Thursday, 25 March 2021

Serb Your Enthusiam

So a familiar feeling in the Stephen Kenny era as the unfortunate Irish boss passed a ninth game without being on the winning side. But did we finally see some green shoots of recovery?

Regardless of one's feelings on Kenny, there is no denying that the run of luck he has had to suffer has been worse than any Irish manager has faced since Eoin Hand was denied the opportunity to manage his country at the 1982 World Cup by incompetent, if not downright corrupt, refereeing. 

What was actually a very good performance in the Euro 20 play-off defeat to Slovakia came unstuck on penalties after missing two chances that should have negated the need for a shoot-out and was overshadowed by the farcical HSE reading of Coivd regulations that deprived him of the services of Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah. And with Covid restrictions and empty stadia preventing any opportunity to try and build momentum topped off by another farce in the form of Videogate, it's fair to say that his first year in the job hasn't panned out how he would have expected or hoped.

From the supporters' point of view, there's also been an element of a phoney war to the last year of international football. Thirteen months ago most of us were preparing to head to Bratislava to lend our support to Mick McCarthy's efforts to navigate the play-off that Kenny's side eventually lost behind closed doors. Having not had the opportunity to see any of the nine games on Kenny's watch in the flesh, it's been impossible to feel part of the era to this point. 

There's been no opportunity to get behind the young players who have been introduced. No opportunity to show the manager that, despite what you'll see in certain elements of the media, he retains the support of the bulk of the hardcore Ireland fans, at least to my knowledge. Watching on TV is better than nothing but it just doesn't cut the mustard. And even watching matches that you may not have got to has taken on a surreal air with the lack of atmosphere in the stadia. It's been difficult to get excited about the start of this campaign and it's not just the run of results that's to blame for that.

Having at least got to watch the opening Nations League game in a pub with a select few friends and a €9 substantial meal, the absence of even that option meant that last night's game was watched at home with just my better half and our recently adopted rescue dog Pablo for company. An early shift in work was done by 3 and after walking the dog, it was just a case of sitting tight and waiting for the teams to come out. When ours finally leaked at around 6.20, it was probably as good as could have been cobbled together from yet another decimated squad, this time through injuries rather than the virus.

Playing three at the back isn't something really associated with Kenny's teams but, being honest, it probably suited the personnel available to him. In doing so, he delivered a riposte to those criticising his alleged lack of pragmatism, which isn't necessarily defined as reverting to hoof-ball when under pressure. 

Initial reports that Seamus Coleman would be slotted into a midfield berth to accommodate himself and Matt Doherty in the same team seemed wide of the mark to me and that feeling was borne out at kick-off when the captain slotted into the right-hand side of the back three with Ciaran Clark and Dara O'Shea. Shane Duffy's absence can't have come as a surprise to anyone given his travails at Celtic this season although, given the inexperience in having third-choice keeper Mark Travers between the sticks and the absence of John Egan, I had thought Duffy might earn a reprieve. 

I was looking forward to seeing how Josh Cullen and Jayson Molumby would work in the centre, although given the latter's lack of recent game time would probably have given Jason Knight the nod beside Cullen. But overall, no complaints.

The game started encouragingly for Ireland with a couple of early corners won but both poorly executed by Alan Browne. Serbia countered with a couple of their own as the game settled down and as we reached the quarter-hour mark, the home side seemed to be gaining the higher ground. 

However, all that went out the window after 17 minutes. Some really good possession play from Ireland worked the ball to Matt Doherty on the right and although his attempted cross was cut out, Ireland's high press meant that Browne was first to the second ball and he spread the play to Enda Stevens with a peach of a pass from the outside of his right boot. Stevens slipped a slide-rule pass into Callum Robinson's feet and the West Brom forward did very well to dig out a cross back across the goal where Browne had continued his run to. One superb leap and header to send the ball back the direction from whence it came and boom! Ireland's goal drought was over!

Having waited that long to see Ireland score any goal that my leap off the sofa was almost held back with anticipation that VAR would find something wrong with Browne's leap over the Serbian defender in the erroneous belief that it would be in use for all qualifiers, as opposed to the ridiculous situation where it's in use in some games but not in all. The fact that it was one as well-worked as that one also meant that my degree of startlement was matched by Pablo's who by now was eyeing his new master with what seemed a mixture of bemusement and disdain.

Having finally got a goal and our noses in front, the next step was ensuring that, as has happened so often in recent campaigns, with the last visit to Belgrade in 2016 a perfect example, we didn't sit back and look to cling on. And despite Serbia having the lions share of possession with Ajax's Dusan Tadic pulling the strings, Ireland were still keeping a high line and pressing hard and had managed to repel a series of corners as half-time ticked closer.

At this point of the game, it's only natural to look at the clock and pray that you'll make the break with the lead intact. Alas, this time that wouldn't happen and when the equaliser came, it really came from nothing. 

An airborne reverse pass found its way onto Tadic's head and the ex-Southampton man outjumped Ciaran Clark to flick the ball into the direction of Dusan Vlahovic. Had Dara O'Shea stepped out as Tadic rose then Vlahovic would have been miles offside but instead, he tracked the attacker's run in a foot race he had no chance of winning and the Fiorentina striker made no mistake in placing his shot across Travers. All Ireland's good work undone in an instant.

Having levelled matters, Serbia really upped the gears and, having hoped to get to half-time in front, it was actually a relief to make it in level. But overall it had been an encouraging half. The hope now was for a repeat in the second.

The early signs in the second stanza were positive again with an under pressure Connolly just failing to get a clean strike the end of a good Robinson ball across the box on 49 minutes. Serbia responded immediately with a clearly offside goal from Vlahovic but it was another incident involving Connolly a couple of minutes later that the game really swung on.

It was more a route one approach with a long ball from a Clark free-kick that Connolly set off after and after getting a bit of luck with a headed flick to take him back across Stefan Mitrovic, the Serbian defender lunged in and seemed to take a lot more of Connolly than the ball. Despite Irish claims, the ref awarded a corner and Robinson's 'screen' gesture for the ref to take another look at it added to my confusion over whether VAR was in use or not. As per usual, the corner came to nothing as replays showing a clear foul added to the sense of injustice.

A few minutes later, it was Ireland getting the benefit of no VAR after Coleman lost his footing in the box and slipped straight into Vlahovic. Again, the ref waved it away but while there's an argument that that made it one escape each, had the Ireland penalty been awarded then play wouldn't have developed in the manner it did to lead to the Serbian shout. So Kenny's ire was very understandable.

It was a few minutes afterwards that Kenny made his first change and for me, it was one that ceded the initiative that we had, with Molumby replaced by Jeff Hendrick. Hendrick has had good games for Ireland, most notably during Euro 2016, but what he adds to a midfield in terms of dynamism is beyond me. Play just seems to slow down around him and I'd have preferred to see Knight brought on at that stage. Connolly went down with cramp shortly afterwards with Shane Long on in his stead. 

To be fair, when the second Serbian goal came, it wasn't down to any of the Irish changes but I'd been worried as soon as I saw Aleksandar Mitrovic come on for the hosts around the same time. I watched a lot of the Fulham man in the Championship and, as the archetypal player that blows hot and cold, have seen both sides of him regularly. 

Any hope that this may be a night he blew cold were dispelled on 69 minutes. It was actually started by a long goal-kick from Travers which failed to find the head of Long and was headed back upfield towards Vlahovic who laid it off first-time to Tadic. Another first-time touch from Tadic played Mitrovic out wide on the right and as soon as the camera went back to show Travers enthusiastically and inexplicably stepping forward I knew we were in big trouble.

Mitrovic still had plenty to do but executed his lob perfectly but it has to go down as an absolute howler from the young keeper. There was literally no reason for him to push up as far as he did and I feel that the fact he was a bit hesitant in narrowing the angle for the first goal may have been playing on his mind. Either way, his frantic back-peddling was in vain and Mitrovic's exquisite chip was on its way to nestling in the goal before Travers' despairing dive had even left the ground.

The game was essentially over as a contest seven minutes later with Tadic central to it once again. This time it was a wayward pass from Cullen that was intercepted by Pavlovic who laid it off for Tadic to float a sublime cross onto Mitrovic's head. With the ball popped back the direction it came, there was little Travers could do to prevent us from going 3-1 down. Although legitimate questions can be asked about his starting position again, it's moot really as I don't think any keeper would have saved such a precise header.


By now, Robbie Brady, James McClean and James Collins had come in for Clark, Robinson and Browne but while McClean made the usual nuisance of himself instantly earning a corner, Brady's delivery from the set-piece was as poor as Browne's had been.

It felt like it would take a mistake to get us back into the game and one duly arrived on 86 minutes as Stefan Mitrovic underhit a header back to his keeper. With Long in no mood to give up the fight, he was onto it in a flash and hooked it back for Collins to scramble home. Could the big comeback be on?


In a word, no. Four minutes stoppage time gave hope and with a minute of it left a Brady cross was cleared for a final corner. With Travers coming up to try and make amends, a good delivery was essential but once again, it was abysmal. It's baffling to me how poor both corners Brady delivered in his time on the pitch were and criminal to pass up a final chance like that. But pass it up we did and within seconds the full-time whistle was blown. The awarding of man of the match for Alan Browne seemed fair and bar some poor dead-ball delivery, I thought he was excellent and well deserved his goal. 

Looking back at the WhatsApp group that I'm in with the lads I normally go to the away game with, my immediate thoughts after the game and after a few beers were "Lost it in midfield after Hendrick came on. Brady's corners after he came on were criminal. McClean did okay but his crossing was abysmal. Wasn't the young lads that let us down bar Travers and you'll make allowances for inexperience. Gutted not to get a point."  

In the cold light of day, I feel I can stand over that. If we're to give Kenny a chance then I feel that letting him bring through the young players and start to phase out the likes of McClean, Duffy, Hendrick and Brady is probably needed. I don't feel Brady or Hendrick ever pushed on as I'd hoped post France in 2016. Thanks for those memories but we can't wait for that to happen any longer. 

Duffy has been a warrior but probably doesn't suit how we're now trying to play. If he can regain form after what's been a horrible year on and off the pitch then he may still have a part to play but sorting his club future should take precedence for now. I've always loved McClean and he's been a wonderful servant for me and provided some golden moments. But again, I feel it's a bit-part role at best for him moving forward.    

For Kenny, it'll be game number ten on Saturday and while last night's performance may have put some much-needed credit in the bank, a first win of his reign against Luxembourg, one of the group's minnows is essential. 

I didn't agree with some of the soundbites I heard from Damien Delaney and Brian Kerr after the game in terms of the system. For me, it worked well and looking back at the game today, all of the goals can be put down to individual errors in a way. O'Shea getting dragged into that race with Vlahovic, Travers' poor positioning and Cullen looking to play a ball to Shane Long's feet instead of releasing him over the top were what caused the goals rather than an issue with the system itself.

The players also seemed happy with it judging by Alan Browne's post-match interview and with another few days work on it, retaining it for Saturday is a must, The big question is whether to retain Travers in goal or give 19-year-old Gavin Bazunu a senior debut. 

It's easy to say with hindsight but I'd have plumbed for the young Manchester City keeper last night purely down to the fact that he's played more regularly this season, albeit in League One on loan for Rochdale. While Travers can point to some Premier League experience with Bournemouth, it was a number of years ago by now and having only played limited games on loan at Swindon in the same division as Bazunu, now finds himself bench-warming after being recalled to his parent club.

It's a tough call and I'm sure Kenny will be conscious of the impact making the change now could have on Travers' confidence. But, in my opinion with a win imperative, it's a call that has to be made. Bazunu played Europa League games for Shamrock Rovers at 16 and acquitted himself well. He's had top quality coaching at Man City since moving over the water. He looks an outstanding prospect, with the potential to be better than Caoimhin Kelleher to me. Shay Given was given his senior wings at the same age, it's time to do the same.

Cut out the individual errors and a win on Saturday awaits. The only shame is we won't be there to see it. 

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