My defence of Giovanni Trapattoni when I left his Irish coaching staff was along similar lines. Players like Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, and Richard Dunne were coming to the end of their careers and Trap simply didn’t have the resources that matched
In many ways, O’Neill has found himself in the same boat. The changes he made in bringing players off the bench on Tuesday night’s defeat to Serbia tells you everything: Daryl Murphy, who has scored just one goal in nearly 30 appearances; Conor Hourihane, who was making his competitive debut; and Callum O’Dowda who had just five previous caps to his name.
Contrast that with Wales being able to call on Liverpool’s rising star Ben Woodburn to great effect in their last two games; it’s a huge worry for Irish football that we don’t seem to have anyone like that on the horizon and something the FAI have to address because it’s hardly a new problem.
Indeed, since the era of Duff, Dunne, and Keane, we haven’t really had nearly enough players of their calibre. A
notable exception would be Seamus Coleman, whose quality and leadership have been badly missed since he was injured in the home draw with Wales. But though Coleman bailed us out by scoring at home to Georgia, you shouldn’t be looking to a full-back, even a top one like him, to make the match-winning difference against a superior side like Serbia. Yes, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are good players but they’re not in the same class as the aforementioned trio, players who were operating at the highest levels in the game.
But whatever kind of hand a manager is dealt in football, the onus is still on him to play it to its maximum advantage. And this is where Martin O’Neill can’t escape criticism for the fact that we only took one point from the last two games. The truth of it is that the damage to our World Cup ambitions was not really done by the defeat on Tuesday in Dublin; it all stemmed from the manager’s mistakes in selection and tactics ahead of Saturday’s draw in Tbilisi. The consequence, that evening, as I said in these pages after the game, was as inept a performance as I’ve seen from an Irish team in a very long time.
To cut O’Neill some slack, those of us outside the camp can’t know how fit and strong Wes Hoolahan might or might not have been over the preceding days — it only emerged on Monday that he had a bit of groin strain — so perhaps the manager had wanted to give him more time to overcome a niggling injury. And perhaps, too, David Meyler’s lack of games counted against him when the side was picked for the match in Georgia.
But there’s no doubt that things improved enormously with both of those lads in the team against Serbia, although I can’t help thinking it would have been even better had Robbie Brady reverted to left-back. He sees more of the game from that position and seems to benefit from being free of those midfield responsibilities of picking people up, going with runners and tracking back.
Against Serbia we were trying to solve a problem which had been of our own making, a problem which would not have arisen had Martin picked the right team against Georgia and told the players to push up and put pressure higher up the pitch on opponents who, while skilful, are no world beaters by any means. A flair team, the Georgians are much less impressive having to defend, but we hardly asked a question of them until the last 15 minutes after the personnel had changed on the pitch.
And the negative effect of the wrong approach in Georgia wasn’t just confined to the loss of two points there. I also believe that it was evident to some degree against Serbia because, while the spirit and endeavour at the Aviva was first class, there was still a tension and a nervousness about us which perhaps would not have been felt had all three points been achieved in
Tbilisi. Too many times our shooting was rushed and our crosses hurried and lacking precision. My gut feeling is that if we hadn’t been snookered after the draw in Tbilisi, that kind of nervousness would have been absent in Dublin.
While on the subject of how some promising opportunities were wasted by bad decision-making and poor delivery, it has to be said, too, that our set-pieces were disappointingly predictable on Tuesday night, as if not enough thought had gone into devising ways to give you that slight but sometimes crucial advantage. In my time with Ireland under Trap, we had notable successes from set-piece plans we had worked out on the training ground, such as John O’Shea blocking Richard Dunne’s marker so Richard was able to score with a header from a Stephen Hunt free kick away to Bulgaria, and Glenn Whelan’s sweet strike against Italy in Croke Park after Liam Lawrence had pulled a disguised free back to the midfielder who was standing, unmarked, outside the box.
All that said, we very nearly undid the damage of Tbilisi with a superb fighting performance against Serbia, as exemplified once again by the wholeheartedness of James McClean and the admirable work-rate of Jon Walters and Shane Long.
But we shouldn’t only have to depend on those familiar qualities and, on Tuesday night, it was Meyler’s introduction in a deep-lying midfield role, with Hoolahan playing further forward behind the strikers, that allowed us to play through the middle in the kind of constructive, progressive manner which had been entirely absent from the performance of just a few days before.
We had already seen Meyler make a difference in this campaign when he came off the bench in Vienna and now, though it may unfortunately prove too late, I think the management finally recognise that he definitely improves the Irish midfield and ought to be one of the team’s first picks.
Going back to McClean for a moment, we did debate on television whether he would have been more effective as an attacking threat playing on the flank rather than inside, but there’s no denying that, with his willingness to chase and harry and win back the ball, he still had a big impact on the game. But in his lack of calmness and composure in certain situations, he also epitomised that anxious quality I mentioned earlier, that lingering legacy of the disappointing result in
Overall, the team certainly played much better football in the Aviva than they had in the Dinamo Arena, and I think the home crowd appreciated that. It’s a terrible shame we didn’t have anything to show for it at the end of 90 minutes because the doubters will say that in trying to play football we lost the game. To me, that idea
is ridiculously wide of the mark.
The way we played against Serbia gave us a chance. But
if we’d played in Dublin the way we had in Tbilisi we would have had almost no chance at all against a superior team.
It all leaves us in a difficult but not hopeless position in the group — down, not out. Like O’Neill, I think it will still all be up for decision going into the last game against Wales.
Having struggled to break down Moldova on Tuesday, they have to go to Georgia first and we all know from the latter’s performance against us on Saturday that they are capable of giving the Welsh a difficult night. Even without Brady and McClean, I’m
confident we can take care of Moldova and then it will all come down to the
last night in Cardiff to determine who can achieve second place.
I can’t see Serbia slipping up now; the best we can hope for, then, is to give ourselves a chance of securing a place in the play-offs by beating Wales in Wales — and that is by no means impossible given some of the big results we’ve registered under O’Neill. But it will only happen if lessons have been learned by the management team. If he puts a similar side out in Cardiff and we
play the way we did against Serbia then, yes, we can beat Wales.
Of course, with Fifa favouring the bigger nations by seeding the play-off draw — something of which I had painful experience with Trapattoni’s Ireland when we played France in 2009 — even beating Wales would still leave us with a job of work to do to qualify for Russia 2018.
It’s a monumental task but we’re still in the ball game.