Serbs deliver rude but useful wake-up call

If you could cash a reality check you’d be up to your eyeballs in folding stuff this weekend.

Serbs deliver rude but useful wake-up call

The phrase has become the new buzzword in Irish football, with the sobering effect of the Euro 2016 draw in Nice two weeks ago only intensified by the somewhat alarming manner in which Serbia ultimately eased to a 2-1 victory in Dublin on Wednesday night.

Mind you, said reality check will only have come as a complete surprise to those who assumed that (a) everything that ailed the national team was the fault of Giovanni Trapattoni and that (b) everything that ailed the national team would be cured overnight by Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.

Now, everyone has been reminded that football tends to be a wee bit more complex than that, including rather basic considerations such as the quality of the players at the management’s disposal and the superior quality of the players a country can like Serbia can afford to send into battle.

As Ireland were under Trap, so they remain under O’Neill — a mid-ranking European side who, if they want to bridge the gap against stronger opposition, will still have to try to punch above their weight in the way they have always had to since the golden generations of Jack Charlton and, for a spell, Mick McCarthy, suggested to the more impressionable that we would be ever more entitled to a place at the top table by divine right. (Or failing that by Fifa kindly making an extra space for us, of course).

All of which is not to suggest that, on the back of just one friendly defeat after just two friendly victories, there are suddenly grounds for deep pessimism about Ireland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016. Even with Germany set to gobble up one of the two automatic places, it still looks to me like an eminently negotiable group for Ireland, albeit with one major caveat — as ever, a lot will have to go right and a minimum go wrong in the way we approach games.

That was one of the clearest lessons arising from Wednesday night. Even under what we are still entitled to hope will be the positive, energising influence of the O’Neill/Keane ticket, some old, familiar issues will continue to apply for the foreseeable future.

One of them is that this Irish team isn’t so blessed with top grade individual talent that it can afford to have even one or two players experiencing an off night. And, as against the Serbs, matters are made much worse if it’s one of our outstanding players who happens to have a 90 minutes to forget.

That was the case for Seamus Coleman on Wednesday and, to compound the problem, there were also indifferent contributions from Aiden McGeady and Stephen Ward, while James McCarthy again failed to fully deliver the kind of commanding midfield performance which his ability and composure suggests should be within his grasp by now. Add in Shane Long’s frustrating inability to build on a most promising start for both himself and the team, and you’re already a long way towards explaining why a side boasting Serbia’s rich talent was able to turn the night on its head.

Another lesson from the game is that, in certain key positions, there’s no substitute for the authority that comes with experience. Hence why, up front, Robbie Keane will continue to make a key contribution while, at the back, we should hope — even if it is against hope — that Richard Dunne can squeeze one more campaign out of his battered body.

And therein lies an irony. When O’Neill took over from Trapattoni, the assumption was that a transfusion of young blood would invigorate a side which had grown stale from the Euro 2012 finals on through the Italian’s final campaign. But while wise observers are in agreement that U21 international Jack Grealish is one of the likelier lads to make the breakthrough, sadly, it doesn’t look like he’s at the front of a lengthy queue.

So, instead, it’s to comparative old boys that we now find ourselves looking for inspiration, in particular Wes Hoolahan and Andy Reid, by some distance the two most inventive footballers in the Irish panel. Unfortunately, Reid was unavailable because of injury on Wednesday but, assuming he can extend his resurgent form at Nottingham Forest into another season, the Dubliner can have a big role to play come September.

Indeed, given that this season he is adding goals to his already influential game, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say Reid would simply walk into the current Irish team, if it wasn’t for the fact that the not dissimilar Hoolahan is already in situ under the new management and, as he showed against Serbia, can thrive at international level even when he struggling to survive at his club.

So, yes, there are still reasons to be cheerful, even after our rude awakening. As O’Neill said, a lot can and will happen between now and September, to the extent that the picture of the national team’s well-being could be radically altered — for good or ill — come the start of the Euro qualifiers.

We can only hope that it’s the former but, in the meantime, and after the intoxicating high of the arrival of the dynamic duo, maybe a little shot of sobriety is no bad thing. After all, you see things much more clearly with a clear head.

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