En route to an audience with Robbie Keane in Crumlin the other day, the journey down the Long Mile Road and past the Half-Way House offered a handy metaphor for where Ireland are at in their Euro 2020 campaign.
With four games gone and four to go, summer allows for a well-earned pit stop before this group of two distinct halves resumes in September. With Switzerland still to be played home and away, yet another long haul to Tblisi to be negotiated and, on the final night, our old friends the Danes back in town, it’s clear that the second leg of this journey will present a much more formidable obstacle course than the first.
That’s one of the reasons why Didi Hamman felt able on RTÉ to describe Ireland’s healthy-looking 10 points and current position atop Group D as “misleading”, a studs-up challenge to the authority of the old football adage that the table doesn’t lie.
The other reason, of course, is that if the deficiencies in the Irish performances to date are not rectified, they are much more likely to be brutally exposed and punished in the Autumn tests.
But while I can clearly see the merit in that argument, I don’t think you need to be an incurable optimist to take all those concerns on board and still come down on the side of viewing Ireland’s glass, at this half-way point, as half-full not half-empty.
In terms of points accrued, they have achieved all that could have been reasonably expected of them over the first four games, with the added bonus of scoring in each and conceding just the one goal. There were real positives about the performance at home to Georgia too when, in contrast to the flat fare they had witnessed in the preceding 12 months, the Aviva crowd could justifiably react with enthusiasm to a high tempo, attacking approach, some passages of vibrant passing play and, of course, the welcome sight of Conor Hourihane rounding off a positive night with a superbly taken free kick.
Quite why the draw in Copenhagen seemed to leave some observers so underwhelmed is a bit of puzzle to me. Yes, the Danes squandered a number of good chances and, yes, they opened up the Irish midfield with worrying regularity but, when it came to the crunch, to the key moments that mattered, Mick McCarthy’s side showed admirable character and resilience, as well as genuine attacking intent, to come back from a goal down and salvage a share of the spoils. A point in the Parken, especially in such difficult circumstances, should never be sniffed at.
The best thing that can be said about the two wins against Gibraltar is that, for the remainder of this campaign, it’s highly unlikely that Ireland will have to come up again against anything quite like the bonkers conditions they encountered on The Rock or the ten-men-behind-the-ball they found so hard to break down in the Aviva.
Regardless, they will still have to show a massive improvement on how they use possession of the football over what we saw in their laboured and, worse, often sloppy efforts against the doughty minnows in Dublin last Monday.
When Conor Hourihane boomed a wonderful ball out to James McClean on the touchline and, after killing it with a decisive first touch, the winger delivered the perfect far post cross for Robbie Brady to head home, it was a welcome late touch of class but one which also threw into even sharper relief the numerous misplaced passes and sub-standard crosses which had come before.
It’s unfair revisionism, and probably coloured in the main by the awful doldrums of his final year at the helm, to charge that, besides the considerable achievement of claiming a number of famous scalps, Ireland offered little other than anti-football under Martin O’Neill. That clearly wasn’t what we saw, to highlight a few of the most obvious examples, in the games against Sweden, Italy and France at Euro 2016.
That said, there’s no doubt that, as was the case the last time he was in charge, Ireland under Mick McCarthy are being encouraged, in broad terms, to view attack as the best form of defence, looking to get bodies forward and take the game to the opposition rather than spending too much time sitting back and soaking up pressure.
Stylistically, this Irish team try to mix things up a bit more: for every one of those familiar long diagonal balls from Shane Duffy looking for the head of James McClean, there is an attempt to develop the play through the midfield and then out to the flanks. It’s evolution not revolution – there’s as yet no danger of us being confused with a Pep Guardiola side – but even with that modest but welcome change in ambition, comes a much higher risk of losing possession in key midfield areas against teams, especially like the Danes and the Swiss, who will need no further invitation to launch swift and potentially lethal counter-attacks.
Seamus Coleman, who is clearly enjoying his licence to do what he does best in an attacking sense under McCarthy – even if his crossing actually left an awful lot to be desired against Gibraltar – often speaks about the need for Irish players to be more willing to make themselves available to receive the ball in good positions and then, once in possession, to be braver in how they progress the play. But in Denmark and, even more unforgivably, when they monopolised possession at home to Gibraltar, Ireland’s attempts to do just that foundered far too often because of unforced error: passes not struck with enough weight or precision to either reach their intended target or play him into space.
Not for the first time, I was moved to ponder just how much we miss Wes Hoolahan, Ireland’s most composed and inventive playmaker of recent years.
And then, at the business end of things, there’s the by now long-running issue of our strikers still struggling to find that clinical finishing touch, a problem which even the impressive David McGoldrick, for all the valuable things he has added to the side, has yet to crack.
The good news is that the potential for improvement is clearly there in McCarthy’s Ireland, the spirit is strong and what they’ve done so far gives solid grounds for encouragement.
The inherent limitations in the squad do mean, however, that when they come up against group’s strongest sides, every single player will have to find something close to his best form if this Irish team is to carry the day.
In this group of two halves, half-measures, individually and collectively, won’t be enough.