For a little while on Saturday, before John Delaney quashed the giddy talk that he was on his way out of the FAI altogether, so much seemed bright about the future of Irish football.
There’d at last be new direction in the boardroom, and on the pitch there were small shoots of hope popping up. Earlier in the day, for instance, the under-19s qualified for this summer’s European Championships with a game to spare, and with that tournament comprising of only eight teams it’s not hyperbole to say that this was a truly elite achievement.
There was just one downer though, well before the CEO installed himself in a role that raises more questions when answers are needed. The senior team were making us endure the present.
Let’s be honest here – they were rancid and their efforts were completely septic.
Before kick-off in Gibraltar, Mick McCarthy gave his pre-match interview to RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue and his words showed what we should expect not just in their opener but throughout his latest stint in charge. He said that while the idea of playing better football than the turgid fare endured under his predecessor was nice, results always have to take priority.
This attitude is a major problem in the game here, as the notion is pushed that they are mutually exclusive and cannot co-exist. But do McCarthy and others really think as examples that the Dutch came up with total football, that Brazil in 1982 were perhaps the most expansive we’ve ever seen, that Pep Guardiola had his Barcelona engage in tiki-taka, that Jurgen Klopp has his players press hard and break fast, because it’s easy on the eye? That may be the case but it is merely a side-effect as such tactics were and are employed to maximise the chance of victory.
You can do both when it comes to good football and winning. Indeed you should do both.
We get it that of course in all those instances, line-ups were pockmarked with greats of the game and this Irish side has a large dearth of talent. But against a group of Sunday league players, the gulf in class had to be enough for Ireland to play in a certain, entertaining way. In fact, that combined with the brutal wind coming off the rock next door to the pitch meant it made sense to keep the ball on the ground and pass it short and crisp. It all screamed out for possession, probing and patience against a side camped deep, as if re-enacting an ice hockey power-play.
And still what we got was the exact opposite. It means that right now it’s far too easy to talk about three points and a win being all that matters. It’s not for there’s a bigger picture. Cause and effect.
If what we were looking for was creativity, an adventurous streak, and comfort on the ball against a pub team that Dundalk would pick apart, such notions were quickly quashed. Literally, right from the kick-off the ball was hoofed long and high and aimless into the gale. That set the tone for a group that spent the majority of the afternoon looking to get to the byline and cross. It’s not surprising that one of the few times they tried to do something different involved a great touch by James McClean, and directness from David McGoldrick, before Jeff Hendrick finished.
As from there on out it was a reversion to an awful type.
That Darren Randolph was probably the best player against a bunch of plumbers and policemen says all you need to know about both style and substance. Granted, there were other warning lights flashing all over. If you’re an optimist then we manufactured one clear chance in the first half – that’s if you can call a ricochet in the build-up leading to a near own goal an actual chance. And even after the shackles should have come off with the goal, only at the final whistle could you truly relax as the win was never assured before that moment.
All of this begs the question of how many tactical evolutions and revolutions have come and gone in the sport since an Irish team really tried to do anything a little bit differently. Jack Charlton’s methodology was outdated in 1990 and here we are nearly three decades on playing in a similar fashion. It’s always 4-4-2. It’s always long balls and hit and hope. Sigh.
It’s bizarre that there’s a reluctance to try and change things up, as when it is broken it’s okay to offer up a fix. And for all the limitations there are still options. Last week John Giles suggested that given how little we have up front that James McClean can play there, allowing for Robbie Brady to come in out wide, with Harry Arter in the middle for some artistry. Why not?
It cannot be any worse.
Instead though we are like that person who hasn’t updated their wardrobe since the 1970s, walking around in tie dye and ponchos, and thinking that since trends are circular if they hang on in there long enough that eventually they’ll be stylish again. But football is not fashion. We are just falling further and further behind what is cutting edge and what works best.
To be fair to the management they’ve had next to no time with the squad to put their stamp onto it all and to be fair to Mick McCarthy to criticise seems harsh for a guy that has been a slave for his country. Like a relief captain called into the cockpit as the plane plummets and is told he’s just a couple of minutes to diagnose the issue, on this occasion perhaps he didn’t even realise what he was getting himself into. He’ll know after those 90 minutes aged him years.
Afterwards, when he again spoke with O’Donoghue at least he was honest about how bad it really was, and what needs to change. But show me, don’t tell me. That’s his well-paid job.
Eventually though, some of this criticism also needs to seep down to the players too. Before it was the fault of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane but that’s a card you can only play once. Solely blaming management for all their ills reminds of a tale from the Soviet Union. It’s 1953 and Josef Stalin is lying on his deathbed when he summons Nikita Khrushchev. “I know you will beat the competition and follow me,” he says, “so for your help, I’ve prepared two letters. When you are in trouble with the party for the first time, open letter one. When you get in trouble a second time, open letter two.” By 1956, tensions in Hungary and the Suez sees pressure grow on the new leader so he does as told, tears open an envelope and the note inside reads, “Blame everything on me”. Khrushchev follows the advice, gives a speech condemning Stalin and survives eight more years. But by 1964, he’s about to be shouldered aside by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, so he opens up the second envelope. It says, “Prepare two letters”.
This bunch of players are fast running out of excuses and by now we are wondering if Hendrick and Duffy, Brady and others will ever recover that brief flash of form from the European Championships in 2016. We’ve had to play a long waiting game, and more time has passed since then than happened between Giants Stadium and Anfield.
What we do know is that despite it being harder to not qualify than qualify, with far too many making it from the field to the finals, we likely won’t. Miracles don’t tend to happen, with Georgia likely closer to our level than either Switzerland or Denmark despite their many limitations. So if we are on a hiding to nothing, is it better to bring along more of the next generation and school them? The problem is that would be of no use to McCarthy given the bizarre situation he is in.
That is a contract that John Delaney can also take the blame for. And no doubt his parasitic acts and actions will rightly claim all the headlines over the coming days. That’s mostly good.
Sadly though it takes attention away from matters on the pitch. From allowing us to understand the scale of the issue so we might go about coming up with a fix.