It’s indicative of just how far Ireland’s stock has fallen in the last 12 months that a 0-0 home draw against an opposition shorn of their one truly world-class player can be heralded as progress. Yet, that’s the position we find ourselves in as the Martin O’Neill reign stays afloat with the clean sheet at least buying a little more time for a management team that still feels as if it’s holed below the waterline.
The gloom of the morning that greeted me as I opened the curtains provided an apt metaphor for the mood that surrounds the Irish camp these days. The manner of the Welsh defeat and the subsequent hoo-hah about Stephen Ward’s leaked voice message had meant that the set up had rarely been out of the sports pages for the last month. This was surely a chance to try and aim for the fresh start that had been promised at the start of this Nations League campaign. Although the repetitive nature of the fixtures this draw has thrown up had undoubtedly added to the stale feeling around the set-up.
While the Declan Rice saga shows no sign of abating, it seems like an eleventh-hour phone call from Roy Keane to Harry Arter had been enough to persuade him to return to the squad. And the award of September’s Premier League Player of the Month to ex-Bohs full-back, Matt Doherty, had meant that there was at least a football based narrative around the build-up with the clamour to include a player strangely ignored by O’Neill in the past despite excellent Championship form dominating discussions.
Speaking of Bohs, there was the small matter of a Scottish Challenge Cup tie against English Conference side, Sutton United the same afternoon as the match. And, after a 30-minute struggle with a failing Eir broadband and 4g network to try and arrange a cab, myself and Bren, the sole representative from the Birmingham Irish crew arrived up at Dalymount for a taster before the evening’s main event.
The nature of that competition, into which the Scottish League have invited two teams each from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England’s National League (previously the Conference) meant that normal regulations didn’t apply with fans allowed to bring their drinks into the stands, which added to a very nice atmosphere between the home support and the 250 Sutton fans who’d made the trip.
The game itself fizzled out into a nil all draw but the penalty shoot-out that followed was worth the admission alone as Bohs keeper and recent Irish squad member, Shane Supple, took it upon himself to turn things around after Bohs had missed their third and fourth pens. I’ve never seen a keeper save a pen, score the next one himself and then save another but that’s what he did before Rob Cornwall scored in sudden death and Sutton’s next pen hit the bar and bounced back out off the line to send Bohs through to the last eight. It doesn’t make up for the heartbreaking nature of the FAI Cup semi defeat to Cork last week but it’ll keep the season going a little longer.
From there, another cab through the incessant drizzle brought us over to the Beggars where the usual regulars had started to gather under whatever shelter was available. Despite the negativity surrounding the team at the moment, it was a bit of craic to catch up with those that had travelled and to try and work out exactly what sort of formation was going to be played when the team was announced.
With three centre-halves selected it was clearly three at the back with wingbacks on the flanks but with Doherty finally selected for a competitive game, presumably on the right, where were Cyrus Christie and James McClean going to play? Callum O’Dowda’s inclusion was a positive but again, I was struggling to work out exactly where he’d line up with some reports stating he’d have a central role. So where would that leave Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter?
Rather than waste time second-guessing, we wandered down to the ground in what was a fairly subdued atmosphere in time to see the standard minute’s silence although it was nice to see a tribute to a young Bohs supporter, Oran Tully, who tragically died recently aged only 19 having bravely battled serious illness since he was a small child. Oran would have been well known in League of Ireland circles for his video blogs and had been on Sky Sports My Special Day programme a few years ago. A further round of applause on 19 minutes in the singing section also marked his passing which was a nice touch.
The game itself began cagily but an early flashpoint arrived when Hendrick decided to play on when Denmark and Thomas Delaney, in particular, had clearly decided to stop playing after Arter went down in our half. With the Danish players standing around, Jeff decided to scamper through on goal only, in an action that really sums up Ireland right now, to drag his shot wide. Even against a defence that stops playing, we still can’t get a strike on target.
Needless to say, the Danes weren’t impressed with this shithousery and, led by an irate Kasper Schmeichel, surrounded Hendrick as a bit of finger-jabbing and pushing and shoving ensued. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he actually scored with O’Neill suggesting afterwards that he may have instructed his players to stand by and let Denmark score. Some might argue that that’s essentially what we did against Wales but that’s another debate…
By now, it had begun to sink in that my eyes weren’t deceiving me and Cyrus Christie was actually playing in central midfield. I’m actually a fan of Christie and think he can be unfairly maligned on occasion but I can’t imagine what sort of signal his inclusion in that position sends to the likes of Conor Hourihane, David Meyler and Shaun Williams (who was a rare bright spot in recent friendlies) as they sat on the bench and saw a man who’s never played that position professionally selected ahead of them.
To be fair, Christie did alright in terms of work-rate and getting a foot in but it meant a midfield bereft of guile and, as is the norm, completely unable to retain possession or create much of anything. Instructions seemed to go no further than battle away and ensure you’re in it till the 70-minute mark and have a go then. Although given how often we collapse on the occasions we do score early, maybe it’s for the best.
Set plays seem to be our only chance to create opportunities these days with Shane Duffy usually the target. The Brighton man should have done better when he got onto the end of a Hendrick free on 35 mins and that was as good as it got for Ireland in the first half. Denmark weren’t offering much more, to be honest despite dominating possession and their closest effort saw Sisto hit the outside of the post just before half-time.
O’Dowda had taken a knock yet played on during the first half but was obviously feeling the effects so was replaced by Enda Stephens at half-time. So, another defender on and McClean moving more central.
While Denmark started the half brighter, the game was still a very grim watch as we dug in with a 5-3-2 formation where any possession we had was generally recycled to Randolph to clear upfield. Harry Arter’s last meaningful act was to clear a goalbound header from Kjaer off the line around the hour mark before he was surprisingly substituted, stopping on his way to the bench to enjoy a warm embrace from Roy Keane. Well, obviously that didn’t happen but that scenario seemed as likely as an Irish shot on target by that stage.
The introduction of Callum Robinson did seem to spark a bit of life into the team and Ireland’s best spell followed. He at least tried to get onto the ball and be positive with it and that elusive shot on target came not long later.
Robinson did well to get the ball wide to Stephens on the left wing. His cross was flicked on by McClean to Long who laid it off to that man Christie who was striding forward from his central berth. He connected sweetly with the ball but Schmeichel beat it away comfortably.
Denmark seemed content with a draw by now although a mix up between Duffy and Christie let Sisto play Braithwaite in but Randolph had little trouble saving the shot. A second strike from Delaney was dealt with just as comfortably and one final late sub saw Aiden O’Brien on for Shane Long with a couple of minutes left.
There was still time for one last moment of stoppage time controversy when Shane Duffy went down under a Dalsgaard challenge after a Christie cross into the box. For a second, it looked like the ref had bought it only for him instead to flash a yellow card in Duffy’s direction for diving. That was that.
If one looks to be positive then at least you can say that we stopped the rot and didn’t lose. In fact, should we beat Wales tomorrow, we’d be going to Denmark next month where a win would potentially see us top the group if Wales fail to beat Denmark at home.
But is stopping the rot enough against what, without Eriksen, is a very average Danish team for whom a draw was as much as they really wanted or needed? After all, we got the same result against a better Denmark team in Copenhagen last year in a similar performance equally bereft of creativity. And we all saw how the wheels came off after that.
There are still plenty of worrying underlying issues with how we play. The formation seemed to flood the defence and the midfield yet still leave huge gaps between each third of the pitch. Letting a defender who hasn’t played centre midfield since he was 14 know he’s to play there an hour before kick off seems an abdication of basic management preparation.
We consistently have under 40% possession regardless of the quality of the opposition. Our go-to pass is generally backwards. We’ve had 7 shots on target in our last 9 games since the midway point in last year’s October fixtures. Our record since then is Played – 9, Won – 2, Drawn – 3, Lost – 5. Goals For – 6, Goals Against – 14.
In fact, a run like that in league football would see a manager under pressure in the modern game. A run like that against the backdrop of a player making themselves unavailable due to the actions of the assistant manager, an admission of another row with a senior player, our best prospect considering a switch to England and more leaks than a sieve coming out of the camp and it takes on an altogether different hue.
All management reigns come to a natural end. In Ireland’s case, that end never seems to be foreseen and it’s generally a result in one campaign too far that indicates no way back. I’ve yet to see a manager turn things around after that result but I’ve seen a few campaigns wasted after it.
With Mick McCarthy, the Euro ’04 qualifier 4-2 defeat by Russia in a post-Saipan world indicated the beginning of the end. Steve Staunton’s reign never should have started and the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus was a result that there was no comeback from. Giovanni Trapattoni never recovered from Euro ’12 but it was the 6-1 defeat by Germany in the next campaign that really meant the end.
If the 5-1 Lansdowne defeat to Denmark last November wasn’t that result for Martin O’Neill, the last thing he’d have needed was the hammering that Wales gave us last month. Yet, the fact that he now has a chance to take on that same opposition without Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Amdapu gives him a perfect opportunity to hit the reset button in a meaningful fashion and become an exception to the rule.
While Christie acquited himself reasonably, there’s no reason why he couldn’t play on the right of the three central defenders to allow a natural centre mind such as Williams in to try and link the play up. Hendrick is ineffective that far forward and needs to be withdrawn back to where he was most effective at the Euros in France.
Conversely, Arter is more effective further up the pitch than he was deployed on Saturday. With three central defenders playing, the defensive midfield role doesn’t need to be as tight to the defence as it was where Arter nearly seemed to operate as a fourth centre-half on occasion.
Wales have dipped significantly since we made them look like world-beaters a month ago. Denmark beat them comfortably later that week and Spain put four past them in a friendly four days ago. Considering that, and the Welsh injury list, it’s imperative that we approach the game in a more positive fashion that we’ve recently seen. A win on Tuesday has the potential to change the entire narrative around the team. Sending out a team set up to do that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
This article is from the A False First 11 blog