Average golfers have a saying: ‘It’s not how, it’s how many’.
If you’re inscribing a four for a par four on your scorecard, it doesn’t really matter how you got it. You might have played rubbish up to the green and then managed to hole a decent putt. But the score is all that counts. And that’s what people mean when they say: ‘It’s not how, it’s how many’.
I see this as an applicable golfing analogy for the way Ireland are playing football at the moment.
It’s terribly difficult to watch, as was the case in Copenhagen on Saturday.
This was as bad as I’ve seen us when we had the ball, with players just aimlessly kicking it down the field.
There was no composure. And we’re talking about footballers who don’t play at all like that in the Premier League.
For Brighton, Shane Duffy likes to play out from the back and across the back four, looking to get his full-backs forward or finding a midfielder who can turn and play.
He didn’t attempt anything like that even once in Copenhagen. Nor did Ciaran Clark.
In midfield, it’s hard to remember Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter making a good, progressive pass, in stark contrast to when they’re playing for Burnley and Bournemouth respectively.
Robbie Brady was largely on the periphery of things but when some semblance of football did break out, it was mainly down to him. And you could only feel sorry for James McClean and young Callum O’Dowda on the flanks, with neither getting even a hint of the kind of service which would have allowed them an opportunity to run at the Danish full-backs.
And it all meant that, upfront, poor old Daryl Murphy spent the night doing shuttle runs between the centre-halves, rarely getting a decent touch of the ball.
So, from that point of view, it was an appalling watch but there’s hardly anything new in me saying that.
People reading this column must be getting fed up with the same old breakfast porridge that I dish out most times after watching Ireland play.
The only saving grace, and it’s a considerable one, is that this approach is somehow managing to keep us going in the direction of Russia. The possession stats in Copenhagen, as in Cardiff, might have been heavily in favour of the opposition but thanks to our courage, denial of space to our opponents and minimal defensive mistakes, we’re still very much in the ball game going into tonight’s decisive match at the Aviva.
If we are to rectify the big deficiencies in our play tonight, for me it will depend to a huge extent on putting Wes Hoolahan in among those midfield lads because the evidence is overwhelming that they all play better when he’s in the team.
Yet, ahead of such a high stakes game, I find myself almost wishing that the responsibility doesn’t fall on Wes alone to make us play. I’m almost scared for him that, if Martin O’Neill does pick him to start — and that’s a significant ‘if’ — all the burden of expectation will fall on his shoulders to inspire the team to victory when, as I’ve already said, the other midfield players have shown with their clubs that they’re well capable of getting the ball down and moving it from back to front in a constructive manner.
Indeed, we showed in the Euros that we can actually play positively without Hoolahan in the starting line-up, the victory over Italy being a prime example, even if it took his introduction from the bench to finally help fashion that memorable breakthrough.
But while, most of the time, our best stuff comes when Wes is in the mix, there’s certainly a case to be made that it shouldn’t be all down to him and that Martin should be getting more out of Hendrick, Arter, and Brady.
The return of David Meyler tonight is to be welcomed because he brings order, aggression, and positivity in his passing — all the things you want from a holding midfielder.
And we should also be grateful to the referee in Copenhagen who, faced with a stack of players on yellow cards, took a common sense approach to ensuring the second leg wouldn’t be turned into a lottery.
Credit too to the players on both sides who didn’t do anything stupid, as we have occasionally been guilty of doing in similar situations in the past.
After all Daryl Murphy’s thankless running on Saturday, I would expect Shane Long to start tonight.
Even though Shane is struggling in front of goal, O’Neill has limited strike options in his squad. Hence, the failure in Copenhagen to get an away goal which, I fear, may end up proving costly.
Before Saturday’s match I would have taken 0-0 but now I think we could come to regret our inability to test a pretty ordinary Danish defence.
In fact, Copenhagen also confirmed for me that this Danish team as a whole are no great shakes. Christian Eriksen apart, man for man they are certainly not better than us and, after watching them closely at the weekend, I still believe we were blessed that we got them in the draw.
The reason they created goal chances in the Parken, and generally seemed to possess much more of an attacking threat, is simply because we almost totally surrendered possession of the ball.
Martin O’Neill talks a lot about the inner belief in his team but that only seems apparent to me when they are defending their goal, not when they have the ball. If we play the same way tonight, we do risk conceding because we will be allowing the visitors to once again dominate possession.
Playing that way, we will be relying on luck, on top of our courage and determination, hoping that by knocking long balls or free kicks or throw-ins into the box, we’ll get a break. But sooner or later that won’t work.
Another concern I would have, based on how nervous we looked in possession the other night, is that most of our players have not had enough experience of playing under the kind of intense pressure they will encounter at the Aviva this evening.
Yes, a number of them can point to having played in the Euros, of having to beat Italy and then trying to beat France, but they wouldn’t have banked much in the way of even remotely similar big game nights with their clubs.
All that said, I think we can go overboard about the away goal factor. The tie is finely poised and what it really all comes down now is us going out and winning the match. And, despite what we saw on Saturday, I still believe we are capable of doing just that.
But only if we play in the right way. If we can somehow break out of the straitjacket, I believe we have every chance of coming out on top.
And if we do get through to Russia, all the anguish and dismay at some of our performances will be kicked to touch, as we all get caught up once again in the excitement and euphoria of an Irish team going to another World Cup.
Ireland v Denmark:
The numbers game
0.8: Ireland’s strike rate in five home matches in Group D (4 goals in 450 minutes).
2.0: Denmark’s strike rate in five away matches in Group E (10 goals in 450 minutes).
1-1: the score in the last competitive match between Ireland and Denmark in Dublin (1993).
2: wins by Ireland in five competitive matches against Denmark in Dublin (2-1 in 1956; 2-0 in 1979).
2: home goals conceded by Ireland in Group D.
5: away goals conceded by Denmark in Group E.
3: years since James McClean’s last competitive goals for Ireland in Dublin (two versus Gibraltar, October 2014).
4: Ireland scorers at home in this campaign (Seamus Coleman (1), Jon Walters (1), and Daryl Murphy (2)).
4: wins by Denmark in their last 10 competitive matches away from home (D3, L3).
5: wins by Ireland in their last 10 competitive matches in Dublin (D4, L1).
50%: of Ireland’s home goals in this campaign scored by Daryl Murphy (two versus Moldova).
59: international goals scored by Ireland’s current squad.
82: international goals scored by Denmark’s current squad.
Compiled by Paul Kelly
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