As Robbie Brady lined up a corner in the opening minutes of Ireland’s March friendly with Switzerland, one could see Martin O’Neill, on the touchline, appearing to encourage a quick tap to Aiden McGeady.
Brady hesitated, settled, then delivered the perfect cross onto Shane Duffy’s head to set up Ciaran Clark’s goal. O’Neill turned to his management team to make some point and it’s hardly a stretch to imagine it took in the notion of another goal from a dead ball.
The basic numbers?
Ireland’s goals in the past 18 months from corners, free-kicks, penalties (not including Gibraltar)? Nine.
Up until last week, Ireland’s goals in the last 18 months from open play amount to a goalkeeper’s punt upfield (Germany), a player beating two men out wide (Jeff Hendrick v Georgia) and some magic in the Zenica fog.
Ireland have either found a happy knack of scoring set-pieces or struggled to create from general play, depending on how we prefer to spin this run.
O’Neill has previous here. Shortly after taking over Aston Villa a decade ago, he made a remark about finding new ways of scoring a goal and set-pieces have nearly always been a major way.
At Leicester he won two League Cup finals with two goals from corners and one from a free-kick.
His Aston Villa were top set-piece scorers in the Premier league by O’Neill’s second season.
His Celtic side beat Rangers 6-2 with the first two goals from corners and another from a free-kick.
Ireland have their own recent history — their only goal at the last Euros came from a free-kick and in the previous qualifying campaign four of their five goals against the top seeds came from free-kicks — but you can trace a line through O’Neill’s teams from Muzzy Izzet to Steve Guppy to Alan Thompson to Ashley Young?
If Robbie Brady hadn’t emerged, we’d have had to invent him.
If Ireland have rarely managed the kind of cohesive attacking rhythm that brings a regular supply of chances, the individual moments of quality necessary to pick up the slack haven’t been plentiful either.
Wes Hoolahan brings inventive touches and movement, scoring four goals and producing eight assists for Norwich last season but only one assist — a nod back across from a corner, for an Irish goal in the qualifiers (ignoring Gibraltar).
James McClean has supplied crosses but not made goals.
The centre-midfield rarely gets involved in creation that high up the pitch, Shane Long and Jon Walters have finished more chances than they’ve carved out.
Into that sort of vacuum, Brady has planted that wand of a left foot and took up the creator-in-chief duties.
That corner assist against Switzerland only added to the corners that set up Jon Walters’ goal at home to Scotland, the corner for Shane Long’s equaliser against Poland, plus the free-kick for Walters that sealed qualification with Bosnia.
Another goal followed from a wicked Brady corner in the Netherlands friendly where the consistent quality was as noticeable as a clearly defined movement from players to attack the deliveries.
Ireland only scored one goal from set plays in O’Neill’s first seven games; in the eighth Brady started for the first time, Ireland scored their two goals from Brady corners. It’s been relentless since, even if it hasn’t always been perfect.
There have been days where Brady’s set-pieces have been mistimed or just off — at home to Poland and in the play-off especially — and it seems odd that he’s not been able to actually create a goal from play for the likes of Walters or Long, when his delivery really ought to suit their abilities.
But Ireland created eight shots at goal at home to Bosnia last November and five of these came from Brady set plays.
Two other chances came in the first half-hour from that left wing, a clever one-two where Brady whipped in a cross Daryl Murphy almost got his head on, and when Brady got to the byline and pulled the ball back for Walters to almost sweep in.
The corner that led to the goal in the Switzerland friendly came from a Brady overlap past Aiden McGeady. In a team that lives for crosses and dead balls, Brady does that a lot more than anyone else.
In the home game with Scotland, Brady crossed the ball into the box 19 times in total. That kind of volume gives an idea of how reliant Ireland can be on whether he’s hitting the sweet spot on any given day.
There was enough in his Norwich season to suggest a surge in his ability to influence games. For a team that struggled to find any attacking fluency, Brady was their highest chance creator (54).
Only Dmitri Payet, Mesut Ozil and James Milner crossed the ball more in the entire league.
He notched two direct assists but also whipped in seven corners that led to goals. He’s had really bright moments, from the clever one-two and shot from a corner that created a goal for Russell Martin at Sunderland back in August, to a man-of-the-match performance at home to Arsenal where he had the legs for Hector Bellerin and the spark and quality to create their goal and other chances.
Even against Manchester United, Norwich’s liveliest moment came early on when he had the pace to drive right down the middle and the nous to spot the correct pass out wide.
Yet it came to nothing, Brady was taken off early (as he had been against Sunderland when Norwich needed a goal) and there’s a feeling that manager Alex Neil hasn’t always been sure where to get the most from him.
His three goals for Norwich this season came when pushed high up and he scored that precious goal in Bosnia when given a looser attacking role to get into those spaces behind midfield and run at defences.
He wasn’t massively exposed at left-back in the Premier League yet there were enough hints of vulnerability against Switzerland and both Poland games that’d suggest teams could target that area in behind Brady.
O’Neill has to call where Brady’s most needed — a potential pay-off for quality setpieces is already obvious. Sweden are up first and guess who conceded goals from set-plays in both play-off legs with Denmark and recent friendlies with Turkey and Czech Republic?
It’d be a surprise if Brady isn’t a go-to guy for Ireland’s chances, in every sense.