Liam Brady believes the lack of emerging talent is linked to Kerr’s absence from an active role in Irish football and that he should be brought back into the fold.
Tuesday was a night none of us could see coming: An Irish team which has performed so admirably in the defensive sense collapsing in the biggest game of their lives.
After Christian Eriksen scored his second goal to make it 3-1 for Denmark, this World Cup play-off was over. Our spirit was broken and our brains were scrambled.
I didn’t agree with the manager’s team selection to start with — Wes Hoolahan, if fit, should always play, and Shane Long’s pace would have given the Danish defence a lot more to worry about. A delightful through ball from Wes late in the game demonstrated why a place should always be found for him. It also showed why Long should have started, as he outstripped the Danish defence to put himself one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel. But, it must also be acknowledged that his attempted finish — a poorly judged chip which saw the ball clear the crossbar — explained why Martin O’Neill went with Daryl Murphy to the lead the Irish line.
But if the starting line-up was predictable, James McClean’s position as the man playing closest to Murphy was a surprise, with the four-man midfield of Robbie Brady, Harry Arter, David Meyler, and Jeff Hendrick charged with the task of protecting the defence and stifling Eriksen.
Our poor home form in taking games to the opposition was always going to be a cause for concern yet we got off to a great start with Shane Duffy’s brave headed goal. And even though Denmark came back at us strongly, we very nearly went two ahead, first with Murphy’s near-post flick and then McClean’s cross-shot after a fine move down the left.
However, the familiar problem of our inability to keep possession meant the Danes controlled midfield and kept coming at us.
That said, you couldn’t blame the manager’s tactics or selection for the concession of the first two Danish goals.
Positionally, Jeff Hendrick should have been quicker to give Harry Arter assistance at the short corner which ended with havoc in the six-yard box and Cyrus Christie, in his panic to try to retrieve the situation, helping the ball over his own line.
The second goal was down to a really poor error by Stephen Ward and, once the ball arrived at the feet of Eriksen, he showed his class by finishing brilliantly.
Given the difficult situation we were in at half-time, it was no surprise to see Hoolahan given the job of trying to rescue the situation but it definitely was a surprise to see Aiden McGeady sent on at the same time.
McGeady can be a match-winner but he can also be anonymous and I’m afraid it was a case of the latter in the second half.
But even more damaging to our already slim hopes was the removal of our two most defensive-minded midfielders. It was a gamble by O’Neill for which we paid an increasingly heavy cost right to the bitter end, with Eriksen absolutely revelling in the space afforded to him.
The referee’s final whistle might have come as blessed relief on the night but the many issues raised by this dismal end to our World Cup dream run deep.
Given that a verbal agreement with the FAI has already been confirmed by both sides, it looks like Martin O’Neill will be staying on as manager. If one is to make the case for him to continue in the job, it is only fair to acknowledge his results over the two campaigns for which he’s been in charge have been very acceptable. Yes, we had an enormous helping of luck in getting to the Euros and to the World Cup play-offs but a manager is paid to get results and, until Tuesday, Ireland have produced enough of those on the biggest nights under O’Neill for him to still be in credit on that front.
But while I do admire him for his strength of character and for being his own man, I can’t shake off the uneasy feeling that he thinks he’s doing us a favour by being the manager. And I get that sense from Roy Keane too.
I can’t pretend to be happy about the way this Irish team plays under O’Neill.
I wish we could produce something different and more inspiring than a certain level of success built almost entirely on that old underdog spirit. I believe there has to be more to football than heart and guts and grit and determination. And with all its limitations, I believe there’s more to this Irish team too. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane were outstanding midfield players and it’s a particular source of disappointment that, under their reign, our quality in that area has not improved.
So, weighing up all the pros and cons of O’Neill’s stewardship, I’m obliged to say I could take it or leave it should he decide to continue. But I certainly wouldn’t be upset if he went.
In any event, there is a bigger picture here and, to my mind, a more troubling one. In O’Neill’s defence, it’s blindingly clear that we lack special players. It says it all that Wes Hoolahan, at age 35 and playing in the Championship — and not always getting picked for Norwich, at that — is, in my opinion, the one player we’ve got who can really make us play.
It also says something about Martin’s limited options that his choice of strikers upfront is essentially between Daryl Murphy, another older Championship player and, Shane Long, in and out of Premier League sides and still mired in a protracted goal drought for club and country.
There have been positives in terms of a couple of players breaking through over the last few years, not least the emergence of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark as the centre-half partnership but, overall, I don’t think it can be reasonably denied that O’Neill has had a very limited pool of talent with which to work.
My fear is that, when a new manager does come along, whether that’s in the short or longer term, he will have to grapple with the same problem, unless the FAI does something significant to overhaul and progress the development of football talent in this country.
The availability of players from the North, as evidenced by the Derry lads Duffy and McClean, has certainly made a positive impact and we will always have a few players, like Ciaran Clark, Harry Arter, and Callum O’Dowda, emerging through the Anglo-Irish route too. But for me, and I’d imagine other football people of my generation, it’s frightening that we don’t appear to have any players from Dublin or Cork — the two big cities which used to be traditional Irish football strongholds — knocking on the door of the senior team or generally making inroads in the game at the highest level.
Something has gone dramatically wrong in how we’re developing our young players.
I know this from my own experience of being head of youth development at Arsenal because I’ve looked at players in those two cities I’ve mentioned and seen for myself how the standard has fallen. The contrast with the way Leinster rugby and Dublin GAA are developing young talent is striking.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this has happened since Brian Kerr was lost to an active role in Irish football. And since it’s FAI boss John Delaney’s job to identify the problem and fix it, I believe the first thing he should do is settle his differences with Kerr and bring him back into the fold.
Brian has an unrivalled track record of success with underage teams and bringing through players who would go on to perform at the highest level, like Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea.
Even current players, like Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, would have been coming in at the tail-end of Brian’s influential role in that regard.
It’s common knowledge that Delaney and Kerr don’t see eye to eye but that should be an irrelevance when it’s something as important as the future of Irish football that’s at stake. We’ve had two successive Dutch men charged with the overarching task of technical development by the FAI and I’ve yet to see convincing evidence their work has paid off. I think it’s time for the FAI to make a fresh appointment in this crucial role, someone with knowledge of the schoolboy game and experience and feel for the culture and character of this country and its football.
For me, Brian Kerr is that man. He would know what needs to be done and I’m convinced his appointment would help to put things right.
It’s great that, not before time, we have a state-of-the-art stadium in the Aviva and a state-of-the-art training ground at Abbotstown. All of that is to be welcomed. But as we contemplate where we go from here after the brutal dashing of our World Cup hopes for at least another four years, we have to ask a fundamental question: What good are the facilities if we don’t have the footballers?
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