Ireland's draw with Poland raises more questions than answers

Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Poland last Sunday provided definitive proof that, just as we’d always suspected, the celebrated glass is indeed both half-full and half-empty at one and the same time.

Ireland's draw with Poland raises more questions than answers

The optimistically-minded were entitled to take encouragement from that stirring second-half performance, when the throbbing Aviva finally felt like a proper home for Irish football and the up-and-at-’em momentum generated by both team and crowd was finally rewarded with that euphoric stoppage-time equaliser.

But it was in the strange nature of the game that pessimists could observe the very same thing and arrive at a very different conclusion, pointing to a dismayingly disjointed first-half showing by the men in green and noting too that their much improved second-half display could not be wholly extracted from the context of Poland’s clear and perfectly understandable decision to try to hold what they had after the break.

And, signs on it, even though Shane Long’s goal came a minute into time added-on, it sparked an immediate attacking response from the visitors, rather suggesting that the thirty minutes and more of almost exclusively one-way traffic which had preceded the equaliser owed as much to misplaced Polish strategy as overarching Irish superiority.

But, then again, the happy-clappy people will counter, how good was it to see Wes Hoolahan pulling the strings in a big match and James McClean crunching into the tackle and bombing on and whipping in crosses and Robbie Brady and Seamus Coleman raiding on the flanks and Longy getting his goal and even James McCarthy emerging from the doldrums to exert a growing influence on proceedings the longer the game went on? You can’t just ignore all that, can you?

No, perhaps not, the merchants of morose will concede, before draining their half-empty glass with an air of finality and drawing attention to a couple of cold, sober stats: like the fact that Ireland are two points behind their nearest two rivals and three adrift of Poland with five games remaining. And the fact that, from their last two games, away to Scotland and at home to the Poles, Martin O’Neill’s team have amassed the grand total of one from six. In short, the draw with Poland left us with almost as many questions as answers about this Irish team. It’s probably best to confine ourselves for now to pondering how some of the lessons of last Sunday can be applied to the next game: what, in all aspects other than the mathematical, has now to be regarded as a must-win clash Scotland in June.

Clearly, Wes Hoolahan has to stay. And what you know you’ll get from James McClean is currently preferable from what you don’t know to expect – even though it might be a moment of genius - from Aiden McGeady. Shay Given v David Forde is almost a toss of a coin to me but, having made the call in favour of experience for the Polish game, I can’t see how Martin O’Neill could justify reverting to the Millwall man for Scotland.

Robbie Brady is not a natural full-back and, if it wasn’t for the fact that Marc Wilson -and John O’Shea seem to be our best option as a centre-back pairing, I’d much prefer to see the Stoke man ahead of Stephen Ward at left-back (which would mean Ciaran Clark or Richard Keogh coming into the middle of the defence to partner O’Shea). Seamus Coleman is nailed-on, of course, Jon Walters too, and Glenn Whelan remains a solid, reliable presence as a defensive midfielder.

James McCarthy? For a while in the second half against Poland he finally seemed to be beginning to measure up to the hype and, if he can replicate that – rather than his anonymous first half performance - then he could make a significant impact against Scotland. But, frankly, it’s a big ‘if’.

And so to the focal point of the attack where the cat and mouse selection game betweeen Shane Long and Robbie Keane has once again seemed to edge the former’s way, at least in terms of securing a place in the starting eleven in June. But let’s not forget Daryl Murphy, whose 23 league goals for Ipswich thus far this season, should make him a legitimate contender to feature at some point, if not from the start, in a game which is likely to be closer to a feisty Championship derby than a top of the range European Championship qualifier.

We will, of course, return to all these issues to tease them out further between now and then. For now, I suppose, it’s reasonable enough to come down on the side of the glass half-full considering how empty everything would have felt had Long not popped up with his last-gasp intervention.

Finally this week, on a sad, personal note, I’d like to take this opportunity to say for the record that many of us experienced the real meaning of emptiness on Thursday at hearing the news of the death of my old Hot Press mucker, Shamrock Rovers, Chelsea and Ireland fan, and walking, talking, ranting, wise-cracking encyclopedia of music, movies, football and much, much more, the journalist John ‘George’ Byrne.

To borrow a phrase or two from his beloved rock ‘n’ roll that I know he liked: John was made loud to play loud – a horizontal man in a vertical world, double-parked on the highway of life.

My thoughts go out to his loved ones.

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