Not Ireland 2.0, but almost the perfect blend of fire and ice

The national team always plays better at pace and with their backs to the wall.
Not Ireland 2.0, but almost the perfect blend of fire and ice

27 March 2023; Chiedozie Ogbene of Republic of Ireland in action against Theo Hernández of France during the UEFA EURO 2024 Championship Qualifier match between Republic of Ireland and France at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

There was probably some form of argument to be made long before Josh Cullen played a square ball across his own area after half-time that Ireland’s chances of finding par with the French would have been better with Trap, Mick or MONKeano scribbling the Xs and Os.

The Republic had welcomed two bona fide heavyweights to Dublin in Stephen Kenny’s first three years in charge and, to be blunt about it, the draws recorded against Serbia and Portugal look appreciably better on paper than they did on the turf.

A late own goal and heroic performance from Gavin Bazunu earned the first. The second came against a Portugal team that left a bunch of key men on the bench for their own looming appointment with the Serbs and all but worked to rule from the off.

They came for the point and, by god, they left with it.

So, it would have been understandable had the sight of Kylian Mbappé and friends torching the Dutch in Paris prompted a misplaced nostalgia for an Irish side playing 4-4-2, digging the trenches and, with it, the very conditions for a self-prophesying siege.

Kenny told us this wouldn’t be the case. Golfers don’t tend to park the remedial work on their swing and revert to the old ways on the week of a major. Ireland changed six of the clubs in their bag after Latvia but they promised the same course management.

There would be no ‘slow death’, said Kenny. ‘Naïve’, said more than a few. Like it was ever going to be that simple. If battle plans never survive the first engagement then that holds for culture wars as much as it does for anything involving munitions.

The realpolitik of football takes over soon enough and what did we see from Ireland for most of this Euro 2024 qualifier other than a fiercely disciplined side frustrating the French and looking more often than not to the long ball to release some pressure?

There is nothing wrong with this.

The manager had called for fire and ice and they certainly made it hot for the visitors. The roof rattled to the roars of the crowd when Chiedozie Ogbene dispossessed Mbappé early on. The crowd rejoiced when Ireland won a free, and when Jayson Molumby slid in to tackle and stem a counter.

That isn’t Ireland 2.0. That was blood, sweat and cheers. It’s in the DNA of every Irish team that has ever kicked a ball and the sight of the French playing yet another pass straight out of play spoke volumes for the way Ireland harried and forced them to stretch every sinew and seek out every blade of grass.

There was only ever limited time and place for the ice. Nathan Collins scooted out of defence near the end of the first half, acres in front of him and 50,000 people urging him to press home the advantage. He looked up, saw there was nothing obvious on and played a safety rather than chance the risky colour.

Cullen’s error for the opening goal was a moment that would have earned a man banishment under Jack Charlton but it was the sort of brain fart that any manager would find incomprehensible. You couldn’t use it as Exhibit A in a debate on why Ireland should revert wholesale to the old rugby dictum of boot, bollock and bite.

The midfielder lumped one clear from the same spot a minute later – an act of necessity and penance all in one - but Ireland weren’t spooked into a reset and they produced two of their most fluid attacking moves in the next few plays founded on Evan Ferguson’s backheel and Ogbene’s turn and run.

Both were played out from the back and along the floor.

The highlights feel will still show that Ireland’s best chance came from a centre-back’s header in the last minute but the traditional last-gasp assault, though still hectic, was a more nuanced affair than the versions which always seemed to end with Shane Duffy as the saviour.

The length-of-the-pitch one-two between James McClean and Adam Idah was exceptional and Ireland, with their attacking subs heavily involved, worked the far corner patiently as they probed for an opening that invariably resulted in a setpiece that suffered for the delivery.

One of the key metrics in American football is the RPO, the run-pass option. It allows teams to alternate attacking styles and keep the opposing defence guessing. Ireland showed a balance of the old and the new, the long and the short, here but if the last chapter taught us anything it is the perennial fact that the national team always plays better at pace.

And with their backs to the wall.


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