Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Worst of Both Worlds

They say a week is a long time in politics. The last one was certainly a long time for the Irish football parish's pumper in chief, John Delaney.

It started on Monday with the final Nations League clash away to Denmark. With the game already deemed a dead rubber after Ireland's haul of a single point from the first three games, the mood among a significant section of the support was of support for change. And not just a change of management, with confidence in Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane long since evaporated but a root and branch change in Irish football.

The game petered out in the expected manner with Ireland failing to have a single shot on target and a paltry 25% possession, With a section of the support expressing their displeasure at the management by displaying O'Neill out banners, their plan to bring a well-known banner bearing the words 'Problem Child' and a "delaneyout" hashtag was scuppered at the gate.

The flag, which refers to Delaney's description of the League of Ireland, features pictures of players such as Wes Hoolahan and Stephen Ward who had graduated from the league to the senior team and had been widely shared on social media beforehand. The publicity around it had somehow come to the attention of the Danish stewards who, according to fans who attended, told them they had been given pictures of it with instructions to confiscate it when searching fans,

Duly confiscated, the planned protest was reduced to the repetition of an unflattering song namechecking Delaney which was clearly audible on television and which reportedly caused a degree of friction between elements of the Irish support. Enquiries afterwards resulted in a statement from Danish FA Communications Manager Jakob Hoyer  stating, “Our guards were asked by UEFA to ­confiscate some banners that had a political message and fans were told why they were being confiscated.”

Quote how this statement could have been described as political is unclear, as is whether word of such protests had any impact on the FAI's decision making. Either way, the following day, Martin O'Neill was called to a meeting with Delaney and FAI Honorary Secretary, Michael Cody. By the end of it he was no longer Irish manager. Given that he and his assistant were less than a year into a two-year deal worth a reported combined €2.5m, the assumption would have to be that a significant portion of that was paid to create the vacancy.

Regardless, the vacancy was now created and announced on Wednesday morning. Speculation immediately began as to who would fill it. The fact that the Under 21s role was also vacant added an extra dimension to the search and opened up the opportunity to build a strong structure for the future.

It became clear early on that there were two main candidates in the frame, ex-boss Mick McCarthy who was immediately touted by a number of ex-players and managers and Dundalk boss and media favourite, Stephen Kenny. Both men had their positives and by midweek, rumours began circulating that Kenny had been offered and rejected the Under 21 job as he felt he was ready for the senior job.

By Thursday, there were more leaks coming from the FAI than you would,d see from your average sieve with the initial message seeming to be that McCarthy would be returning on a two year deal with a further two-year extension available. An impassioned debate between Kevin Kilbane and Nathan Murphy on Off the Ball summed up the two camps

Not long afterwards, further stories emerged that Stephen Kenny was still under consideration and that McCarthy wasn't a done deal. By that stage, my opinion was that McCarthy would be brought in for the Euros with Kenny to be promised the role afterwwards. Given the importance of the U21 position, I assumed that someone else such as Lee Carsley would come into consideration for that job.

By Friday afternoon. a tweet from Virgin Media Sport stated that "Mick McCarthy has been offered a contract to return as Republic of Ireland soccer manager." Given that he has spent the previous 3 months working for the station, it was fair to assume that their source was accurate. By now, the debate had switched to whether rumours of a €1.2m salary were in any way plausible.

Fast forward 24 hours and the Independent's Dan McDonnell broke the news that Stephen Kenny was leaving Dundalk to take over as U21 manager with a brief to oversee the underage international set up as a whole. In itself, this could have been seen as a good appointment. Kenny has great local knowledge and is familiar with many of the young players coming through the U19s in particular. His overall experience and commitment to an expansive style of play ties in with the style that Ruud Dokter has been trying to implement throughout the lower age groups. Bringing a group through a tournament cycle could be seen as good preparation for potentially taking the senior job down the line and would give Kenny experience of the international game to add to the European experience he gained with Dundalk.

Where this started to fall down was when this news was combined with an apparent guarantee that Kenny would then take over as senior manager after the Euros in 2020. This was followed by a tweet from the Mail's Philip Quinn that the McCarthy camp were in the dark about this aspect, which was replied to be another McDonnell tweet stating there was no confusion from the McCarthy side who were aware of the agreement. An official announcement from the FAI confirmed all on Sunday morning. Mick McCarthy was now Ireland boss with Kenny taking over in 2020.

Despite Stephen Kenny's impressive domestic and European record, this arrangement is unsatisfactory on a number of levels. Chief of these being the duration of time Kenny will spend as U21 manager. Even the noises from the FAI indicated that the role is of utmost importance for the future of the game in the country. So why give the role to someone you have promised a different role to before even one full tournament cycle is completed?
The qualifiers for the European U21 Championships begin in September 2019. They run until October 2020 with an extra month on top of that if you qualify for a play-off. The finals will take place the following summer in a country to be announced at the UEFA Executive Committee meeting that will be held in tandem with the senior European Champions qualifiers draw in Dublin this weekend.

John Delaney himself was front and centre three weeks ago when a joint FAI / IFA bid to host the 2023 U21 Euros was launched. Reference was made to how prestigious this tournament is with it being the second biggest international competition after the Euros proper. With confidence high that the bid will be successful, building towards that tournament should be a priority.

Yet, with an opportunity available to make an appointment to at least go through to the 2021 iteration, he has given the job to a manager who will leave halfway through that tournament cycle and before the qualifiers have even finished. If Kenny, as everyone hopes, is a success at U21 level then it's nonsensical to have him leave that role just when the qualification is reaching its critical point. It's a breathtakingly short-sighted decision that creates more questions than it answers.

Who will be in charge finish the qualifying campaign for U21 Euro '21?

As it has been confirmed that his backroom staff are staying at Dundalk, who will be assisting him while he is in the role?

Will this new backroom staff also be leaving the 21s when he steps up to the senior role?

If the job, as described, also entails an overarching remit for the entire underage set-up, where is the sense in changing the individual holding that position in 20 months time?

If Kenny fosters a successful working relationship with the U21 squad, how disruptive will his leaving be?

If, on the other hand, he is unsuccessful at that level then what is the sense of then giving him the senior role?

If Mick McCarthy, as everyone hopes, is successful in the senior role then how will that squad react when the prearranged handover happens?

None of those questions were answered in the press conferences held by Delaney, McCarthy or Kenny over the last two days.

The entire process smacks of a typical Irish political stroke. Delaney clearly didn't believe that Kenny was a safe enough bet to deliver qualification for Euro 2020. With the last year wasted by his decision to award a new contract (with a hefty pay rise) to Martin O'Neill, any new manager would have no friendlies or camps to work with the players. So an experienced pair of hands was his preference.

He also clearly wanted Kenny for the U21 job but Kenny wasn't prepared to accept that role without having guarantees about getting the senior role in 2020. So having read the mood music in the media as being strongly in favour of giving Kenny the senior job, it seems clear that Delaney has tried to counter the attention that he was coming under by coming up with a cack-handed off the hoof solution that he thinks will keep everyone happy. And sacrificed the opportunity to implement a proper structure at U21 level in the process.

Stephen Kenny would still have been around in two years time and having described the Ireland manager's job as a greater honour than managing Real Madrid or Barcelona, would surely have accepted it at that point if it became available. Indeed, his experience may have been enhanced more by leading Dundalk into another European campaign, where they will be seeded in the early rounds next season.

The U21 role deserves better than a stopgap. A structure to enable that side to have a real crack at the  2023 tournament on home soil should have been put in place and that opportunity has now been missed.

The type of individual Stephen Kenny is means it’s possible that he could get a team and a proper succession in place by the time he leaves the role. But it's very difficult to embed something like that in a 20-month window.

If this latest Delaney stroke comes off, it will be more by accident than by any grand design.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

A Tale of Three Irelands

A google search for 'the unifying power of sport' returns just shy of three million results in under half a second. Yet, as much as it can unify, sport also has the potential to divide. Both sides of that coin were visible at Lansdowne Road during the last week as three separate Ireland teams took to the pitch in radically different atmospheres.

Despite being a staunch Ireland fan since I was old enough to form memories, a part of me has always thought it a shame that, unlike the vast majority of sports, there are two separate football teams on the island. The majority of people probably look at the split of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) away from the Irish Football Association (IFA) as being linked to the partition of the country in the early 1920's. But, while both splits occurred in the same general timeframe after several years of conflict, the conflict in terms of football was as a result of alleged IFA bias towards Ulster rather than the desire for independent nationhood. The final straw was the refusal of the IFA to schedule the Irish Cup semi-final replay between Glenavon and Shelbourne in Dublin and insist that the second game be played in Belfast. 

The desire of both sets of blazers for power over football on the island led to both associations claiming to be the defacto association for the island in its entirety. While the likes of the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Golfing Union of Ireland, along with governing bodies for Boxing, Hockey, Cricket etc were doing their best to promote their sports across both sides of the newly drawn border, the two football associations were butting heads with various efforts to reunify throughout the twenties and thirties falling short on sticking points that had nothing to do with the politics of the time but everything to do with perks and power.

                           Ireland kit circa 1930s/1940s           Northern Ireland kit circa 1930s/1940s 

In fact, both associations wore the same shirts and used the name of Ireland throughout the thirties and forties. They also carried on selecting players from each side of the border up until 1946 in the case of the FAI and 1950 with the IFA. The growing global nature of the game saw both Ireland's enter World Cup qualifying for the first time at this stage and after Tom Aherne, Reg Ryan, Davy Walsh and Con Martin played in qualifiers for both sides, FIFA intervened to prevent the situation happening again,

The late Con Martin with some of his caps from each Irish team

A gentleman's agreement between both sides not to pick players from outside each jurisdiction meant that relations were relatively benign and there were even talks throughout the seventies while the troubles were at their height where reunification was on the agenda. Even George Best went on the record, stating he had ‘talked to several players from the South and they all want to see a full Irish team. I know the Northern Ireland players think the same way.’

Indeed, an All-Ireland squad of 14 including seven Northern players played world champions Brazil in a famous 1973 exhibition game but that team had to take the field using a Shamrock Rovers moniker after IFA objections prevented them using Ireland as planned. In a nice touch, Con Martin's son Mick got one of the Irish goals in a 4-3 defeat.

The All-Ireland side that played Brazil in 1973

Talks continued throughout the seventies although various factors including the two sides being drawn against each other for the first time in the Euro '80 qualifiers prevented a resolution being found. Cormac Moore's excellent book, The Irish Soccer Split, provides great detail on those failed efforts.

The main argument for reunification was that a single side would be better equipped to qualify for major tournaments. This was rendered moot not long after with Northern Ireland qualifying for consecutive World Cups in 1982 (with Ireland only denied by some scandalous refereeing in a number of games) and 1986 and Ireland following suit with qualification for Euro '88 and World Cups in 1990 and 1994. With the qualification for USA '94 sealed amid a poisonous atmosphere in a Windsor Park game against the North, any talk of reunification seemed a long way off and has never been back on any agenda since.

While the atmosphere at Lansdowne last Thursday was a long way from 25 years before, the nasty edge to it was still dispiriting. From seeing pictures of Northern Ireland fans displaying Para regiment flags to the booing of both anthems to Irish fans roaring IRA slogans at 'orange bastards', it was a long way from France two summers ago where both sets of fans mingled good-naturedly. As I said in the aftermath of Thursday's game, maybe the two-year diet of Brexit, backstops and the proximity to the annual poppy fascism season has seen things regress.

It's because of the power of sport to unify that my regret about football being split on the island stems. The lines have been well drawn at this stage between both sets of supporters and it would be nigh on impossible for either group to simply subsume into the other. Reunification of the sides will only ever happen if there's reunification of the nation. I've always wanted to see that but I'm more than aware that if it's ever to happen, accommodating and welcoming the opposing tradition on the island has to be a big part of it.

Watching a packed Lansdowne Road rise to acclaim Jacob Stockdale, the son of a vicar from Newtownstewart in County Tyrone, as he grounded the winning try for a 32 county Ireland against the All Blacks on Saturday, I couldn't help but wonder how the support for a national football team would have developed had no split occurred. And whether that may have had a knock-on effect in society.

The demographics mean that it would be overly simplistic to look at the support that rugby (and indeed other sports such as hockey and cricket) draws from both sides of the divide and extrapolate that to football. While the other sports mentioned earlier have always drawn support from the middle and upper-class ABC1 base so beloved of rugby sponsors and advertisers, football's history on both sides of the border is a working-class one.

And it was within the working class communities of the North that the brunt of the troubles were felt and where identity was something people could grip onto when they had little else.

It would be ridiculous to say that had both communities followed a single team they probably wouldn't have been ghettoised by "peace walls". Or that the civil rights issues that existed in the North would have been solved by sport.

The hooliganism that blighted matches between nationalist and loyalist supported sides in the Irish League is well documented, with the demise of Belfast Celtic and the exclusion of Derry City the most high profile examples of those problems. Indeed, these highlighted the issues that remained within the IFA for years after they had caused the split in the first place.

Despite the efforts that have been made regarding inclusivity, the NI anthem and flag still give credence to the view that, to paraphrase, it's a Protestant team for a Protestant people. Yet it's extremely unlikely that those symbols would have survived to this day if the IFA had been an All-Island organisation rather than remaining one forged in the six counties. With the aforementioned gentleman's agreement long now forgotten, the Ireland team has become a de facto 32 county nationalist team understandably leaving little desire for changing those symbols within the IFA or their support.

Family links with the composer of Amhran na BhFiann make its playing a proud highlight of any Ireland game for me, both at home and abroad. But would a rugby style arrangement with a neutral song (albeit one a lot better than the godawful Ireland's Call) have been palatable to our support had it always been thus?

Looking at how both communities united behind Monaghan boxer Barry McGuigan in the eighties at the height of the troubles in another working-class sport showed that it was possible for supporters from each tradition to unite behind one force. But any individual sportsman has a finite career. In team sports players come and go but the team abides.

How might football on the island have evolved if all 32 counties were cheering a team representing all at the World Cup in 1958? Or if instead of two Ireland's splitting four consecutive World Cup's from 1982 onwards a single team had contested four in a row? Or even if the old Home Nations Championship had become an annual Four Nations tournament throughout the 20th century? A team featuring Jemnings, Giles, Brady and Best while that tournament was still one of the few live on TV couldn't have failed to quicken pulses on both sides of the border.

Tribalism is an inherent part of football but the support of a team generally transcends an individual's politics. Anything that could have shown two fans from say The Falls and Shankhill Road something they had in common rather than what divided them couldn't have done any harm. Instead, the soccer split on the island has simply given some another platform to show off their prejudices.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

It's Grim Down South

Martin O'Neill's oft-repeated excuse of Ireland not having the players to compete in the passing stakes with superior opposition was laid bare last Thursday.

Once again, our team spent the evening chasing shadows while set up in a barely discernable formation. The difference is that this time our opponents didn't have a Gareth Bale or a Christian Eriksen in their ranks and in fact had a squad unquestionably weaker than that our manager can choose from. The problem is not with the players, it's with the management.  

From the off, it was clear that this was going to be a disappointing evening. A two-year news diet of Brexit and the proximity to the annual poppy fascism gauntlet that James McClean has to shamefully endure in England has seen a hardening of attitudes in the seven years since Northern Ireland last came to Dublin, let alone the three since the last game against England. Our choice to have an extra pint and skip the anthems was vindicated by the boos we could trace from both ends during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann and God Save The Queen as we came through the turnstiles.

Add the 25th anniversary of the famous Windsor Park clash where Alan McLoughlin's goal saved Ireland's World Cup 94 qualifying campaign into the mix and the wisdom of arranging a friendly with our nearest neighbours has to be questioned.

I've watched us play the North at Lansdowne in 1989, 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2011. On none of those occasions have I witnessed the nasty edge and provo chants that were present last Thursday.  We mainly rose above it. While the abuse clearly wasn't at the level that we were subjected to in that qualifier a quarter of a century ago,  the fact that most of it came from lads that were probably still in nappies when that game was played and remember nothing of the troubles was depressing. 

Yet, what's been transpiring in the Ireland camp on and off the field is more depressing still. Every time the team has gone into camp in the last 12 months, there's been a feeling that we must have reached rock bottom. But every time, the management find new depths to plumb.

How low can we go?

After the Harry Arter and Declan Rice stories, Michael Obafemi's acceptance of a call-up should have been a good news story. Quite what Martin O'Neill was thinking in casting doubt on the Southampton youngster's commitment is beyond me. Yet, rather than talking to the player, that's precisely what he did in Monday's press conference, pointedly remarking that the player still qualifies for England and Nigeria and "has decisions to make for his future."

Well-placed sources close to the striker were reported in the media as denying this was the case on Tuesday but once again, instead of talking to the player, O'Neill doubled down on Wednesday stating that Obafemi wouldn't be travelling to Denmark for Monday's game as he wouldn't "be rushing him into making a decision" and that “I’ve spoken to (Michael)…but I think in terms of decisions for tying him down, I think that’s a bit of a distance off.”

There followed a bizarre and snidey exchange with Pundit Arena journalist Richard Barrett which I've copied here for context.

Transcript from FAI press conference, 14/11/2018

Richard Barrett: Having spoken to a source close to Michael Obafemi directly his intentions were clear that he wants to commit to Ireland. Has anything changed over the last number of days?

Martin O’ Neill: Sorry who have you spoken to?

RB: Someone very close to him.

MON: Is that right? You’re further on than me.

RB: Has anything changed?

MON: Who did you speak to?

RB: I can’t reveal that, but they said his intentions are very clear that he wants to play with Ireland.

MON: You can’t come in here and be half honest.

RB: Would it be a surprise to see him line out on Thursday?

MON: Thursday is alright, Thursday is okay and I’m hoping that he can be in and we can use six subs in a friendly game so hopefully he’d be in the squad anyway for that game so no that wouldn’t be a surprise, the next game is the one.

If he has total commitment he didn’t say that to me nor to be fair to me I didn’t press him on it because I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to his family but no, you’re ahead of the game you tell me.

RB: Are you confident?

MON: Confident on what?

RB: Confident that he will declare for Ireland?

MON: Am I confident? I’m always hopeful and I’ve always said that. I’m hopeful about Declan Rice too, hopeful you know? I can only be confident of something that I know I’m in control of or if that’s the case at least I know. I’m not in control of other people’s decisions, particularly issues like this which are very very important. I agree with you he has really enjoyed the training, he has enjoyed being brought in it seems.

As Glenn (Whelan) has mentioned he did very very well and has got a lot of encouragement, a lot of encouragement from the backroom staff but also importantly he’s got a lot of encouragement from senior players like Glenn and Seamus Coleman so that sort of feeling has got to be good and if that’s the case fine.

He might well have made his mind up even before coming over here, I’m curious as I said to you, you’re closer to him, I should bring you into the team.

On a serious note though, in regards the game on Monday, if he does declare do I go and do that then and if he suddenly goes and changes his mind then? I’m not sure on that but overall yes I’m hopeful, and I think you’re confident.

RB: Very confident

MON: Are you?

RB: Yes, I am.

MON: You should come and see me afterwards, join us for lunch.

With the manager casting doubt on Obafemi's intentions, the social media brains trust were quick to react leading to the young player getting significant and unwarranted abuse on the cesspit that is twitter in the build up. A clearly baffled Obafemi camp then released a statement on Thursday afternoon confirming the player's commitment and stating that "due to current speculation surrounding Michael Obafemi and as Michael's representatives, we would like to go on record to say that we are not in talks with either Nigeria or England, nor is it something we have ever pursued."

If that was the case, and it certainly backs up what Barrett's sources had said, then why was the manager undermining that and leaving the player exposed to the online abuse? O'Neill's disdain for social media is on the record but it's his job to manage situations like this. Rather than stage-managing what should have been a badly needed good news story, Thursday's developments made him look foolish in the extreme when a player who he said was a "distance off" making a decision made that decision within 24 hours. And in fact, denied that said decision was ever in doubt. A tweet from Obafemi shortly afterwards seemed to seal the deal.

Michael Obafemi confirms his allegiance 

Meanwhile, on pitch developments have been making O'Neill look foolish for a long time now. We lined up in what ostensibly seemed to be a 5-3-2 with Darragh Lenihan, Shane Duffy and John Egan taking the central defensive positions and Callum O’Dowda once again in an unfamiliar number 10 role. Robbie Brady made a long-awaited comeback after a year's absence and Glenn Whelan was back for a farewell bow.

The first ten minutes were passable with McClean's tap into an empty net after O'Dowda had been flagged offside the closest thing to real excitement. Needless to say, McClean's every touch was being booed by the North's fans which generated significant response from the Irish support with various profanities filling the night air.

But it wasn't long before any semblance of a shape started to desert us and we really should have been one down after 13 minutes. Our defence was nowhere to be seen as Gavin Whyte was played in with only Darren Randolph to beat. The Boro keeper spread himself really well to deflect the ball clear but really Whyte should have been given no chance.

Our only attacking outlet these days seems to be throwing Duffy up for a set-piece and hoping he gets a header on goal and that tactic nearly paid off ten minutes later with a great Brady delivery that was asking to be finished but this time Duffy mistimed his header, sending it into the ground and up high enough for Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the North's goal to tip over the bar.

A similar chance on 34 minutes that Duffy headed straight at the keeper was as much as Ireland created and the highlight of the half was the applause that Whelan got as he was subbed five minutes before the break. 

He's a player that had shipped a lot of unfair criticism during his career but the fact is that when he played, Ireland were generally a better team than when he didn't. Indeed, despite a couple of lax passes, he was still one of Ireland's better players on Thursday. Throughout his career, he did the job he was asked to, whether it was by Giovanni Trapattoni or Martin O'Neill.

Glenn Whelan's career highlight v Italy in happier times

The fact that both managers operate in a safety-first zone meant that Whelan took some unfair flak. But he is a good pro who will be missed and will always have that stunning Croke Park strike against Italy to look back on as one of the great Ireland goals.

The half petered out with the North taking control forcing Randolph to save again from Whyte and then from Stuart Dallas to ensure the half finished goalless.

Half-time saw the introduction of a young forward off the bench but after all the hoo-hah of the week, it wasn't Michael Obafemi making his debut but Portsmouth's Ronan Curtis, who has made a great impression at League One level after moving from Derry City in the summer. O'Dowda had been invisible in the 10 role and was the man to make way.

A Seamus Coleman run and shout for a non-existent penalty was as good as it got for Ireland before the usual plethora of substitutions kicked in around the hour mark.

McClean was withdrawn which dialled down the vitriol from the Northern Ireland fans and Callum Robinson also came ashore with Enda Stevens and Seanie Maguire coming on.

It made little difference to the direction the game was now flowing in. First, Michael Smith nearly took advantage of a goalmouth scramble only for Randolph to deny him. Then yet more calamitous defensive play, this time from Lenihan which gave Jordan Jones a very similar one-on-one as Whyte had in the first half. Much to everyone's relief, the outcome was the same when in real terms it had no right to be. 

Any resemblance to a recognisable shape had departed Ireland by now and with gaps appearing all over the pitch, we were succeeding in making Michael O'Neill's men look like tiki-taka experts with their best move just falling at the last hurdle before Steven Davies could get a shot off. 

Seanie Maguire's rotten luck with injuries continued as his night was cut short 13 minutes after it started with Scott Hogan coming on as Obafemi was ignored again although the injury opened up a seat on the plane to Denmark for him. Cyrus Christie followed Hogan off the bench to take up some sort of midfield position and he managed to force a corner which came to nothing as the game fizzled out for a scoreless draw. Unsurprisingly, Randolph was announced as man of the match. Without him, there's no doubt this would have ended up another defeat.

The difference in the approach of the two Ireland's and the two O'Neill's was summed up in the post-match interviews. Northern Ireland's Gavin Whyte spoke about his team's organisation and how the manager has every role drilled into them, even if they're coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Ronan Curtis revealed that no one had spoken about what was required of him until he was told to get ready at half-time.

These are two ordinary sides with average players. Both lost a World Cup play-off and will finish bottom of their Nations League group. Yet one looked organised and simply lacked a cutting edge throughout their campaign and again on Thursday. The other looks rudderless, shapeless and not only lacks a cutting edge up front but is also very shaky at the back. One camp seems happy and content while the other is beset with leaks, misunderstandings at best and arguments at worst.

 One manager is getting paid roughly €600k while the other is getting three times that with his assistant taking home a higher salary than the Northern Ireland boss. And for what?

Bar a late victory against a second-string USA side during the summer, Ireland are now winless in 10 games. The two goals scored that night remain the only goals scored at home since Shane Duffy put us ahead before our Danish capitulation a year ago. In our last 17 games, we've won 3, drawn 6 and lost 8. In terms of tactics and on field organisation and execution of a gameplan,  the football is far worse than I watch inferior players produce week in, week out at Bohs.

There's no indication that this will change despite O'Neill's bullish insistence that he will qualify us for Euro 2020 because, in his own words, he's "good". At this stage, he's just about the only one left that thinks so.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Not Quite Another Ryan's Slaughter

Considering that fingers can certainly be pointed in Darren Randolph's direction for the goal that proved to be Wales' winner Tuesday night, it's ironic that it was probably his stoppage-time save that stopped the atmosphere turning really poisonous. At least that's how it felt after George Thomas fluffed his lines when one-on-one with the Middlesboro stopper in the 93rd minute. While there were audible boos from the crowd when the ref blew up a minute later, I've no doubt a second goal for Ryan Giggs' team would have amplified them to a level that would have been far more difficult for Martin O'Neill to farcically shrug off as being aimed at the referee.

The most frustrating aspect of Tuesday for me was that the first half was undoubtedly an improvement on what we had seen against Denmark on Saturday. Yet, once Wales went ahead, the old failings came to the fore once again as our play lost any semblance of shape in our attempts to salvage something. The chaotic nature of the last twenty minutes could as easily have resulted in a two or three goal slaughter rather than an equaliser. We ended up with neither and instead took another nick in what seems like a death by a thousand cuts for this regime. 

There was still a bit of a matchday buzz around the city as we made our way over from the Northside with food and drink pit stops in Fagans, Mulligans and The Gingerman. But it was mostly coming from the Welsh fans dotted around the city and when we arrived at the Beggars, there was a lot more room than normal. 

To be fair, it was a midweek game and once it got to an hour before kick-off, there were plenty of bodies milling around. However, I do wonder if the fact that so many tickets were given away for free through schoolboy clubs meant that a good chunk of the crowd was coming in with their kids for the match alone. I've no issue with anything that encourages the next generation of fans to come along but the sheer volume of tickets rumoured to be handed out does raise questions about how fair that is to those loyal supporters who pay for the dubious privilege of watching this team. 

With Callum Robinson's cameo one of the bright points from Saturday's draw and rumours about Shane Long's level of fitness, it was no surprise to see Robinson named to start. Aiden O'Brien's performance in the Poland friendly had obviously been enough to see him given the nod in place of Callum O'Dowda who was suffering from concussion. Otherwise, it was the same team as three days before with the Cyrus Christie experiment in central midfield continuing. 

Meanwhile, the loss of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey had left Wales without their two best players. Ethan Ampadu, their Irish qualified young prospect who had done so much damage to us in Cardiff was also missing so the team Giggs sent out was hugely inexperienced with an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old and three 21-year-olds lining up. And for all the talk about the lack of Irish players playing in the Premier League, our team contained six players currently playing there compared to three for Wales.

The Welsh are a nation who know how to belt out an anthem and their rendition of Land of our Fathers was certainly rousing while the malaise around the Irish set-up seemed to have made its way into the stands with a half-hearted Amhrán na bhFiann bringing us to kick-off.

After the criticism of the overly defensive nature of Saturday's set-up, it was clear early on that our defensive line was further up the pitch, meaning that the formation looked more like the promised 3-5-2 as opposed to the five at the back that was consistently apparent against the Danes.

James McClean was getting forward well from his left wing-back position and had got stuck into both Joe Allen and David Brooks in the first six minutes before winning Ireland's first corner on eight.

The corner came to nothing but Ireland really should have taken the lead a minute later. Wales were playing the ball out at the edge of the box when a slip from Matthew Smith let Christie in on goal. A desperate swipe from Smith's trailing leg clipped the ball and forced Christie into a more central position and it may have been that which caused him to take it on first time when advancing closer on goal was the better option. Regardless, Wayne Hennessy in the Welsh goal scrambled back and the lack of pace on the shot meant he was able to push it past the post. It really was a gilt-edged chance and should have seen Ireland ahead.

A defensive error by Shane Duffy at the other end nearly let in Tom Lawrence for Wales' first chance but luckily the ref had spotted a handball and the game settled down in a bit of a nip and tuck manner again. While Wales had about 60% of the possession, neither side was in the ascendancy and it was definitely a better watch than the Denmark game. There were encouraging signs from the likes of Robinson and James McClean was looking more comfortable playing in the higher line, as was Matt Doherty.

However, comfortable saves from a Tyler Roberts shot and a Duffy header were the only real incidents of note until the 40th minute when Ireland actually managed to string a number of passes together and work the ball to Robinson in an encouraging position. Unfortunately, his shot from just outside the box was charged down by Lawrence. 

And that was pretty much it for the first half. Nothing spectacular but a step up from the weekend and the hope was the second period would see it raised another notch.

While things did move up another notch after the break, unfortunately, it was Wales that did the raising as they started doing more with the possession we always cede to the opposition. The first ten minutes were uneventful enough bar the usual McClean booking and O'Neill was the first manager to blink with the ineffective O'Brien replaced by Shane Long on 56 minutes to a fairly indifferent response from the support. But he hadn't even had a chance to settle into things before the defining moment of the game.

It was a very rash decision from Harry Arter to go to ground as it looked like Tyler Roberts would be doing well to create a chance from an overhit pass. But go to ground he did and that was the start of a series of errors. Darren Randolph's wall was all over the place and you could clearly see the gap that Wales' Joe Allen was standing in from our vantage point at the other end of the ground. 

Regardless of that gap, Harry Wilson's strike was fairly central and should have been meat and drink to the keeper even allowing for the fact that Robinson turned his back to it. Why Randolph thought it was a good idea to second guess Wilson and take a step to his left is beyond me but it left him stranded as the ball sailed in, to the delight of the Welsh fans behind that goal.

Mind the gap

Given the utter lack of a cutting edge these days (the only team Ireland have scored more than one against in a competitive game in the last two years is Moldova), it was hard to see where an equaliser would come from. But the approach that was taken to chase the game was scattergun in the extreme.

I don't know if it was the fact that he had turned his back on the ball in the wall but Robinson was hooked not long after despite looking like our biggest threat. Seanie Maguire replaced him. Given the two play together at Preston, would letting them play together not have been a better option than bringing a misfiring Shane Long on?

Long did find himself through on goal a few minutes later and was lucky he was rightly called offside considering he managed to hit the bar rather than the net with his finish. 

The longer the game went on, the more desperate we seemed to become and any semblance of structure went out the window. A couple of Hendrick efforts were blocked. Scott Hogan was introduced replacing Kevin Long which seemed to leave us playing a 2-5-3 formation.

The harum-scarum nature of the game at this stage meant we were really susceptible to counter-attacks and Arter did well to get back and block Lawrence after losing the ball himself. James Chester put a header wide when he should have buried it. Lawrence and Roberts snatched at chances.

We were still creating the odd half chance but it was aimless stuff in the main. Maguire put a header into Hennessy's hands and Duffy lashed at a chance but put it well over. A couple of long throws were launched into the box and pinged around but nothing really came close. Maguire hit another shot over the bar before McClean hit a stoppage-time effort straight at the keeper. 

Another Hendrick corner went straight into Hennessy's hands again before what looked a final attack was launched with another booming clearance from Randolph. Duffy actually won the header from the centre-forward position with Ireland seemingly playing four up front by now, Arter was caught in possession and Thomas really should have hammered the nail into the coffin but was tentative with his shot and Randolph saved with his foot. 

There was still time for another Ireland corner which Randolph came up for and the confusion he caused led to the ball bouncing back to Arter. But his shot was slashed at and his claims for a penalty smacked of the desperation that had marked our second half play. The ref wasn't buying it and promptly blew up leaving the players slumping to the turf and the fans booing roundly. The rest of our night was spent picking over the bones of the last week. And mostly moaning about it.

How low can we go?

It's not an exaggeration to say that the national team are at a very low ebb right now. And it's very difficult to see things changing in the near future. The last year's results have been the worst since the Steve Staunton era. Nine games have brought a single win and even that came with a last minute winner against a second string USA team. The five competitive games we've played have seen two scoreless draws and three defeats, two of them heavy. 

But it's the nature of the defeats that are the real worry. The competitive games have all been against teams supposedly from the same level as ourselves. The format of the Nations League is set up to ensure that. Yet, we've looked woefully short of where Denmark and Wales are despite both playing without their top players.

While the Under 19's brought some light to the situation with their win against Holland on Tuesday and will enter December's daw for the elite phase of the European Championships, there are clearly issues within Irish football as a whole. Under 21 results have been poor for a long time now and after eight years in charge, a change from Noel King should be implemented.

Unlike Wales, the Senior team has remained a distance away from the underage set up in terms of playing style etc. While results were being achieved, there was an argument that that was all that mattered. Discussion needs to happen in that regard now but that's a longer debate for another piece.

At present, any analysis has to look at how the management are fulfiling their role. Martin O'Neill himself admitted in an Off The Ball interview last August that he doesn't believe he has the players for long enough to work on systems in training. He consistently talks down the ability of the players he does have without taking any responsibility himself. Numerous ex-players such as John Giles, Keith Andrews and Gary Breen have pointed this out as a recipe for disaster.

He's admitted that he doesn't tell players they're playing until an hour before kick-off with his logic being  "Well, I've always done that for a start and I did that the night we played in the UEFA Cup final for Celtic against Porto who went on to win the Champions League the following year," 

It's a laissez-faire attitude that doesn't seem fit for purpose fifteen years on from that UEFA Cup final. Especially considering that O'Neill is the fourth highest paid international manager in Europe. It's obvious that the individual involved won't change. The last 12 months should therefore mean that the manager should be changed before the full qualifying campaign starts. Yet his salary means it would take a huge leap of faith for the FAI to do that and it's one leap I just can't see them taking.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Nothing Fresh In This Stale Danish

It's indicative of just how far Ireland's stock has fallen in the last 12 months that a 0-0 home draw against an opposition shorn of their one truly world-class player can be heralded as progress. Yet, that's the position we find ourselves in as the Martin O'Neill reign stays afloat with the clean sheet at least buying a little more time for a management team that still feels as if it's holed below the waterline.

The gloom of the morning that greeted me as I opened the curtains provided an apt metaphor for the mood that surrounds the Irish camp these days. The manner of the Welsh defeat and the subsequent hoo-hah about Stephen Ward's leaked voice message had meant that the set up had rarely been out of the sports pages for the last month. This was surely a chance to try and aim for the fresh start that had been promised at the start of this Nations League campaign. Although the repetitive nature of the fixtures this draw has thrown up had undoubtedly added to the stale feeling around the set-up.

While the Declan Rice saga shows no sign of abating, it seems like an eleventh-hour phone call from Roy Keane to Harry Arter had been enough to persuade him to return to the squad. And the award of September's Premier League Player of the Month to ex-Bohs full-back, Matt Doherty, had meant that there was at least a football based narrative around the build-up with the clamour to include a player strangely ignored by O'Neill in the past despite excellent Championship form dominating discussions.

Speaking of Bohs, there was the small matter of a Scottish Challenge Cup tie against English Conference side, Sutton United the same afternoon as the match. And, after a 30-minute struggle with a failing Eir broadband and 4g network to try and arrange a cab, myself and Bren, the sole representative from the Birmingham Irish crew arrived up at Dalymount for a taster before the evening's main event.

The nature of that competition, into which the Scottish League have invited two teams each from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England's National League (previously the Conference) meant that normal regulations didn't apply with fans allowed to bring their drinks into the stands, which added to a very nice atmosphere between the home support and the 250 Sutton fans who'd made the trip.

The game itself fizzled out into a nil all draw but the penalty shoot-out that followed was worth the admission alone as Bohs keeper and recent Irish squad member, Shane Supple, took it upon himself to turn things around after Bohs had missed their third and fourth pens. I've never seen a keeper save a pen, score the next one himself and then save another but that's what he did before Rob Cornwall scored in sudden death and Sutton's next pen hit the bar and bounced back out off the line to send Bohs through to the last eight. It doesn't make up for the heartbreaking nature of the FAI Cup semi defeat to Cork last week but it'll keep the season going a little longer.

From there, another cab through the incessant drizzle brought us over to the Beggars where the usual regulars had started to gather under whatever shelter was available. Despite the negativity surrounding the team at the moment, it was a bit of craic to catch up with those that had travelled and to try and work out exactly what sort of formation was going to be played when the team was announced.

With three centre-halves selected it was clearly three at the back with wingbacks on the flanks but with Doherty finally selected for a competitive game, presumably on the right, where were Cyrus Christie and James McClean going to play? Callum O'Dowda's inclusion was a positive but again, I was struggling to work out exactly where he'd line up with some reports stating he'd have a central role. So where would that leave Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter?

Rather than waste time second-guessing, we wandered down to the ground in what was a fairly subdued atmosphere in time to see the standard minute's silence although it was nice to see a tribute to a young Bohs supporter, Oran Tully, who tragically died recently aged only 19 having bravely battled serious illness since he was a small child. Oran would have been well known in League of Ireland circles for his video blogs and had been on Sky Sports My Special Day programme a few years ago. A further round of applause on 19 minutes in the singing section also marked his passing which was a nice touch.

The game itself began cagily but an early flashpoint arrived when Hendrick decided to play on when Denmark and Thomas Delaney, in particular, had clearly decided to stop playing after Arter went down in our half. With the Danish players standing around, Jeff decided to scamper through on goal only, in an action that really sums up Ireland right now, to drag his shot wide. Even against a defence that stops playing, we still can't get a strike on target.

Needless to say, the Danes weren't impressed with this shithousery and, led by an irate Kasper Schmeichel, surrounded Hendrick as a bit of finger-jabbing and pushing and shoving ensued. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he actually scored with O'Neill suggesting afterwards that he may have instructed his players to stand by and let Denmark score. Some might argue that that's essentially what we did against Wales but that's another debate...

By now, it had begun to sink in that my eyes weren't deceiving me and Cyrus Christie was actually playing in central midfield. I'm actually a fan of Christie and think he can be unfairly maligned on occasion but I can't imagine what sort of signal his inclusion in that position sends to the likes of Conor Hourihane, David Meyler and  Shaun Williams (who was a rare bright spot in recent friendlies) as they sat on the bench and saw a man who's never played that position professionally selected ahead of them.

To be fair, Christie did alright in terms of work-rate and getting a foot in but it meant a midfield bereft of guile and, as is the norm, completely unable to retain possession or create much of anything. Instructions seemed to go no further than battle away and ensure you're in it till the 70-minute mark and have a go then. Although given how often we collapse on the occasions we do score early, maybe it's for the best.

Set plays seem to be our only chance to create opportunities these days with Shane Duffy usually the target. The Brighton man should have done better when he got onto the end of a Hendrick free on 35 mins and that was as good as it got for Ireland in the first half. Denmark weren't offering much more, to be honest despite dominating possession and their closest effort saw Sisto hit the outside of the post just before half-time.

O'Dowda had taken a knock yet played on during the first half but was obviously feeling the effects so was replaced by Enda Stephens at half-time. So, another defender on and McClean moving more central.

While Denmark started the half brighter, the game was still a very grim watch as we dug in with a 5-3-2 formation where any possession we had was generally recycled to Randolph to clear upfield. Harry Arter's last meaningful act was to clear a goalbound header from Kjaer off the line around the hour mark before he was surprisingly substituted, stopping on his way to the bench to enjoy a warm embrace from Roy Keane. Well, obviously that didn't happen but that scenario seemed as likely as an Irish shot on target by that stage.

The introduction of Callum Robinson did seem to spark a bit of life into the team and Ireland's best spell followed. He at least tried to get onto the ball and be positive with it and that elusive shot on target came not long later.

Robinson did well to get the ball wide to Stephens on the left wing. His cross was flicked on by McClean to Long who laid it off to that man Christie who was striding forward from his central berth. He connected sweetly with the ball but Schmeichel beat it away comfortably.

Denmark seemed content with a draw by now although a mix up between Duffy and Christie let Sisto play Braithwaite in but Randolph had little trouble saving the shot. A second strike from Delaney was dealt with just as comfortably and one final late sub saw Aiden O'Brien on for Shane Long with a couple of minutes left.

There was still time for one last moment of stoppage time controversy when Shane Duffy went down under a Dalsgaard challenge after a Christie cross into the box. For a second, it looked like the ref had bought it only for him instead to flash a yellow card in Duffy's direction for diving. That was that.

If one looks to be positive then at least you can say that we stopped the rot and didn't lose. In fact, should we beat Wales tomorrow, we'd be going to Denmark next month where a win would see us top the group.

But is stopping the rot enough against what, without Eriksen, is a very average Danish team for whom a draw was as much as they really wanted or needed? After all, we got the same result against a better Denmark team in Copenhagen last year in a similar performance equally bereft of creativity. And we all saw how the wheels came off after that.

There are still plenty of worrying underlying issues with how we play. The formation seemed to flood the defence and the midfield yet still leave huge gaps between each third of the pitch. Letting a defender who hasn't played centre midfield since he was 14 know he's to play there an hour before kick off seems an abdication of basic management preparation.

We consistently have under 40% possession regardless of the quality of the opposition. Our go-to pass is generally backwards. We've had 7 shots on target in our last 9 games since the midway point in last year's October fixtures. Our record since then is Played - 9, Won - 2, Drawn - 3, Lost - 5. Goals For - 6, Goals Against - 14.

In fact, a run like that in league football would see a manager under pressure in the modern game. A run like that against the backdrop of a player making themselves unavailable due to the actions of the assistant manager, an admission of another row with a senior player, our best prospect considering a switch to England and more leaks than a sieve coming out of the camp and it takes on an altogether different hue.

All management reigns come to a natural end. In Ireland's case, that end never seems to be foreseen and it's generally a result in one campaign too far that indicates no way back. I've yet to see a manager turn things around after that result but I've seen a few campaigns wasted after it.

With Mick McCarthy, the Euro '04 qualifier 4-2 defeat by Russia in a post-Saipan world indicated the beginning of the end. Steve Staunton's reign never should have started and the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus was a result that there was no comeback from. Giovanni Trapattoni never recovered from Euro '12 but it was the 6-1 defeat by Germany in the next campaign that really meant the end.

If the 5-1 Lansdowne defeat to Denmark last November wasn't that result for Martin O'Neill, the last thing he'd have needed was the hammering that Wales gave us last month. Yet, the fact that he now has a chance to take on that same opposition without Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Amdapu gives him a perfect opportunity to hit the reset button in a meaningful fashion and become an exception to the rule.

While Christie acquited himself reasonably, there's no reason why he couldn't play on the right of the three central defenders to allow a natural centre mind such as Williams in to try and link the play up. Hendrick is ineffective that far forward and needs to be withdrawn back to where he was most effective at the Euros in France.

Conversely, Arter is more effective further up the pitch than he was deployed on Saturday. With three central defenders playing, the defensive midfield role doesn't need to be as tight to the defence as it was where Arter nearly seemed to operate as a fourth centre-half on occasion.

Wales have dipped significantly since we made them look like world-beaters a month ago. Denmark beat them comfortably later that week and Spain put four past them in a friendly four days ago. Considering that, and the Welsh injury list, it's imperative that we approach the game in a more positive fashion that we've recently seen. A win on Tuesday has the potential to change the entire narrative around the team. Sending out a team set up to do that shouldn't be too much to ask.

Monday, 3 September 2018

ComMONication Lets Us Down?

It's had its critics but I've been broadly in favour of the Nations League concept since it was first announced. There were too many meaningless friendlies on the calendar and there'll still be the same number of Euro and World Cup qualifiers so surely having an additional four competitive games is a good thing? Plus, even though it worked to our benefit last time out, I wasn't a fan of a third-place finish in a group being enough to get a play-off.

So tying those four finals places to the Nations League rather than rewarding third-place finishes makes sense to me. The opportunity to possibly get promoted and test yourself against the top tier nations was another positive for me. I was looking forward to hopefully getting a draw that opened the possibility of a nice couple of trips to somewhere new or at least somewhere we hadn't played for a while. What I didn't want was what we got.

The draw last January quickly put paid to the positivity I was feeling about the tournament. The odds on Wales and Denmark coming out from their respective pots to our group were 25/1 but that's what came to pass. Outside of the fact that we've visited Cardiff and Copenhagen in the last year, the wounds from the beating Denmark subjected us to at home still feel fairly raw.

While we feel that we owe Denmark one, there seems little confidence that delivering revenge is likely. And to flip that, there's no doubt that Wales will feel they owe us one after October's smash and grab in Cardiff.  So, having had our last three competitive games against that opposition, our next four will also be. Will familiarity breed contempt?

Speaking of contempt, it seems to be in plentiful supply within the Ireland camp if reports are to be believed. The charm offensive launched by the FAI by making Martin O'Neill available for a series of media interviews ran aground fairly quickly with the news that our main prospect for the future, Declan Rice, had decided against committing his future to Ireland.

Rice mulling over future

As this week's game against Wales is a competitive match, an appearance would tie the West Ham centre-half to the green shirt. Given that Rice had played the last 3 friendlies and was front and centre as New Balance launched the new Ireland away kit earlier this year, the assumption was that his future was secured.

Yet with Harry Arter now joining Rice in declining a call-up, the focus has switched to the summer altercation between Arter and Roy Keane that O'Neill confirmed occured last week. 

Rumours abound that Rice was unimpressed by an exchange during a spat between Keane and Arter where the latter had drawn the former's ire. So we're now left with what seems to be Alan Browne's head photoshopped onto Rice's body in the publicity shots for the home jersey launch as Rice mulls over his international future with England sniffing around.

I can't condone Arter rejecting the call. Regardless of whatever issues he has with Keane, representing your country should be more important than the management set-up you're playing for.

Arter attack?

But questions have to be asked about what exactly happened and what was said that has caused the rift. The irony of the reported situation where Arter took exception at being accused of faking injury by Keane can't be ignored. Nor can the fact that Keane also had an argument with Jon Walters at the same time.

And given that O'Neill said last week that the argument had "definitely been defused", which clearly isn't the case, it makes it difficult to take his assertion that this is unrelated to the Rice situation as gospel.

O'Neill himself has admitted that he hasn't spoken to Rice 'directly' since the player's decision tu step back. Yet Gareth Southgate stated over the weekend that he has. Supporters are entitled to query why O'Neill has not.

Regardless of the truth, what the FAI have been pushing as a fresh start following last year's Danish debacle and O'Neill's extended flirtation with Stoke last January is unraveling very quickly. 

Clearly, everyone from the FAI to the management team to the support needed a period of reflection following that Denmark defeat. The manner of it raised huge questions over the wisdom of the FAI offering O'Neill a new contract before the campaign was finished. Although the Wales result came just after that contract offer, the play-off capitulation surely had everyone second guessing their decision.

The manager clearly was, as his flirtations with Everton and, particularly, Stoke showed. From the FAI perspective, they certainly didn't seem to be pushing to get his signature onto the verbally agreed contract.

My belief has always been that if an Ireland boss delivers a second place finish, he's done enough to earn another campaign. We've only topped one group in our entire history back in Euro 88 qualifying so second has to be considered reasonable.

Much as I was unhappy with the football delivered in the last campaign and I certainly wouldn't have been offering a deal with two games to go in the group, the results from those two games would have been enough to sway me. While the play-off defeat was devastating in its nature, I wasn't going to change a belief I've always had based on one defeat.

However, the attitude shown by the manager since has me seriously questioning it. The nature of the Denmark game and the seriously questionable tactical decisions made during the game were rightly scrutinised and criticised in the aftermath. I struggle to believe that someone involved in the game as long as O'Neill wouldn't expect that.

Clearly, his ego doesn't like the criticism and that's fair enough. But the patronising manner that he's dealt with that criticism left a bad taste. His attitude towards Tony O'Donoghue in their interview after the match and again after the Nations League draw was bizarre and one can only imagine what sort of reaction O'Donoghue might get if he broaches the subject of Rice and Arter this week.

The constant references to what he achieved as a player under Brian Clough a generation ago and his run to the UEFA Cup final with Celtic 13 years ago are beginning to grate on supporters as well. As is his admission that he sees no value in working on set pieces during international breaks. Considering how porous we have looked defending them recently, then surely tackling this should be a priority, whatever about practicing attacking set plays. 

The game has moved on and people want to see something from the manager that recognises that. Yet, as ever in football, success will be based on results. And in general, that's one thing that O'Neill has been able to point to in his career.

The thing is that delivering them after losing two of the ever-dwindling number of squad members operating at Premier League level looks a lot more difficult than it did two weeks ago.