Kevin Kilbane seems a nice guy. He was, as Gilesy might say, a good servant. But as the latest Ireland inquest rolled on, he did an extraordinary thing on Newstalk’s Off The Ball: he blamed Aaron Connolly for Switzerland’s first goal in Geneva last Tuesday night.
Indeed, Kevin went so far as to suggest the youngster will be lucky to start against Denmark next month because of this gaffe, and the inexperience he showed in making it. He is learning on the job, Kevin warned.
A rewind of the goal finds Connolly winning a free kick deep in his own half. He trudges dutifully upfield, ready to ‘run the channels’ for the latest hopeful launch forward, a miserable exercise that was already visibly annoying him.
The free-kick is taken short to James McClean who slices his ‘delivery’ wildly to find touch in a manner that would gain generous acclaim in Tokyo this morning. Stephan Lichtsteiner throws to Granit Xhaka, off whom Allan Browne had briefly wandered, on the halfway line and there are six more touches before the ball ends up in Ireland’s net.
Sure, it’s possible to make the case that Connolly might have positioned himself better at the throw-in to prevent the ball getting to Xhaka, or being moved on to the advancing Manuel Akanji. Just as you could query James Collins’ position, or Browne’s, or the conservative deployment of Ireland’s wing backs, at that moment.
You could argue Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan should have done better with headers in the seconds that followed. That Ireland shouldn’t have been camped on the edge of their own penalty area. Or that HarisSeferovic might have been closed down quicker before his fine finish.
You might even blame Ronnie Whelan in commentary, who assumed George Hamilton’s traditional jinxing role by declaring that everything was going very well, as the throw-in was being taken.
But to pick out Connolly, when the genesis of the entire passage was McClean’s wild hoof, perhaps shows how immersion in Irish international football’s unique ways over many years can shape your mindset.
If you are exposed to enough of it, if you are in deep, you will instinctively worry first about what might go wrong if all safety measures haven’t been applied, rather than what might go right if you passed the ball to your teammates. You will be concerned primarily about what might happen if you’re not blocking space, rather than ask what might happen if you try to create it.
It’s a way of thinking that sees expendable luxury in footballers whose natural instinct is to use the ball constructively. I suppose it is what they mean when they talk about culture. And it should cause us genuine fear about just what young Connolly will learn on this job.
But enough about Ireland. The debate about our ‘style’ will never end until something different is tried. Until then, we will never truly know if we just, as so many of our managers have assured us, don’t have the players.
The week allowed us to hear from another nice guy, someone uniquely positioned as a witness at a pivotal moment in history, at a time when a great empire has crumbled. Juan Mata’s new book Suddenly a Footballer reaches us just as Manchester United prepare to face Liverpool. And remain intent on emulating the nineties disintegration of their bitter rivals’ glory era.
Back then, the steepness of decline was as much of a mystery. Did stress take Kenny’s eye off the ball? Did Graeme Souness purge too much experience? Did his strictness break the spirit? Or did Roy Evans go too soft as a corrective? Was it all down to chairman David Moores’ laissez faire stewardship? Did they just, for whatever unfathomable reason, stop signing good players?
A witness, the young Jamie Carragher, has recalled Julian Dicks being lapped on circuits of the training ground and it not being an issue. A way of thinking had set in. A culture, you could say. United’s collapse is another stew of many ingredients.
Was Fellaini a totem of Moyes’ devaluation of technical quality? Did van Gaal’s efforts to restore order suck out the excitement? Did the Mourinho quick fix inject terminal levels of toxicity? In trying to reset, did they turn to a man who’s bringing nothing at all?
Maybe it’s just bad signings. Or all the Glazers’ fault. Or Ed Woodward’s reassurances that results don’t really impact the bottom line. Mata, who arrived at the club months into the great fall, could be a perfect witness. Alas, we have to read this book between the lines.
The Spaniard appears a likable, thoughtful man, with a social conscience — 99% of the book’s proceeds go to Common Goal, the charity he co-founded. He is also a loyal employee. What has gone wrong in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.
But there are hints as to his way of thinking. He bemoans the “society of ego” and that “the need for attention, for followers, for recognition is developing beyond sanity”. He’d have preferred to play in a bygone era, with greater passion, when “the business side was less important”.
He selects, as his perfect dressing room, the Spanish World Cup winners. But as he worries about what place slower creators like him have in the game’s future, you can’t help wonder why United just tied him to a new three-year contract at 31, when they clearly can’t work out quite what to do with him.
And as we reflect on mysterious shifts in mindset, it is notable, late in the book, that Mata complains about the importance given to “the result”, and wishes that winning shouldn’t be regarded as the only thing. A reminder he arrived a few months after Alex Ferguson’s departure. And that he wasn’t exposed to a very different way of thinking.