It’s disappointing that what was one of our better performances of this group ended up being our worst result. But having rode our luck in Belgrade a year ago to escape with a point, the Serbs extracted revenge in clinical fashion and the optimism of the first hour evaporated in a string of poor final balls and snatched shots as desperation took hold.
The majority of us who gathered as usual in the Beggars after work on Tuesday evening were still looking a bit worn out from all the travel with the likes of the Quinn Towers only getting in that morning. Even those of us who’d arrived home on the Sunday were still feeling the pinch and the disappointment of the result but the energy levels were lifted by the bulk of our home season ticket crew and the Brummies who’d missed Georgia but had flown into Dublin the night before this game. There was a good crowd in the area with a full house expected and despite how poorly we’d played the previous weekend, the hope was that we couldn’t be as poor again and that a win would get us back on track.
The team duly came through a little earlier than the normal hour beforehand and all were agreed that, despite not being certain what formation we’d line out in, an eleven of Randolph, Christie, Clark, Duffy, Ward, Meyler, Hoolahan, Brady, McClean, Walters and Long looked more positive than had been selected for a while. The only questions were would it be a straight 4-4-2 or a diamond formation and whether the positive selection could be matched by the play on the pitch.
As normal, we arrived at our usual spot in a packed Singing Section just before the anthems and then witnessed a very special moment as our fallen comrade, John ‘The Bear’ Dowling, was remembered with his picture on the big screen being greeted by a solid minute’s applause as the Lansdowne Road crowd paid their respects. I doubt there was anyone in the stadium that wasn’t moved by it and it definitely helped ignite the atmosphere as the game kicked off.
It was clear early on that Martin O’Neill seemed to have gone for a diamond formation with Shane Long and Jon Walters up front and Wes Hoolahan playing at the tip of the diamond behind them. However, it was Serbia who created the first chance as some nervous play by Meyler on 3 minutes led to Shane Duffy having to charge down a Matic shot.
The atmosphere had kept going from the off and it seemed to have rubbed off on James McClean as he fell back into his old habit of getting too involved and was lucky to escape a booking about ten minutes in as he clattered into Rukavina and was given a serious talking to. Unfortunately, this was a sign of things to come with McClean. While I wouldn’t have been unhappy to see him taking a card late on to get his suspension out of the way against Moldova rather than the final game against Wales, I didn’t want him to walk a tightrope the majority of the game.
The first corner of the game followed closely from Serbia and the atmosphere was further enhanced as Kostić hit the ball straight out of play without even reaching the near post. Ireland then responded with some good pressure to win a throw closely followed by a corner and it was from that corner that the most enjoyable 20 seconds of the game materialised.
As we were attacking the North end of the ground in the first half, it was impossible for us in the South to get any sort of a view of the Serbian defensive line. So after the short corner was worked back to Hoolahan and his clipped ball was powered home by Duffy, our end went ballistic. The fact that the FAI insist on playing goal music and that the person in charge of it also didn’t realise that Duffy was a good yard offside meant that we were still celebrating long after the flag went up and it was only when the music cut off that we twigged something was wrong. Playing music after a goal is a bug bear of mine as I don’t see any need for it. The atmosphere is going to be bouncing anyway so what’s the point in drowning it out with Seven Nation Army? After it being accidentally played when Scotland equalised in the last campaign, it’s now twice that it’s been incorrectly put on. Again, what’s the point?
Despite the disappointment of the goal being chalked off, it seemed to lift Ireland and a few jokes were cracked among us about the fact that it was too early for us to score anyway given how we’ve defended early goals this campaign. We actually started to string a few passes together with Hoolahan at the core. Long had a good effort tipped over about twenty minutes in. After a few borderline Serbian challenges, we finally got a free in a good position but, as has often been the case since the Euros, Robbie Brady’s delivery failed to beat the first man.
We were certainly holding our own by now although Randolph had to get down well to keep a good Mitrovic effort out as we entered the last ten minutes of the half. Meyler was putting himself about nicely and we were mixing up our direct approach with a decent bit of football in a way that had been missing in the previous three qualifiers. I felt we had been the dominant side for most of the half and although Serbia began to get a bit of a hold of the ball in the last 7 or 8 minutes, a couple of excellent tackles from Meyler and McClean really got the crowd going again. When the half-time whistle came, the general consensus with those around was that all were satisfied with what we’d seen.
The first ten minutes of the second half saw more of the same with Ireland winning a couple of set pieces including a corner which was, once again, poorly delivered by Brady. However, while we were having our fair share of possession, we weren’t really testing Stojkovic in the Serbia goal with a Long effort comfortably saved being as good as it got in that spell. And unfortunately, we were made to pay for that lack of cutting edge a minute later.
The worst thing about the concession was that we had a number of half chances to clear our lines. A Brady header clear from a Tadic cross didn’t have enough purchase on it to reach McClean even though it looked like McClean might be able to win possession back from Tadic again but the Southampton man wriggled free and fed Kostic. With Cyrus Christie pulled inside, Kostic fed Koralov in the space on our right and, despite his best efforts, Walters couldn’t get back in time to prevent Koralov unleashing an absolute rocket. Although Randolph got a hand to it, the pace it moved at meant that all his touch did was deflect the ball onto the underside of the bar on its way into the net. 1-0 Serbia and suddenly we had a mountain to climb.
The goal really sucked the atmosphere out of the stadium and the hope was that we could regain some of the composure we’d been showing in the previous 35 minutes. However, with Hoolahan not getting on the ball as much, O’Neill decided to roll the dice five minutes after the goal and it was Wes who paid the price.
While I’d have preferred to see Arter come on, given the manager’s history, the fact that it was Daryl Murphy shouldn’t have been a surprise. Like a wedding DJ trying to get people onto the dance floor, O’Neill’s philosophy when things need changing is to go back to the 1980’s and pump it all night long. The message a substitution like that sends out is essentially to stop playing football and revert to banging balls up the pitch. And, in fairness, it paid off in a way on 67 minutes as a long ball from Brady wasn’t dealt with by Vukovic and with Murphy bearing down on goal, Maksimovic took him down while stretching for the ball. The ref had no doubt it was a straight red card and the sight of it re-energised the crowd as we faced into the last quarter with an extra man and a free kick at the edge of the box.
A couple of minutes had passed by the time Brady got to take the free but once again, it was wasted as he struck it straight into the wall. The irony of the situation now was that, had Hoolahan been on the pitch the space generated by the extra man would have suited him down to a tee but had Murphy not been on, the red card may never have come. O’Neill seemed to realise this and shortly after sent on Callum O’Dowda for Stephen Ward as we shifted to three at the back. The unfortunate thing is that, while O’Dowda looks like he may have potential on the ball, he doesn’t have the experience or guile to dictate play like Hoolahan. That said, he was involved in our best chance to get something from the game as he played a cross in to Murphy who was blatantly manhandled as he challenged for the ball only for the ref to wave his protests away.
Our composure had totally deserted us by now with Christie’s follow up shot blazing over the bar in what was becoming a pattern with McClean having done similar a couple of minutes before. As mentioned earlier, McClean has a habit of letting his emotions and pride in the shirt get ahead of him and that was the case again here as he got his customary booking and hit another couple of shots over when recycling the ball would have been a better option. I couldn’t count the amount of times that players took wrong options with poor final balls and wayward shots but Christie, McClean and a newly introduced Conor Hourihane were all guilty of it. With news filtering through that Wales had finally taken a late lead against Moldova, our situation was looking more desperate by the minute.
Any hope I had that the introduction of O’Dowda might lead to a more nuanced approach didn’t last long as we persisted with the long ball game rather than trying to make use of the extra man. In fact, it would have been impossible for anyone who walked in halfway through the second half to know which team had an extra man. Instead of pulling players out wide to create space, we persisted in putting high balls into the box that were meat and strong to a team as big and strong as Serbia. Why persist in letting them keep it compact in the centre when it wasn’t working even when they were down to nine men for a couple of minutes as another of their defenders was off getting treatment? Let’s not forget this was the second game where our approach prevented us taking advantage of an extra man after failing to do so against Wales in March.
A half-chance for Murphy hit straight at the keeper was as good as it got as we moved into stoppage time. While the Serbian tactic of time wasting was as frustrating as it was unsurprising, our use of the ball by now was non-existent and our brute force approach wasn’t paying dividends as silly fouls gave away possession time and time again. A final flurry finished with Randolph coming up for a last corner in the 5th minute of stoppage time but another poor delivery was easily dealt with and the Irish players slumped to the ground as the ref blew up for full-time.
I’m not going to do a post mortem on the campaign at this stage with two games left and an outside chance of still making a play-off. But questions have to be asked as to how we’ve let such a promising position six months ago drift away so badly. The annoying thing is that we showed on Tuesday that we can play reasonable ball when the right team and tactics are employed. In fact, I’m convinced that, had we approached the home games against Wales and Austria and the away game in Georgia in the same manner as we did on Tuesday, that we’d still be in the driving seat in the group. Instead, the managers innate conservatism meant that we set up not to lose those games and in doing so ceded the initiative to our rivals.
While losing Seamus Coleman was a massive loss and injuries to James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and even Aiden McGeady haven’t helped, it’s clear that with Hoolahan in the team, we play a different sort of game and, in the long run, a more effective one. Most of our best moments in recent years such as the goal in Gelsenkirchen and those against Sweden and Italy in the Euros have come with him on the pitch. I appreciate that he’s getting older and I’ve always said that I can understand why a manager would take a different approach against the top sides. However, I can’t understand why he’s not trusted against the lower seeds when we play them. It’s not just what he does on the pitch, it’s what he enables other players to do as well.
So, we now face our last two games having picked up 10 points from our first four and only 3 from our second four. That said, having picked up 4 points despite been outplayed by Georgia at home and Serbia away, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at how we’ve unraveled considering the only two good performances have been away to Moldova and Austria. Even in those games we gave up chances but the chickens seem to be coming home to roost. Even turning things round and winning our last two games may not be enough with our group currently bottom of the second place table with only eight of nine runners up making the play-offs. As for Serbia, the 3 points gained here have made them almost dead certs to reach Russia next summer. Revenge for them after that point we pilfered in Belgrade was indeed a dish best Serbed cold.