So, after what felt like the blink of an eye since our Euros came to an end, we find ourselves back at the coalface for the start of our World Cup qualifying campaign. And, unfortunately for me, with the memories of a great trip beginning to fade, family commitments mean that I won’t be able to add new memories from Belgrade for this game and will have to make do with watching it here in Dublin! There’s actually been a long run in to this group, with the strange workings of FIFA coming to the fore as they held the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in July 2015 rather than the normal December date. The early nature of the draw, coupled with the poor form shown by Ireland at that point in the Euro qualifying campaign, had us seeded in the 4th pot for the first time since the Euro 2008 qualifiers after having been 2nd seeds for the ultimately successful Euro campaign. The problem with the draw being so early was that no chance was given to the manager to try and turn things around in the rest of the campaign so our seeding for this campaign was set well over a year before the first ball will be kicked in anger.
The news of this seeding had been a cause of concern for many at the time of the draw but I’ve always argued that too much emphasis can be put on seedings and the luck of the draw can sometimes be just as important as the pot you’re in, particularly with the vagaries of the FIFA World Rankings. And so it came to pass as we ended up in a group that for me, is certainly easier than our Euro qualifying group despite us being two pots lower than we were in February 2014 when the draw for that group was made.
That said, it wasn’t looking like our luck was particularly good when we came out into one of the six team groups with Georgia and Moldovo taking up the 6th and 5th seeded spots respectively. The new UEFA TV deal ensures that England, France, Germany and The Netherlands have to be drawn into 6 team groups so being in a 6 team group increased the odds of getting one of those teams and even though Serbia had a poor Euro campaign which was marred by crowd trouble resulting in point deductions and games being awarded to the opposition, they still wouldn’t have been my preferred 3rd seeds.
At the time of the draw, with a group consisting of Serbia, Ireland, Moldova and Georgia and the potential of France or Italy coming out of pot 2. I was beginning to get worried given the general strength of the top seeded teams. In that context, Austria wasn’t the worst team to come out even allowing for the fact that we only took 1 point off them in the last Trapattoni World Cup campaign. And our luck definitely seemed to have changed at the time, when with Romania, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia left in the draw, Wales were choosen as top seeds for our Group D. With all due respect to the Welsh and even allowing for their excellent run to the semi finals in France during the summer, having them instead of Germany who’ve been our top seeds for the last two campaigns had to feel like a bonus. And while I see similarities with our last group in that I think a lot of teams will take points off each other, on reflection, I’d sooner have a group consisting of Wales, Austria, Serbia and ourselves as the top four seeds than Germany, ourselves, Poland and Scotland.
But of course, the expansion of the Euros means that the there is a radical difference in the opportunity to qualify with only 13 spots available in Europe for World Cup qualification as opposed to the 23 spots that were available for France. It can’t be forgotten that our route to France was secured with a 3rd place finish in the group which would result in a failed campaign this time out. Hence why having Wales as our top seed should give ourselves and the other contenders in the group a better shot at aiming to top the group then had we drawn one of the traditional giants of the game who, more often than not get the job done. The potential of a hangover from Wales can’t be discounted as well as had been seen in the past when the likes of Sweden after World Cup 1994, Croatia after World Cup 1998 and Turkey after World Cup 2002 and Euro 2008 all struggled to build on what were unexpected semi final appearances and failed to qualify from the following campaign. But I guess all that remains to be seen!
From our perspective, we enter the qualifiers in a reasonable place with the feel good factor generated by how we played in our last two games against Italy and the hosts in France still in place. The hope now has to be that this can be built on and that the manner we approached those games continues and that we don’t revert to the negative approach shown in France against Belgium and after we took the lead against Sweden. It’s hard to believe that the France game was the first game of Martin O’Neill’s reign where he named an unchanged team.
But, with the suspension of Shane Duffy and the James McCarthy injury, this is not a luxury open to him this time so I believe it’s important that regardless of the personnel that come in to replace them our approach needs to remain the same and keep up the aggressive attacking style that served us so well against Italy and for the first hour against France before the attrition of a second game so soon after the Italy win took it’s toll in the stifling heat of Lyon. The fact that there are doubts over the fitness of Seamus Coleman and John O’Shea is also a concern but the temptation to be conservative to compensate for the absence of first choice players must be resisted and a similar mind-set to the one we took to Sarajevo for the Bosnia play off would be ideal.
Although Serbia have struggled in recent years and have had points deducted in two of their last three campaigns due to crowd trouble, you have to look beyond their final places in those campaigns to try and judge them as opponents within the group. They have a number of top class players who are Champions League regulars, including Ivanovich, Matic and Kolorov who people will be familiar with from playing with Chelsea and Manchester City and it’s certainly a plus for us that the latter two are suspended for this fixture. But they also have some very good young players coming through and a number of last year’s Under 20 World Cup winning squad have now been promoted to the senior panel.
From the point of view of our preparation, there was little in value in football terms to be gained from Wednesday’s match against Oman and one had to question how it is that we have ended up playing this opposition three times in the past five seasons. That said, the game last Wednesday was certainly an occasion to be part of purely due to the fact that it essentially was an excuse to say goodbye to a player who deserves to be considered among the greats of Irish football along with McGrath, Giles, Brady and his namesake, Roy and hopefully that the feel good factor generated by the tournament in France was given another bit of momentum by the goodwill shown to Robbie Keane on his retirement.
It was clear from the off that getting Keane onto the scoresheet one last time was on everyone’s mind and, having been unable to convert a couple of half chances just after Robbie Brady gave us the lead, it was a real fillip for everyone in the stadium to witness one last goal for the departing captain to go with the consistent ‘Keano,Keano’ chants that had been echoing around the ground. And the goal, when it came, was a cracker with Walters and Long combining well before the ball came to Keane, who flicked it over the nearest defender and volleyed it into the ground and past the keeper.
It’s a long time since I’ve heard a goal in a friendly celebrated with such fervour as every one of the 28,0000 present let out a huge roar as we witnessed the famous (and less than graceful!) somersault one last time. As the game was over as a contest by now, it played out at testimonial pace although it was good to see Jon Walters bag a brace after his injury hit Euro campaign. People were clearly hoping for another Keane goal to bring him past the famous Gerd Muller’s international total but it wasn’t to be and there was an emotional goodbye as he was called ashore for one last time. And it was nice to see YBIG mark the occasion as the Singing Section banner with the silhouette of Keane with his arms outstretched in celebration was unfurled as he left the pitch.
For me, the criticism that has been levelled at him from some quarters over the years has simply smacked of begrudgery and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. “He only ever scores against the minnows”, I’ve often heard said. Outside of the fact that we can only play one or at most two of the traditional giants of the game in each qualification campaign, Keane has scored vital goals in competitive games against Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, not to mention goals against the likes of Yugoslavia and Russia. He has scored in play off games against Turkey, Iran, France and Estonia. He scored three goals in four games at the only World Cup he played in. And even many of his goals against what are perceived as minnows have been vital for us.
He has scored in games we’ve won by a single goal against the likes of Malta, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Macedonia. He has scored in every year since his debut in 1998. I’m old enough to remember Ireland’s top goalscorer being Don Givens with 19. I can remember an ‘A’ international against Malta just before the World Cup in 1990 being reclassified as a full international after the fact just so that Frank Stapleton’s goal would bring him up to 20 and give him the record.
I can remember seeing John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino trying and falling short on 19 before Niall Quinn finally managed to get to 21. Robbie Keane has 68 goals for Ireland. The argument should end there, it’s a phenomenal total and if someone is scoring with that level of regularity then the other complaints about his work rate of the fact he waves his arms around also fall down. I don’t want someone who is scoring at that rate to be wasting energy chasing lost causes or haring down into the channels. I want him conserving his energy to get onto the end of something when the chance arises. The fact that a number of his big goals came so late in games for us (Germany, Spain, Italy, Cyprus for example) gives him a pass on that for me, flogging him for 75 minutes and then substituting him was never what he was about.
And while, I really appreciate and admire the lung busting runs and harrying of defenders that is the stock in trade of the likes of Shane Long, that just wasn’t Robbie’s game. And with all due respect to Long (who needs to try and take on the mantle in the short term), I don’t think anyone believes that he will get anywhere near 68 goals in his Ireland career and it’s unlikely that I’ll see anyone do it in my lifetime. We won’t see his like again and, having witnessed 60 of those goals in person, all I can say is thanks for the memories!
In terms of his departure, it’s probably more off the pitch than on the pitch that he’ll be missed now given how O’Neill had phased him out of the team in recent years. And it’s further credit to Keane that despite the vaguely ridiculous theory that was mooted a few years ago that he would walk away if he was no longer first choice, he never bitched or moaned when he wasn’t playing and instead was practically acting as an additional member of the backroom staff as the previous campaign reached it’s critical phase and indeed during the finals.
So now it’s time for some of the younger players who came of age in France to step up and provide some of the leadership that will be needed. Obviously the two biggest pluses of the tournament were Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, who interestingly became the fist player to score in three successive internationals since Keane himself. Hendrick’s move to the Premier League with Burnley is good to see and, while it’s a shame that Norwich seemed to price Brady out of a move to that level, that’s their prerogative and I don’t see him being the sort of player to sulk or spit the dummy as a result.
Both players will be vital this time out and, having missed the Euros, I’m looking forward to seeing Harry Arter finally embedded into the squad along with Callum O’Dowda. Despite his error against France, Shane Duffy’s development at the back has been encouraging and the fact that John O’Shea hasn’t followed Keane and Given into retirement at this stage is a positive from the point of view of his experience remaining on board. Up front, it’s as you were bar Keane with the expectation that Long and Walters will make up for the like of natural instinctive finishing with their exceptional workrate. It’s actually up front that I’d like to see someone come through out of nowhere as Walters and Murphy are both now 33 and we look light for goals there. And although Recce Grego-Cox from the Under 21’s has had some Premier League and Championship experience in the last couple of seasons, his age of 19 and the fact that he has just gone on loan to Newport County in League Two indicates that this campaign will most likely be too early for him. Therefore with the back up options being the like of Anthony Stokes and Adam Rooney who have been around the squad for a while without making much of an impact, it’s up top where we really need to avoid injuries.
In terms of tonight’s game then most people would probably take an away draw before kick off and I’d be happy enough to avoid defeat. That said, we have started with away wins in each of our last 4 campaigns although Serbia are a step up from Georgia, Kazakhstan and Georgia again! From my perspective, it’s been killing me getting messages from the lads who’ve travelled on the various WhatsApp groups set up on previous trips so I’m already looking forward to next months trip to Moldovva and the November trip to Austria! Hopefully, we’ll have a start to match the summer behind us by then!
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