Penalty paid as familiar fault lines surface again

The 2-2 draw with Austria on Tuesday evening was bitterly disappointing and left the players visibly demoralised at the final whistle.

I thought the Austrians started the game better than we did and were very comfortable in possession. Having said that, they created very few chances and their goal came from a mistake by Ciarán Clark.

Ciarán is a fine footballer who has amassed a lot of games at Premier League level over the last few seasons. There’s no doubting his ability and potential but he will be kicking himself after his error.

The way the Austrians capitalised just shows how you can get punished at the highest level, and I’m sure he will learn from this.

I was impressed with the way the players reacted to going a goal down. Shane Long was the one who frequently set the tempo in closing down the Austrian defenders and this proved infectious for the rest of the lads as we pressed them higher up the pitch.

We began to get more possession in their half, with the direct running of James McClean and Shane’s energetic running into the channels starting to cause Austria real problems.

It was from this that we earned the penalty that got us back into the match. Jon Walters showed a lot of nerve to take the spot-kick under very tense circumstances and stuck it away very well.

We’ve always been dangerous from set-pieces as we work hard on them on the training ground in the build-up to matches, so I’m sure the manager was delighted to see that work pay off when Jon converted a fine corner from Glenn Whelan.

To go in at half-time leading after going a goal down showed the character and fighting spirit that this squad does possess.

I suppose the way we played in the second half — seeming to drop deeper and deeper as the half wore on — is a trait we could be accused of over the last few years once we’ve gone ahead.

It is certainly not our intention to do so and it is something we have spoken about and tried to resolve. We know we are a better team when we take the game to the opposition and “put them under pressure”.

But it’s a bit of a vicious circle really. If, as a midfielder, I close the opposition midfielder down and he passes to the opposition centre-forward who is able to turn because our centre-half hasn’t closed him down, then I’ll be reluctant to close down the next time.

Alternatively, a centre-half will say that if the opposition midfielder can get his head up and pick a pass out, then they have to drop a little deeper in case they play a ball over the top or down the side. So it’s a bit like the chicken or the egg!

On Tuesday night, I felt we tired a little in the final 15 minutes or so, which was hardly surprising as a lot of our players are all action and put massive shifts in.

I know John O’Shea came out after the match saying we should have kept our late free kick in the corner and run the clock down.

He was right but we also should have made sure we had at least our two banks of four in place and not get pulled out of position. It was a sickening feeling to see Alaba’s goal deflect off Sean St Ledger and past David Forde. A win would have put us in a fantastic position in the group and although I’m still very confident we can finish second, we’ve certainly made it more difficult for ourselves. I said going into the game against Sweden that it was vital we didn’t lose to our closest rivals, the Swedes and the Austrians, but now we know we will have to probably beat both of them in the autumn.

But I genuinely still believe we are capable of getting the results we need.

For my part, my achilles injury is coming along nicely and the medical staff at Bolton are very pleased. I’ve had the stitches out of the wound and have progressed to partial weight-bearing on the crutches. It’s frustrating, of course, and I’m feeling like I’m being a bit of a nuisance to everyone around me (especially my fiancée!), but the more careful you are in the early stages of an injury like this, then the quicker and stronger you come back.

I’m eager to be involved in our end-of-season games and, if I keep progressing the way I am, then a match against England at Wembley in May would be a very nice way to return to action.

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

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