Our worst ever week but Mick can only play cards he’s dealt

Forty-five years after making my Ireland debut, 55 years after watching my country play for the first time, I’m struggling to think of a week when we produced back-to-back performances as poor as these.

Our worst ever week but Mick can only play cards he’s dealt

Forty-five years after making my Ireland debut, 55 years after watching my country play for the first time, I’m struggling to think of a week when we produced back-to-back performances as poor as these.

Even our historic habit of rebounding quickly after one bad performance wasn’t visible in Geneva — the kind of thing that happens when you go into a game with a midfield lacking both confidence and technical ability.

Courage comes in many forms in football. There’s the kind you always get fromIreland: durability, toughness, spirit.

Yet to win big games and to qualify for big tournaments, you need more than that.

You need your midfielders to have the self-assurance to demand the ball from their team-mates, irrespective of where they are positioned on the pitch.

But over the last two games, only Glenn Whelan has come close to ticking this particular box.

Jeff Hendrick didn’t; nor Conor Hourihane, while Alan Browne barely touched the ball against Switzerland.

Little wonder then so much is being made of the fact we have scored just six goals in seven qualifiers. These things happen when you have a midfield abdicating responsibility.

Some time ago, in those distant days when an Ireland manager could call upon a handful of English title winners, winning competitive football matches against countries such as France, England, Holland, and the Soviet Union was a glorious reality rather than a daring dream.

We did it because we had players who had the guile and character to control games, traits that were just as apparent in the Ireland teams who qualified for World Cups in 1990, 1994, and 2002.

But this side doesn’t have those kind of players or those kind of qualities.

There’s a certain irony that underMartin O’Neill and Roy Keane — two of the finest midfielders this island ever produced — we rarely played through midfield.

Wes Hoolahan got underused.

Prior to Wes, Andy Reid was another gifted ball player who was overlooked, in his case by Giovanni Trapattoni, who prioritised pragmatism over a playmaker.

Were those players available to Mick McCarthy now, I’ve no doubt he would have made them pivotal players in his side and devised a game-plan that saw us build through the middle of the park.

McCarthy, however, can only play the hand he has been dealt. The trouble is there aren’t any aces in it.

Having David McGoldrick for this double-header would have helped.

The striker has shown an admirable ability to link the play, protect possession and discomfort defenders with his skill and strength in this campaign, whereas James Collins looks like someone who is struggling to come to terms with the demands of international football.

You have to wonder — in McGoldrick’s absence — why Shane Long was not included in the squad, even if his scoring record over the last three years has been poor.

Equally as hard to understand, given our issues in midfield, is the absence of James McCarthy and Harry Arter, both of whom offer better options than Browne.

While we’re at it, the option of relocating Matt Doherty to midfield was something I’d liked to have seen, especially when you consider his ability to use the ball cleverly.

You have to go back a decade, to that unforgettable World Cup play-off game against France in the Stade de France, when we last saw an Irish midfield absolutely dominate a respected opponent.

That was the night when the midfield quartet of Liam Lawrence, Keith Andrews, Whelan, and Damien Duff demanded the ball right from the start to the end.

It was after that game when Trapattoni’s pragmatism took over and I can remember the conversation we had as he outlined in fairly blunt terms why he believed the best policy to take was to make the team hard to beat.

He did that, draining the last bit of energy out of the five elders of that side — Duff, Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Kevin Kilbane — en route to Euro 2012.

He had an ageing team; O’Neill a less talented one. But McCarthy has an even inferior side to O’Neill.

The talent simply isn’t there, which isn’t McCarthy’s fault, but does pose serious questions to John Delaney.

Under the former FAI chief executive, the production line stopped.

Young Aaron Connolly’s emergence in recent weeks has been like a breath of fresh air and even though he had a quiet game on Tuesday night, there’s enough evidence to already suggest he is going to be a useful player for us for some considerable time.

Yet still, the emergence of one really talented player over the course of a decade is just not acceptable, something Delaney should not just be worried about in terms of his legacy — but ashamed of.

It goes without saying that Brian Kerr should have had a big role across the last 14 years in Irish football, especially when you consider the positive influence he had in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he managed Ireland’s Under-16 and Under-18 teams to European Championship success.

The value of Kerr’s experience and knowledge can’t be measured. Well, actually it can. In his absence, we’ve seen what has happened.

We’ve seen the players that have come through and wonder at the ones that could have made it.

For me, the talent tap stopped flowing in the Steve Staunton era and a decade has been lost ever since.

What we’re looking at, talent-wise, is the weakest squad of players any Ireland manager has had at his disposal since the early 1970s.

And yet they’re still there, one win away from qualifying, because for all their technical limitations, they remain a committed bunch with a great attitude.

Add in the level of organisation McCarthy has provided them with, and you have the reasons why they are within sniffing distance of the finals.

It helps, of course, that the tournament facilitates 24 teams in those finals now — whereas during my career, only eight places were available.

Nonetheless, it’ll be a fine achievement for this team to make it there and while I hope I’m wrong, my gut feeling remains that if this is to happen, it’ll be through the play-offs.

Just like two years ago, Denmark will spoil the homecoming party.

Irish camp can draw comfort from defence

The case for the defence is an easy one to make. From seven qualifiers, Ireland have only conceded four goals.

To put that statistic in an overall context, just five of the other 54 European nations involved in this qualification campaign have a better record: Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, Belgium and Italy.

There’s a certain comfort Mick McCarthy can draw from that, the knowledge that the defensive quartet he played against Georgia denied the hosts a sniff, while the defenders who featured in Geneva also performed with assurance.

Shane Duffy has been exceptional in this campaign but it was particularly impressive to see John Egan step seamlessly into the position left vacant due to Richard Keogh’s injury.

The Duffy/Egan partnership looks capable of being one for the future.

The more immediate future sees Denmark visit next month and while Seamus Coleman’s absence will be an obvious blow, right-back remains the one position on the field where we have genuine depth.

Matt Doherty will slip seamlessly in there, Enda Stevens remaining in the opposite full-back position — and the solidity which has been evident throughout this campaign, will again be visible at the Aviva.

It’s the other end of the field where the problems lie.

Only 15 countries across the 10 groups have scored fewer goals thus far in this qualification campaign.

Ireland’s goalscoring tally is by some distance the lowest of any of the group leaders.

Belgium — 30 goals from eight qualifiers — top the goalscoring charts, England with 26 aren’t far behind. Ireland have six.

They’ll need to improve those statistics to qualify.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up