeed a dish best Serbed cold.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Midnight Plane To Georgia

In all the years I've spent following the Irish team, we seem to have drawn Georgia on an inordinate number of occasions. An initial meeting in 2003 during Brian Kerr's first campaign ended in an ill-tempered 2-1 victory best remembered for the various knives, bottles and ball-bearings thrown at Kevin Kilbane, Shay Given, Gary Breen and Gary Doherty. This was followed by an August 2008 clash in Giovanni Trapattoni’s first away game which ended in the same score and is best remembered for the fact that it was moved to the neutral venue of Mainz in Germany after the Russo-Georgian war broke out that month, much to the chagrin of the hosts. Fast forward to Martin O'Neill’s reign and Georgia once again provided the first away opposition with 2-1 also the scoreline as a bit of Aiden McGeady magic secured the 3 points. Throw in the home fixtures and a friendly and I'd imagine we've played Georgia more than any other opposition in the last 15 years. And I even include Oman in that!

The sheer distance of travel involved (and the lateness of the venue change in ‘08) meant that I'd skipped those games so when we inevitably drew them again for this campaign and having heard good reports from previous trips, I decided to take the plunge and undertake my longest trip since Japan and Korea in 2002. The big difference being that this was a three dayer rather than a four weeker!

With no direct route in, many convoluted options were available and after deciding the rollover option via a lock-in till three in Steve Amsterdam’s Molly Malone’s bar before heading for a 5:30am flight from Schiphol, was too much to take on at the start of a trip, a Wizz Air route through Luton to the city of Kutaisi suited best. The only fear was that a ninety minute connection at Luton might be cutting things a little fine if the Ryanair flight from Dublin got delayed at all. As it happened, any worries were unfounded as a two hour delay on the Luton-Kutaisi meant I had plenty of time to meet with the lads I was travelling from Luton with, Borussia and Charlton’s Child from YBIG and their mate Seamus, over a couple of pints.

On boarding, it was clear that the bulk of the flight was made up of Irish fans and there was a good-natured atmosphere for the duration of the five hours. That said, the two hour delay on top of the three hour time difference meant that there were some fairly tired heads disembarking when we finally landed at 4:30 in the morning. While the bulk of the fans on the flight were going straight onto the final leg; a four hour bus journey to Tbilisi, the four of us had booked into a hotel to grab what we thought would be about five hours sleep before getting a 10am train. This necessitated getting a cab from the airport to the city which is where the fun and games really started.

There doesn't seem to be any regulation of the taxi industry in Georgia so it's basically a free for all. There are no meters in the cars and it seems that everyone fancies themselves a cab driver. With no metering, a price has to be agreed beforehand and you have to be prepared to haggle. Walking out of any airport or train station you get accosted by any number of lads looking for a fare and with us not knowing how much was a fair price at this point, we ended up agreeing to pay a guy 40GEL (about €3 each) to bring us to the hotel. We were all pretty certain that was over the odds but at that price and at that hour of the morning we were beyond caring.

The other thing that's noticeable about cabbies in Georgia is that none of them seem to have a rashers where they're going. So, despite giving him the address at the start of the journey, it was clear as soon we got into the city centre that this lad was hopelessly lost. A stop at a 24-hour store yielded no leads and a couple of phone calls didn't seem to get him anywhere. We were starting to get a bit unsettled by now and this went to the next level when he turned down some side-street and brought us into a dead end! I think we all expected his mates to appear and Borussia already had the front door open while the three of us in the back were entering flight or fight mode! With no-one appearing from the shadows, we all calmed down a bit as it turned out he'd genuinely taken a wrong turn and managed to persuade us he'd get us where we wanted! A three point turn got us back on the main road and ten minutes later, he finally found the street we were looking for when we finally managed to convey that it was beside Kutaisi train station.
By the time we checked in, it was 5:30 and despite being dog tired, sleep wasn't easy coming. I think I finally nodded off around 6:30 and with an early train to catch, was back up about 2 hours later. As there was no train from Kutaisi till 12:15, which didn't get to Tbilisi till after 5, we'd decided to get the 10am train from Rioni, a town about 10km away. This meant another cab ride, this time from what seemed like a more legit taxi. That said, when he turned onto a dust track with a pack of stray dogs roaming around, we began to wonder what was going on until we saw a few Irish shirts waiting on a Soviet-era platform that had definitely seen better days. The lads waiting had got in earlier the previous day via Warsaw and despite having a few beers the previous night told us that we hadn't missed much in Kutaisi, which still seems quite underdeveloped in comparison with Tbilisi.

After two hours sleep, a four hour train journey wasn't much fun and nor was another haggle with a cab driver. As I was staying with Terry the Tash and Pete McG who had arrived earlier in the week, the rest of the lads went off to their hotel and I jumped a cab on my own. Despite having the route saved in Google maps, this driver still managed to miss a turn and take another ten minute detour to get back on track. It's worth mentioning that the driving in Georgia is full-on insane with the rules of the road seemingly more suggestion than actual laws! There are cars weaving everywhere, cutting across lanes, pulling u-turns and drivers roaring abuse at each other constantly. All the while trying to avoid pedestrians who just walk out wherever they want to cross. I'm talking about pensioners with walking sticks, mothers carrying children, the whole nine yards! I thought Italy was bad for traffic and Dublin bad for jaywalking but this was next-level stuff!

So by the time I got to the hotel it was 2:30 and as I knew a walking tour had been arranged on YBIG for 3: 00, literally had time to drop the bag off in the room and head straight back out. Terry and Pete had gone on a day tour up the mountains with the Amsterdam crew so, after another roundabout taxi journey, I hooked back up with Borussia and the lads at Freedom Square to see a huge crowd of assorted YBIGers getting sorted into two groups by a pair of tour guides.

The walking tours are a great way to see a city and get your bearings, as well as learning something about where you're visiting. Plus, the older I'm getting, it's a good excuse to get a few hours out of the pub! This tour took in a number of old churches, some Catholic but mainly Georgian Orthodox, where the green clad hordes walking in raised a few eyebrows. After walking around some local food markets where we were given a lesson in the importance of being a toastmaster at a wine drinking session and treated to some freshly baked Georgian bread and some Churchkhela, a local fruit and nut type of salami, we walked over the Bridge of Peace which straddles the Kura River and links the old and new towns.

Heading on towards the Presidential Palace, we were given a potted history of the city since independence following the collapse of the USSR before getting the cable car up to the Narikala Fortress where the panoramic views of the city were absolutely spectacular. As was the sight of a helicopter overhead with a huge water bucket attached attempting to quell a small forest fire caused by the searing heat, which was hitting the mid 30’s at this stage. Having spent three hours on the tour, we finished up by getting some mountain top snaps with a peacock and a peregrine falcon perched on either arm followed by a visit to the Mother of Georgia statue. As I promised the missus, these would be the only birds on my arms while I was away!

Although there was still a visit to the sulphur baths and a wine tasting to come, we'd promised to head to the YBIG fans match which was due to kick off at 6:30 so we slipped away to haggle yet another taxi and headed to the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium where Ireland had actually played their 2003 qualifier. Although this game was on the back pitch with only a single stand, the venue would still put plenty of League of Ireland grounds to shame. We even managed a quick sneak into the main stadium before being collared by security and politely told to move on.

The fans match was played out against a backdrop of thunder and incredible forked lighting which must have caused a bit of worry for the Quinn Towers who, as the centre-half pairing, were by far the tallest things in the immediate vicinity of the stadium! A good crowd saw the YBIG team lead 1-0 and 2-1 before a late Georgia equaliser sent us to penalties. The drama wasn’t finished there as Ireland thought they’d won it only for the ref to demand a retake due to the keeper moving before the kick. With nerves now playing a part, the Georgian keeper saved the retake only for the ref to call it back again for the same reason meaning a third kick had to be taken with Keitho holding his nerve to eventually win the shoot-out 5-3!

Although we'd arranged to meet the gang who'd gone on the day-trip after the game, their tour seemed to have taken a lot longer than anticipated so by the time they arrived around midnight we'd already had a few beers and had hit a cracking restaurant for the bit of dinner. The Hangar bar in the old town had become a bit of a meeting point for the fans and indeed the media and, after finding myself sitting at the bar beside RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue, had an interesting chat about various things, including his infamous rapport with Martin O’Neill, over an enjoyable pint. Having only had two hours sleep in the past twenty hours, I wasn't up for anything too mad and spent the last part of the night chatting with our tour guide from earlier who had come in with her other half to enjoy the atmosphere. Asking me about Irish history is one of those things that sets me off but after an hour or two bending their ears, I decided that 2:30 was time to call it a night so had one last taxi haggle to get back to the hotel before crashing out to rest for match day after a quick call home.

The morning of the match brought more sweltering sunshine but given the lack of sleep from the previous day, all I saw of it was a trudge downstairs for breakfast before going back up for another couple of hours kip. The game was kicking off at 8pm local time so tentative plans were made to meet up at the Hanger bar between 3 and 4. This gave me a couple of hours after finally rising for a bit of exploring and shopping, although given the prices on offer for top quality labels and scents on offer, I think it was fair to question the bona fides! Pretty much everything in the city seems to be open to negotiation so if you enjoy a good haggle then you’re in your element! Having dropped a couple of things back to the hotel, the three of us from the room wandered down to the square at the Hanger where the crowd was already filling out with the Amsterdam Crew and Quinn Towers arriving to join us. All the various flags and banners were being hung up around the area which made an interesting backdrop for a local wedding that was passing through. As did the chants of “Stand Up For the Bride in White!” that started up as the bride and groom posed for some pictures with the fans!  

The few hours before travelling to a ground are one of my favourite times on an away trip with everyone optimistic and in good spirits as the excitement and atmosphere builds up. The nerves haven’t normally kicked in yet, you’re bumping into people you only really see on these trips, nobody is too hammered and you haven’t had a game to pick apart yet so it’s always a great time. So the next couple of hours were spent mingling with familiar faces and meeting friends of friends with the regular chants and songs getting a good airing. Given Georgia’s proximity to the Middle East, a good number of Irish who were working in the likes of Dubai and Doha had taken advantage of the fact they had less travel time than us to get there so some interesting conversations were had about working in that area and before long, it was time to head up towards the ground.

A couple of local fans we’d been talking to had directed us towards the metro so rather than have the hassle of haggling yet another taxi fair, we took a good-natured march through the city having a bit of banter with the locals on the way. The metro itself was an interesting experience as we had to descend the longest escalator I’ve ever seen in my life which also happened to move at breakneck speed. I’m talking something that must be double the size of the really long ones on the Northern Line in London and moving at twice the speed! The stations are fairly vividly decorated which provided a contrast to the Soviet era trains that service it.  A couple of stops later and we came up from the depths and walked through the subways (full of more stalls and shops selling anything and everything) to surface back at ground level not far from the ground.

By this stage the team had come out and the line-up of Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Whelan, Arter, McClean, Brady, Walters and Long was pretty much as expected. With a home game on Tuesday, I hadn’t expected Wes Hoolahan to start 2 games in four days and expected him to get a cameo off the bench if we needed to close the game out before starting on Tuesday. My only issue was my suspicion that Jon Walters couldn’t have recovered sufficiently from the ankle injury he’d picked up a couple of weeks back. I know most players will play through the pain barrier and both Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have gone on the record as being in favour of risking players with fitness concerns once they come through training, but it didn’t work with Walters in Euro 2016 and I was doubtful that it would work here. Still, maybe we could get a good hour out of him I thought, pushing the negative thoughts out of my mind as we walked up to the stadium itself.      

The Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena was previously the Lenin Dinamo Stadium before being renamed after the man said to be Georgia’s greatest player. Despite its 54,549 capacity, it’s a fairly standard Soviet era building from the outside but is a decent enough functional stadium once you’re in. The lower tier that we were situated in had nothing that you could hang a flag off on the concrete barriers separating the crowd from the running track so all the flags that were hanging when we got in had been stuck up with gaffer tape. Not wanting to take a chance of seeing the 69ers flag fall down the 20 foot or so drop , I decided to see if I could get up onto the next level where there were barriers that you could tie flags to, so as soon as the anthems finished I tore up the stairs and found a decent spot. I’d literally just run back to my seat as Cyrus Christie whipped in a great free and, with the Georgian keeper flapping under a dubious bit of pressure from Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy got his head onto the ball and buried it! With Duffy’s last action in green being his harshly disallowed effort for a foul on the keeper that denied us a win against Austria, this was a nice bit of karma for him. One-nil after four minutes. Unfortunately, this was about as good as it got for us.

I’ve said in previous blogs that scoring early seems to nearly be one of the worst things that Ireland can do. Even though that sounds ridiculous, we’ve generally always played at our best when we have to chase something in a game and, the honourable exception of the France last 16 game aside, if we score early we tend to drop further and further back in a desperate attempt to hold what we have. We’ve seen it time and time again, with the away game v. Serbia early in the campaign turning out to be a marker for how things progressed here. It’s understandable against teams the calibre of Germany, Spain et al. but against teams ranked as lowly as Georgia then we need to impose ourselves on them rather than sit off them and let them dictate the play. Unfortunately, and exactly as we did against Serbia, this was precisely what we did.

Although, we had a great chance to go two up around 20 minutes in when James McClean should have got his header from a Walters cross on target, Georgia were already dominating possession at that stage. And when the equaliser finally arrived, no-one could argue that it hadn’t be coming for a while. Our habit of sitting deep meant that Georgia had all the space they wanted in the first two-thirds of the pitch and had dominated the possession to the tune of 78%. We’d already had a few desperate clearances by the time Kashia slipped the ball down the right-hand channel to Jigauri who played a lovely angled pass back inside to Ananidze. With two defenders drawn out to him, he still had all the time he needed to play in Kazaishvili in acres of space who picked his spot past Randolph. One-all and at this stage, I just wanted to get to half-time level.

We still looked rocky for the next ten minutes although after finally winning our first corner on 44 minutes nearly took the lead again with Makaridze in the Georgian goal parrying a Duffy header clear. That said, that seemed to just annoy the Georgians and they finished the half putting our goal under pressure again for the final minute. The whistle, when it finally came, was a blessed relief.

I assumed that Martin O’Neill would put a rocket up the team’s collective backside at half-time and we might see some sort of reaction but with an aimless Irish hoof down the pitch pretty much straight from the kick-off, it soon developed into the same pattern as the first half. At one point after Georgia had played about twenty plus passes, I actually counted how many we would have till we lost it. Five passes later and the sixth went straight into touch. The only positive was that Georgia weren’t creating any clear-cut chances but conceding possession in the manner we were doing against a team ranked 112 in the world was unacceptable.

The game was crying out for some changes and the introduction of anyone who could actually put their foot on the ball and pass it. When the first substitution came, it was Aiden McGeady, rather than Wes Hoolahan, who came on for a very disappointing Harry Arter. In fairness to McGeady, he is capable of good creative football in the 10 position on his day and his arrival did see a slight improvement. A chance was finally created on 69 minutes with a Long header over from a Christie cross but despite the change, it still looked like any chance we might create would be from a set- piece.

Georgia carried on dictating possession but we were at least pressing them a little better now and another corner, this time Walters heading straight at the keeper just after Daryl Murphy replaced Glenn Whelan, who was another to have a very disappointing game. Having got a smash and grab victory 3 years ago in Georgia after a poor performance, I started to think that there might be a chance of doing similar the longer the time ticked on and we really should have done that on 86 minutes. Long did very well to keep another long ball in play on the left wing and with the Georgia players appealing for a throw-in, played a lovely ball into McClean. While he didn’t have as much space as he did for his Vienna winner, he was still favourite to score but a poor second touch gave the keeper time to narrow the angle and a combination of the keeper’s legs and Kverkvelia’s head kept the ball out.

A chance for Georgia to win it then came with a Merebashvili shot well wide of the past. McGeady then has the chance to repeat his feat of 2014 and win it at the death as he found himself in acres of space on the end of a Walters knock down from yet another launched long ball but instead of hitting it first time or even taking a second touch to control it, he instead leant back and blazed the ball over the bar. With that being the last meaningful action, we reached the end of stoppage time coming away with a point we scarcely deserved. The players, with the exception of Shane Long, couldn’t wait to get off the pitch and were clearly too embarrassed to even come down and applaud an angry and frustrated fanbase.

With final statistics of 31% possession for Ireland and 150 completed passes against 568 for Georgia, legitimate questions have to be asked of the players and the management even allowing for the clear cut chances we had to rob the extra two points. While it wouldn’t be my preference, I’ve no issue with long ball tactics if they bring results. However, to employ that game then you need to press up on the opposition and not give them space to pass the ball at will. We’re not talking about Spain at Euro 2012 here where their quality was so good that we couldn’t get near them. In this game we deliberately sat back in our own third and made Georgia look like a top quality nation. I’ve seen some articles since pointing out the obvious that our players are generally lower Premier League/Championship level but those articles seem to ignore the fact that that is still a far higher level than the Georgian team (which was also missing key players) who dominated on Saturday play at. There’s an argument that the horrific injury to Seamus Coleman has left us without one of our leaders although he was playing in Belgrade when we only managed to complete 94 passes and were lucky to get away with a draw. The fact is that Austria and Moldova away aside, we’ve been very poor in this group and haven’t kicked on from the Euros. The tactics being employed are generally to be blamed for that, along with our decades old tendency to retreat into our shell when we take the lead. Rather than this fear that we seem to have shrinking under O’Neill, it seems to have gotten bigger. All I can hope for tomorrow is that our habit of producing good performances after poor ones (such as the Italy game after the Belgium loss in France) comes good again tomorrow but that’s been three poor performances in a row since the win in Vienna and we’ve now found ourselves in the last chance saloon from a dominant position in the group three games ago.  Another concern is that the worst second place team doesn’t even qualify for a play-off and there’s a real danger that without wins against Serbia and Wales, we could potentially finish second but still miss out that way. The team selected tomorrow will tell a lot about our ambition and Hoolahan surely has to play unless this ‘injury’ mentioned today is more serious than it seems.

Once we got out of the ground, we found an offie and sat outside with a drink waiting for the crowd to die down before getting a taxi back to the old town. I wound up having an interesting chat with a couple of lads in Ireland tops from Leipzig who had decided to follow Ireland after what they considered their team, East Germany, was disbanded following reunification. As far as they were concerned the Germany team didn’t represent them (and nor did franchise club Red Bull Leipzig) so they been following Ireland for a good few years. Certainly couldn’t accuse them of glory hunting anyway!

When we got back to the old town, a good mob of us went back to the restaurant that we’d eaten in the previous night and drowned our sorrows with some good food, good wine, a few glasses of the local grape brandy, chacha and a few songs. The frustration was subsiding a bit and things were put in perspective when we bumped into Danielle and Lexie, the daughter and granddaughter of a man no longer with us and who wasn’t far from our thoughts during the whole trip.  John ‘The Bear’ Dowling was a regular travelling member of the YBIG family who I’d met at many games home and away over the years and who unfortunately lost a brave battle with cancer a few short weeks ago at the dreadfully young age of 55. Even those who didn’t know him would surely have recognised his face and his infectious laugh, especially if they were the sort to nip outside of pubs for a cheeky ciggie or fancied a chat at the bar. The Bear would welcome and talk to anyone and he’ll be sorely missed on trips in future but it was great to see his family carrying on the tradition. Kudos to the FAI as well who had arranged for Danielle and Lexie to meet with the management and team and had provided a memorial key ring for all who travelled. YBIG had also had a flag printed up in his memory which was on display at the game.

My own favourite memory of him was an early morning drink the day after the Bosnia away play-off in Sarajevo when a couple of straighteners were required before heading to the airport. The Shake It Up Brady chant was beginning to catch on and a gang of us were giving it socks. Unbeknownst to me, Bear was filming away and by the time I got home, I had a message from a friend pointing me to a story on the Irish Independent. One click later and there’s a video of myself and the rest of the gang belting it out looking a little the worse for wear while Bear stayed safely out of shot! That said, he did have a little © John Dowling watermark on the bottom even though his face wasn’t in it!  

While I’ll miss his company on trips, it’s his family and close friends such as AidoM, Brianie Sligo Hornet, Mr and Mrs Moscow Mule and Claret Murph that I really felt for and I’m sure this first trip without him was very poignant. It did bring home to me that football is only a game after all, albeit a game that we’ll hopefully win tomorrow. Qualification for Russia next year would be a nice tribute to him. RIP Bear and hopefully we can do it for you.