LIAM MACKEY: Boys in green search for a cure for summertime blues

At least we know that the Aviva crowd will definitely have something to cheer about tonight. With the friendly against the USA doubling as a John O’Shea tribute gig, the feelgood factor is already in place.

The feelsad factor too, of course, since the departure of the Waterford man, on his 118th and final appearance for his country, is bound to be an emotional occasion.

But, though an end of season friendly between two World Cup also-rans is never likely to set the pulse racing, it’s a game not lacking in meaning in its own right for the hosts.

Every match of this type has its obvious value as an audition for fringe players and a chance for the manager to refine his thoughts on the tactics and personnel he believes will prove most effective when the competitive action resumes.

But this encounter with a youthful USA team has taken on added significance because it comes at such a downbeat time for Ireland.

Escaping from the baleful shadow of the Danish pasting in November was always going to be difficult but the uninspiring performances in the two friendlies since then — the 1-0 loss to Turkey in March and the 2-0 defeat to France in Paris last Monday — have done little to accelerate the healing process.

And while it’s only fair to point out that retirement, injury and the introduction of new faces have all conspired to complicate the challenge, even with those factors duly acknowledged many have looked at Ireland’s games this year and seen more evidence of regression than signs of recovery.

An absence of creativity, a failure to retain possession and the continued lack of a cutting edge, have all been numbing features of the 2018 programme to date.

For those who would contend that this is the same as it ever was under Martin O’Neill, it’s worth pointing out yet again that his Irish teams have conjured up some of the greatest results and most memorable nights in our qualification history, most notably the victory at home to Germany and the draw away to the world champions in the same campaign, the play-off victory over Bosnia, and the away wins in Vienna and Cardiff.

And for those who remain unconvinced about the means to those ends, there were those games at the Euro 2016 finals when the performance could be admired as much as the result, especially in the 1-1 draw with Sweden and the 1-0 victory over Italy.

And the boys in green weren’t too shabby either in pushing the hosts all the way before exiting the tournament in Lyon.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t say anything of the sort about our return visit to France at the start of this week.

And, to pick just one example of a player who struggled to recapture his form in Paris, there was the unhappy sight of Seamus Coleman repeatedly pegged back and, for want of a better option, reduced to hitting long balls up the channels in the forlorn hope that Jon Walters or Shane Long might be able to get on the end of something.

The contrast with his last appearance in the Stade de France — when his attacking threat was to the fore as he set up Wes Hoolahan’s goal against Sweden with a wonderful bit of skill — could hardly have been more acute. (And, in mentioning the sadly departed Hoolahan, there are more than a few of us who would be of the opinion that the search for a new Wes is almost as important as the hunt for a new Robbie.) 

To be fair to Coleman, he didn’t dodge the bullet when it came his way in a press conference this week.

“What we are disappointed with, all of us, was our standard on the ball,” he said. “I thought we were very poor. We gave the ball away, five/six yard passes, not looking for the ball.

“As players on the pitch we have to take responsibility for that.”

“There’s no instruction to get it out of our feet and kick it to Shane Long.” 

He was also entitled to point out that this was a demonstrably weakened Irish side.

“No disrespect to the lads who played,” was how he put it, “but we are missing James McCarthy, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick. The three of them played that night against Italy and, for a nation of our size, take them three players out of any team and it’s a massive miss.

“So there’s that bit of a transition period which has to be accepted. But we are definitely all disappointed with what we did on the ball and we need to do more. The manager has told us and we have worked on things in training to be better on the ball, to receive the ball, drop off, get the ball, get it at different angles, and not just necessarily look to get rid.” 

This is encouraging to hear but it’s important now that the players chosen this evening walk that walk. There will be no shortage of warmth in the stands towards John O’Shea, of course, but how uplifting would it be for the supporters to get the chance to celebrate, say, a Graham Burke goal or, at least, see the Irish players moving the ball with purpose and even a bit of panache.

“We have had some big results,” Coleman reminded us this week.

 “We might not have the same quality as other nations, but we have that heart and desire and we just need to add more composure. Let’s see on Saturday, we are at home against America and we need to show our fans and ourselves that we can play.”

 There, in a nutshell, is the significance of this evening’s game. It won’t cure the summertime blues but, fingers crossed, it can offer a much-needed ray of hope for the autumn.


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