Writing here on the eve of Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Austria, I was full of confidence that we were going to win, perhaps even with a bit to spare, writes Liam Brady.
And I still think we would have done so had Martin O’Neill picked the right team and had we started the game in the right way.
Instead, we handed the initiative to the visitors from the first whistle and gave them the impetus they needed to get into a position of dominance which, deservedly, saw them in front at the break.
But that had less to do with the Austrian’s intrinsic quality than with the conspicuous lack of method and clarity about what Ireland were supposed to be doing.
Sloppy and aimless in our play, there was nothing measured about the way the ball was going up to Jon Walters and we couldn’t get any kind of foothold in the game.
That gave Austria the confidence they needed. You could see it in them, almost as if they looked at their opponents and thought, ‘well, this lot aren’t up to much’.
The big mistake in our team selection was that there was no Wes Hoolahan in the five-man midfield. If you’re going to play three in the middle of the park, you need a creative player in that number 10 position.
Hoolahan thrives in precisely that role. Martin opted for Jeff Hendrick instead.
That the Derby County man struggled with the responsibility shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
In the final warm-up friendly against Uruguay, the evidence was there for all to see that he is simply not suited to playing in that position.
And that was a lesson which should have been fresh in Martin’s mind since the side he fielded on Sunday — with the expected exception of James McClean starting instead of Jonny Hayes — was effectively a replication of the personnel and template he had deployed against the South Americans.
Given the result in that game, even though it was only a friendly, we have to assume that Martin must have been happy with what he saw but, for me, the downside of a performance which yielded victory and three goals was that it glaringly exposed Hendrick’s deficiencies in that forward midfield berth.
To make the most of playing there, you must have an idea of how to get into space to receive the ball and you have to have the skill and composure to turn on it.
Hendrick is not adept at doing either and, consequently, he was like a fish out of water against the Austrians.
With the absence of constructive play in midfield, the whole team suffered in what was a real endurance test of a first half for Ireland. James McClean couldn’t get any service, Robbie Brady was anonymous, the full-backs weren’t able to get forward and we didn’t test their goalkeeper at all.
Really, it was a stroll for the Austrians who were full value for their lead at the break, even if the Irish should be disappointed at conceding from a corner-kick routine which the visitors have used before.
Having seen how badly the first 45 had panned out, I couldn’t believe that the manager didn’t make any changes at half-time. But, thankfully, 10 minutes later he did what he has often done to good effect and made the first vital alteration.
If you’re going to go Route One, which we did for pretty much all the game, then Jon Walters is always going to need assistance up front, and when Daryl Murphy came on, Jon had a target man with whom to share the load and help occupy the Austrian defence. Our approach still remained fairly basic but, as a result of the change, it became more effective.
At half-time too, the manager had obviously realised that Hendrick wasn’t able to handle the Number 10 role so he moved him out wide on the right, while Robbie Brady reverted to left-back and Harry Arter was pushed forward a little more.
Hendrick was a little more comfortable on the right but, because he had struggled so much in the first half, he never really exerted a significant influence on the game.
To his credit, Glenn Whelan did his job well in giving protection to the centre-backs. He also got in a couple of telling interceptions to keep the Austrians at bay. But he didn’t really make any contribution of note going forward.
Again, that’s why I would have liked to see Hoolahan brought on for either Glenn or Hendrick earlier than his eventual arrival off the bench about 20 minutes from the end.
With the changes Martin made, however belated, you could finally see the tide turning as the Austrians began to feel the pressure, make errors and give free-kicks away.
For all that, you’d have to say that it still didn’t look like we were going to break them down until Walters created that opportunity for himself.
To be fair, I don’t think Brady’s long ball was just a clearance out of defence; I do think he was trying to find Walters in behind the Austrian rearguard.
And, admirably, Jon did the rest. But, in light of all the subsequent complaints from the manager and the players about the performance of the referee, it might be worth noting that the official could easily have given a free for a push on Aleksandar Dragovic before Walters delivered his clinical finish.
After that, without doubt, the Austrians were wobbling, and it all led to a frenzied finish in which Ireland might even have turned defeat into victory.
Afterwards, O’Neill was angry with David Fernandez Borbalan for disallowing Shane Duffy’s goal.
My own view is that Sebastian Prodl, Austria’s Watford defender, probably summed it up best when he said that in England it would have been a goal but not in the referee’s home country of Spain.
In La Liga, when you lead with the arm like that, the ref will invariably blow for a foul but, across football as a whole, we’ve all seen goals like that given many times.
To that extent, I can sympathise with Martin and understand why he feels aggrieved. But, as I said, I’ve also seen free-kicks given for what Walters did to Dragovic, so it was a case of swings and roundabouts as regards those two important decisions.
Going for the referee in the way that the manager and players did undoubtedly reflects their disappointment that they didn’t win the game in the end but we shouldn’t let the controversy distract from the reality that Ireland’s performance had been pretty woeful up until the substitutions were made.
My criticism of Martin O’Neill all along has been that there is no real clarity about how he wants the team to play. You knew with Jack Charlton what you were going to get. Same with Giovanni Trapattoni.
Now, if Martin’s going to play the long ball, he might as well have two lads up front from the start and get everyone else to squeeze up. But if he’s going to go with three in midfield, there has to be more in the way of constructive play.
And to achieve that, Wes Hoolahan, assuming 100% fitness, has to start every game, home and away.
Perhaps Martin has doubts about Hoolahan’s physicality or it might really be that the manager simply doesn’t want us to play that way, fearing that the risk is too great in playing out from the back and trying to thread passes through midfield.
Like Charlton, he could be of the view that by playing safer and going Route One, we’re less susceptible to the counter attack.
In many ways, Trap was of the same opinion. And now that I mention him, I’m also reminded of one the Italian’s favourite sayings: the result remains, the performance is forgotten.
By salvaging a draw with Austria, in tandem with Serbia and Wales also sharing the spoils in Belgrade, Ireland remain in a strong position in Group D. But we still have to count ourselves very fortunate that we got a point on Sunday.
The fact that we nearly didn’t is largely because Martin O’Neill hasn’t found it within himself to place his full trust in our most creative player.
Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that if we do end up missing out on qualifying for the World Cup finals in Russia, it could all come down to Wes Hoolahan not playing enough.
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