Liam Brady’s words ring true despite finale

A difficult night, regardless of the frantic finish. 

It was one made somehow worse by the noise and colour generated by the thousands of Poles whose presence stirred reminders of the good old days for Irish fans when they too travelled from far and wide to back a team that repaid them in kind.

Red and white flags fluttered around the four sides of the cold and wet Aviva Stadium bearing names of towns and cities — among them Dublin, Tuam, Ballymena, Aberdeen, Oslo and Berlin — that spoke painfully and yet proudly of the pain of forced emigration.

How familiar all that was.

Five ‘visiting’ fans, hopping through gardens and over walls in the stadium’s shadows in an attempt to offset the lack of match tickets, displayed an ingenuity that would have fitted in seamlessly with the antics recorded — and invented — here since ’88, ’90 or ‘94.

This was, clearly, a game that meant much to many on both sides in the context of France 2016, but there was only one side for whom anything but victory would suffice if dreams of another jaunt on the continent next summer were to survive the night.

Martin O’Neill gave public recognition to the importance of it all by naming a side featuring the less-than-regular-faces of Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady in the starting XI.

This was, though, a game framed a full day earlier by comments made in this newspaper by Liam Brady about their colleague James McCarthy and his place in the firmament of this team and this elevated stage of football a full five years after his full debut.

“The jury is out on his importance to the team,” Brady wrote in these pages on Saturday.

“Without doubt, McCarthy and his clubmate Seamus Coleman are the best players we have operating in the Premier League, but it is a worry to see McCarthy miss games for Ireland then, the following week, play for Everton. I don’t know whether he’s just shy or really has a passion to play for Ireland.”

McCarthy had played 24 times for Ireland up to last night and yet it would be untrue to say he has always flattered to deceive.

Nine of the 10 World Cup 2014 qualifiers had borne his stamp, if to very varying degrees.

Man of the match performances away to the Faroe Islands and Sweden under Giovanni Trapattoni bore testament to a talent which Roberto Martinez insists is the only one without which he could not do amongst his squad at Everton.

Jamie Carragher is another who has spoken in admiring tones of the Glasgow man of late and yet McCarthy’s inability to make his mark at international level on a consistent basis has long been Ireland in microcosm.

“Regardless of club form, this is an opportunity to don the Irish shirt and perform to one’s maximum,” O’Neill had said of the game in prospect in last night’s programme notes.

“From my own experiences during my playing days, I always felt that the break from the club environment and being able to focus on a single big match at international level provided a refreshing stimulus.”

There was little evidence of that on the pitch.

A side that appeared adventurous on paper displayed an oh-so-familiar lack of intensity and drive until the last half-hour when an injection of urgency only went so far in excusing the continuing lack of class.

Brady’s other headline-grabber of note two days ago should also be noted here.

‘I fear for Ireland’, he admitted. That rings true even more after another unbalanced display and the engine room should shoulder much of that blame.

There was one 60-second spell 15 minutes into the evening when McCarthy scuttled forward and sent in a cross after a one-two with Hoolahan that was followed by an aggressive tackle on Arkadiusz Mlik soon after.

It was a snapshot of the man’s ability and of the sort of industriousness and verve that once made Irish teams unpopular, if not feared, but the player and his side could only muster those qualities in fits and starts across the night.

It just wasn’t enough. Again.


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