BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Spirit of the Gael can only bring Ireland so far

Since that 1-0 defeat of the Dutch 13 years ago, Ireland have played 32 competitive games at Lansdowne Road, Croke Park and at the Aviva.

Only 15 have been won, 12 drawn and five lost.

Irish fans walking the short distance from the tram stop to the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday would have been afforded a very clear reminder of how the German city owed us one had they looked beyond the locals selling beers and scarves out of mobile crates and turned their heads 90 degrees to the left.

There, lurking furtively behind a couple of buildings, was the old Gelsenkirchen Stadion where, in 1988, Wim Kieft and the Dutch denied Ireland an unlikely spot in the semi-finals of Euro ’88, thanks to a loopy header from the then PSV striker that all but blew Packie Bonner a raspberry as it spun into the net.

Half the ground has since been demolished.

The 50% that still stands is overgrown with weeds and trees and the pitch has been replaced by an artificial surface, but the old floodlights stand guard over the place that provided the unwanted full stop to that journey when, for so long, it seemed the city in the Ruhr Valley would come to occupy a place in our hearts alongside that of Stuttgart and, in future years, Genoa, New Jersey and Ibaraki.

Better late than never, many have said since John O’Shea’s late heroics against Germany earlier this week. One media site asked fans to compare the 1-1 result with the national team’s past achievements, while there were, understandably, those who reached for comparisons with the defeat of England in ’88, the humbling of Italy in ’94 and the revenge meted out to Holland thanks to Jason McAteer’s strike at Lansdowne Road in 2001.

A truer analogy would probably be the 0-0 stalemate in Moscow three years ago, when an Ireland team that found itself under the cosh for so long managed to hold out, thanks mainly to the efforts of Shay Given in goal and, to an even greater degree, Richard Dunne’s own biblical version of ‘thou shalt not pass’, for which he has secured his place in the cult section of Irish football.

Thumb back through the archives and the fact is that, even when leaving appearances at major finals aside, so many of Ireland’s most famous days have been delivered on the road and so few at their own den in Dublin. Even that 1-0 defeat of the Dutch in 2001, memorable though it was, doesn’t compare to the earlier 2-2 draw in Amsterdam in terms of the football Ireland played when taking a 2-0 lead. Tap in the details on YouTube and you’ll discover five minutes of highlights from a night when Ireland, outplayed for long periods, a side dripping in star power and managed to score two sublime goals. The second, in particular, with Robbie Keane and Niall Quinn contributing backheels that set up McAteer (again) to score from distance, was particularly sublime.

Ireland have rarely, if ever, played anything like as well since and that inability and even unwillingness to create scoring chances — as they did on numerous occasions that night in the Amsterdam Arena — has come back to haunt them on home soil, where the onus lies more on prising defences open than it does on mere basics such as working hard and keeping a defensive shape.

Since that 1-0 defeat of the Dutch 13 years ago, Ireland have played 32 competitive games at Lansdowne Road, Croke Park and at the Aviva. Only 15 have been won, 12 drawn and five lost. Restrict those findings to their two main challengers in each group and the results are far worse. Played: 12. Won: 0. Drawn: 7. Lost: 5. Not a single win against a dozen of our main rivals.

Including the mighty Switzerland and Bulgaria.

It’s that failing which Martin O’Neill needs to address more than any because, for all the elation generated by the draw with Germany, and regardless of what comes to pass against Scotland in Glasgow next month, we have yet to see anything in competitive fare under the latest management team which suggests that such a sequence is in danger of termination.

Forgive us for introducing such a note of concern amidst a week of such rejoicing, but much of what Eamonn Dunphy said in the wake of the draw was relevant even if he — not for the first time — found himself square in the sights of an irate public for delivering a sermon that no-one wanted to hear at that particular time.

For Ireland to progress as a team, one that can afford itself the best shot at not just qualifying for a major finals but one that could avoid its fate in 2012 when it looked so hopelessly one-dimensional and out of its depth, it needs to demonstrate a willingness to play more ‘football’ than it has in many years.

We can talk about fighting spirit and character all we want on the back of nights like that this week, but the true extent of this side’s, and this manager’s, courage will only be revealed when Germany, Poland and Scotland pitch up in Ballsbridge.

* Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

* Twitter: @Rackob


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