Ireland’s foot soldiers just about hold the middle ground

There were times when this would have felt just like old times for Glenn Whelan. And everyone watching.

Ireland’s foot soldiers just about hold the middle ground

There were times when this would have felt just like old times for Glenn Whelan. And everyone watching.

But not quite the good old days.

Although his rasping long-range shot, which smashed off the top of the bar and was the catalyst for Ireland’s 85th-minute equaliser moments later, sure would have taken him back to the stage in his career when he was more than just a defensive shield.

Those tortuous latter stages of the Giovanni Trapattoni era, when results deserted his creaking side and excuses faded, can also be remembered for how exposed the Ireland midfield was against quality opposition.

Whelan was beginning to look like an endangered species six years ago and when Martin O’Neill put him out to pasture following Euro 2016 that seemed to be the end.

Mick McCarthy has given him an international reprieve but the first visible sign of frustration for the veteran, charged with holding the fort at the base of midfield with Conor Hourihane in proximity on his left, came in the 21st minute.

Whelan threw his hands in the air in the direction of McCarthy standing on the touchline and made sure to gesture that he was unimpressed with the vast open spaces which the Swiss so easily created in the middle third.

The source of this ire for Whelan, now at Hearts and who came into this game on the back of 180 minutes of football against Celtic and Hamilton, was a simple lump forward by goalkeeper Yann Sommer which was picked up by striker Haris Seferovic and laid off for the onrushing Denis Zakaria in the centre.

The counter came to nothing – Swiss wastefulness in the final third a theme of the evening until Fabian Schar sauntered forward from centre back to finish off a sublime move with a quarter of an hour to go.

But that early breakdown in attack was indicative of a first half in which Ireland took time to settle. It was only when Whelan, Hourihane and the more advanced Jeff Hendrick grew in confidence that the mood spread around the rest of the team.

The most heartening passage of play may have resulted in David McGoldrick harmlessly scuffing a shot wide, but the build up illustrated a rare sense of belief and purpose which sporadically shone through on a night which otherwise saw the visitors dominate.

It began with Hourihane covering for Seamus Coleman in the right back position and, with his back to goal and a Swiss opponent nearby, the Villa man opted for a ball inside to centre back Richard Keogh instead of the more conservative back pass to keeper Darren Randolph and the inevitable hoof forward.

Keogh, perhaps buoyed by this simple show of confidence from Hourihane, produced a clever reverse pass to allow the midfielder advance forward up that wing.

Coleman showed for an out ball, which he duly received, the Ireland captain fed Hendrick, who quickly supplied McGoldrick on the edge of the area.

The Sheffield United forward turned cleverly but the less said about the finish the better. Ireland had done their talking in the few seconds prior to that and the supporters responded with a roar of appreciation.

Ireland just couldn’t build on that momentum after the interval.

The early signs seemed promising as Whelan, Hourihane and Hendrick all worked in unison further up the pitch but their superior opponents eventually forced them back.

Hourihane came into this clash with 19 minutes of Premier League action off the bench against Crystal Palace while Hendrick had to make do with 90 minutes of EFL Cup action for Burnley against Sunderland.

Both were key figures for their club sides last year and have been dealt with a challenge to regain their status. Here they were reminded of their place on the international stage.

Hourihane was hooked with nine minutes to go as McCarthy threw on Scott Hogan in search of an equaliser – it came dramatically from the excellent McGoldrick who showed power and desire to meet James McClean’s deflected cross with a perfectly timed header.

The concern for Ireland out of this, though, will be the ease at which the Swiss did manage to control the tempo from the middle.

The Swiss showed their fallibility by failing to build on their goal – Hendrick failed to track Schar’s run so won’t enjoy seeing it back.

However, Ireland once again proved their resilience by failing to bow to Switzerland’s technical superiority.

McClean’s lung-busting recovery run to chase back for possession led to his cross for McGoldrick’s goal and that should not be overlooked.

It typified the characteristics which visiting teams always reel off about Ireland; passion, desire, commitment and spirit.

Those traits are not to be sniffed at. They were there in the good old days and will be needed to ensure there are more to come at Euro 2020.

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