“These boys (Serbia) play in big, big leagues,” Martin O’Neill told RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue last Monday evening in Belgrade.
“Actually, they gave it away a few times. The conditions didn’t help but we have not come here expecting to control the game for 90 minutes in an away game against Serbia. That’s lunacy.”
Like Ireland’s play, that was way over the top. Neither O’Donoghue nor anyone else had suggested that the Republic should have travelled east last week with total domination a stated goal.
That should go without saying, but O’Neill’s prickly response to a perfectly reasonable suggestion — that the side’s ball retention wasn’t up to scratch — was so far out of proportion as to be laughable.
O’Neill was right to highlight the weather and pitch conditions. It was hard to argue with the observation that a fair few of his players hadn’t played all that much football yet this season.
And he had a point when suggesting Serbia may well prove to be a difficult destination for the likes of Austria and Wales deeper into proceedings.
But why couldn’t the Ireland manager not digest O’Donoghue’s valid point and admit that, yes, maybe his team could have held onto possession that bit better.
That’s all we needed: a recognition that perhaps the performance on the ball wasn’t what it could have been and that we can hope to see the team play better in different venues and in better conditions.
The big question stemming from it all is whether O’Neill truly believes there is nothing to address or if he was simply refusing to admit as much in the immediate wake of what was, to be fair, a decent enough result. It will be October 6 and the visit of Georgia of Dublin before we have any chance to find out now.
But it all seems far too familiar for now.
This was the fourth time in a row that the Republic had opened up a qualification campaign with a nervy engagement in Eastern Europe. The roll call — Yerevan, Astana, Tbilisi, Belgrade — reads like a list of locations in a James Bond movie, and Ireland have been shaken in each city before stirring themselves for unlikely, late rewards.
Keith Fahey’s late strike against Armenia. The brazen robbery that was the 2-1 defeat of Kazakhstan. Aiden McGeady’s late bit of magic against Georgia.
And now Daryl Murphy’s equalising header against Serbia. Each one has highlighted the team’s refusal to accept defeat, true, but the shortcomings that backed them into those corners were just as critical to the plots.
“Sure, I suffered tonight,” Giovanni Trapattoni said after Fahey’s 76th-minute strike in Armenia six years ago, “because Shay Given had to make two or three important saves. The result could have been 0-0. We had difficult situations in our defence. But I knew that Armenia would be tough and other teams will not find it easy to come here and win.”
Change a few of those nouns and they are sentiments to fit seamlessly with comments made by both the Italian and O’Neill after those other three ties. For managers, it is the destination rather than the journey that matters after all. That is fair enough but the Republic’s road will stretch far beyond those sat the dugout and that requires big picture thinking.
Richard Dunne returned to Dublin from his new lodgings in the south of France this week for a spot of promotional work and the one-time centre-back offered up some opinions on the Irish football team that were as raw and hard-hitting as many of the challenges he made in the green jersey and, most famously, the white one worn in Moscow five years ago this week.
He described the Belgrade performance as one “typical” of those offered up by Ireland for years.
It was, he admitted, the type of display that drove him mad and he warned that fans would have to accept at least two barren qualifying campaigns if a commitment was made to reappraising the way the Irish national team plays.
Even his suggestion for Ireland going forward — literally — was simple: “fight and, when the opportunity comes, try and play”.
It’s hardly lunacy to expect that much. Nobody expects tiki taka. Nobody even expects Ireland to be as fluent with the ball as Wales, but the Euros showed that the national team has the powers to ally a traditional fiery play with cuteness.
Which is what makes this pregnant pause before Georgia so interesting.
This isn’t some debate over style versus substance. Ireland can play better and they can improve their results by doing it.
It is six years since Trapattoni’s side followed up a feted performance against the French in Paris with a campaign that ultimately delivered a berth at Euro 2012 but one which saw the side regress from the attacking promise of the Stade de France.
Press and play. Should it really be so hard to do both?
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