If you had offered Republic of Ireland supporters the chance to be placed joint top of their World Cup qualifying group with Serbia on twelve points after six games they would have bitten your hand off.
But supporting the Irish football team is sort of like watching the film Groundhog Day and despite the promising group position, the same questions are being asked over and over again.
Giovanni Trapattoni briefly assumed the role of national treasure in Ireland, despite being Italian, when he steered the Republic to their first major tournament in ten years back in 2012, but once again disaster struck at those European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Trapattoni was being dogged by the questions he had faced during qualification once again. Why aren’t Ireland playing more attacking football? Why are Ireland playing so much route one football? Why isn’t Andy Reid even in the squad?
The years have rolled by and Reid’s name has been replaced by Wes Hoolahan’s when it comes to Irish supporters and pundits looking for our answer to Diego Maradonna. The conservative Trapattoni was replaced by Martin O’Neill after an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Despite the fact that Trapattoni’s first two campaigns resulted in a controversial play-off defeat to France and qualification to the following European Championships, fans had seen enough of his cagey, and perhaps outdated approach to tactics, long before his third campaign had crashed and burned.
The appointment of O’Neill was seen as a positive one, a manager who has encouraged his previous sides to play expressive football over the years, and the fact that he appointed former Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane as his assistant was seen as further evidence that this would be a revitalised Ireland set-up based on the fact that Keane had been so outspoken in the past of the frustration he felt playing for Ireland under Jack Charlton and his long ball tactics.
With O’Neill and Keane at the helm the general feeling was that the onus would now be bestowed upon the more gifted footballers in the squad rather than the diligent workhorses that Trapattoni looked so favourably upon. But ironically enough the Italian’s last match in charge was a 1-0 defeat to Austria in which Paul Greene was chosen in the side ahead of Hoolahan, who was resigned to a place on the bench, and Reid wasn’t deemed worthy enough of a place in the squad.
Almost four years have passed since that defeat in Austria. When you compare it to Sunday’s draw it’s interesting to see that despite still being the most creative player in the Irish squad Hoolahan can’t break into the starting XI consistently. It’s not Hoolahan’s exclusion that is the most alarming similarity when comparing the two fixtures, instead it’s that nearly four years down the road, and having played in another major tournament, this Irish side still plays with a distinct lack of creativity and an overwhelming fear to actually pass the ball along the surface and retain possession. It is impossible to see what advances have been made since the Trapattoni era.
Ireland’s use of the ball from the kick-off yesterday epitomised how little inclination there is within the team to keep possession and play a patient build-up game. Instead of rolling the ball around and getting as many players a feel for it early on, which would have been particularly beneficial for Kevin Long making his first competitive start, they instead decided to pass it back to left-back Stephen Ward who booted it as hard as he could straight out over the Austrian end line. Not even fifteen seconds elapsed and the possession was already relinquished as a result of a kick-off routine that would be more regularly associated with a pub team rather than with international footballers.
As the game developed Ireland quite typically created nothing and strung no meaningful succession of passes together. Every time the ball fell to centre-half Shane Duffy he booted it as far away as was humanly possible as if it was a live grenade he was dealing with. Never did Ireland look to create chances by threading passes through the middle of the pitch but rather it was route one or the fruitless excursions down either wing. Strangely enough Jeff Hendrick, who was probably Ireland’s second best player at the European Championships, has summed up the psyche of this side during this campaign as he just does not look comfortable on the ball and games have passed him by, which is in stark contrast to how he was grabbing them by the scruff of the neck last summer.
He typifies a team that currently look scared to be in possession of the ball. They appear fearful of trying to express themselves, but who could blame them when players such as Hoolahan haven’t been trusted by consecutive Irish managers. Ironically, when started against Sweden in our opening group game last summer, that very man produced an exquisitely taken goal.
But O’Neill has repeatedly lacked courage in his team selections, showing sides like Austria and Poland, who are unquestionably talented teams but ultimately no world beaters, too much respect and this has fed into the players’ mind sets and manifested itself in a litany of toothless displays. Frustratingly, it isn’t until Ireland go behind that the shackles come off and they decide to play with the purpose and conviction that they are clearly capable of.
No-one could question the commitment or passion of this Irish side as they have bounced back so many times in the face of adversity but it would be refreshing to see them turn up and play before it becomes a do or die scenario.
The final 20 minutes of Sunday’s match and last summer’s final group game against Italy perfectly illustrate how effective this team can be when they have to attack. But, much like a shy young man who spends most of his time in a nightclub at the bar drinking pints, too nervous to enter the dance floor until ten to two in the morning when all the good looking girls are already taken, Ireland need to overcome their fears.
Ireland need to get onto the dance floor earlier.
Eoin Kennedy, Pundit Arena