Groundhog Day all over again for impotent Ireland
When the final whistle blew shortly before 7pm on Saturday evening at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, confirming a 1-1 draw between Republic of Ireland and Scotland in their Euro 2016 qualifier, the feeling was all too familiar for Irish supporters. Once again, the home side found themselves in a position of knowing that nothing less than three points would do against a direct rival for qualification, and once again Ireland fell short in their mission. With the qualifiers just passing the halfway mark, there is still time for Martin O’Neill’s men to resuscitate their faltering campaign, but without a sucker punch landed on their nearest competitors, they now need to land a decisive blow while also depending on favours from elsewhere – not an ideal position in which to find yourself.
In the build-up to every Ireland home qualifying match in recent years against a team pushing for qualification, one damning statistic is thrown out. The Irish have not won in Dublin against a nation ranked ahead of them in a competitive match since the fabled victory over Netherlands in September 2001. Time and again, when Ireland need to take the impetus and record a significant win in qualifying action, the best they can muster is a valiant draw. On the face of it, taking points off the likes of Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic and Italy, as the Irish have done in recent campaigns, is a job well done. However, none of these teams tasted defeat in Dublin, while they have come a cropper away to countries on a similar standing with Ireland.
In truth, Ireland’s current squad is not blessed with world-beating talent. Shay Given is a quality goalkeeper, but at 39 and having already come out of international retirement once, he is a short-term option. The same can be said for John O’Shea, who will feel he could have done more to prevent Scotland’s equaliser on Saturday. Seamus Coleman has ability but, for club and country, has been well below his best in recent months. Wes Hoolahan is 33 and, for whatever reason, is not trusted by the management to be a guaranteed starter. Robbie Keane’s goal record is outstanding, but he too is on his last legs in a green shirt and there is no alternative who you can confidently say will be as potent in front of goal. Elsewhere, the team is passable to plain ordinary. Compare that with Germany’s array of talent, a Poland team spearheaded by the lethal Robert Lewandowski and an ever-improving Scotland and maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Ireland currently occupy fourth place in Group D.
Ireland really can do better, though. There is a resilience about the squad which has kept them in contention, with five points being won thanks to stoppage-time interventions in Georgia and Germany, and at home to Poland. Look at the other groups in the European qualifiers, though, and nations with resources similar to, or even less than, Ireland’s are far better placed to earn a passage to France next summer. Iceland are two points clear at the top of a group which contains Netherlands, the Czechs and Turkey. Wales have a three-point advantage at the summit of Group B, although they are currently reaping the benefits of a splendid playing generation like that enjoyed by the Irish in the early 1990s. Slovakia have a 100% record in Group C, having beaten reigning champions Spain last year. Northern Ireland, with a playing pool inferior to numbers compared to their southern neighbours, are very well placed to qualify. Austria lead their group by four points ahead of Sweden. If all of these can realistically expect to make it to the finals more than halfway throughout the qualifiers, then why shouldn’t Ireland do likewise?
The biggest obstacle is probably that of mentality. Ireland have sorely lacked that cold-blooded edge since the early 21st century when they put the Dutch to the sword and did not look out of place at the 2002 World Cup, losing only on penalties to Spain. The conclusion of their qualifying bid for the 2010 tournament showed their inability to see the job through. They led against Italy in stoppage time, a result that would have left them poised to qualify automatically, but conceded a preventable equaliser. In the notorious play-off in France, they won 1-0 in 90 minutes to level the tie going into extra time, only to fall victim to Thierry Henry’s well-documented illegal intervention. Even without that regrettable incident, there was no guarantee that the French wouldn’t have scored later in the game anyway. Ireland understandably sounded off over the Henry handball, as any other nation would have done in that situation, but the FAI became the laughing stock of world football when ridiculously appealing to FIFA to be the 33rd team at the World Cup – even though Sepp Blatter’s ignorant addressing of that issue to his subjects was disgustingly patronising and insulting to Ireland.
Even among the Irish populace, there is an element of accepting mediocrity. Despite being in a very tough group at Euro 2012, Ireland flopped miserably. That ought to have been the cue for Giovanni Trapattoni to step down, or at least for voluble calls for him to go, but the general mood in Ireland was that they were happy just to be there. It wasn’t until qualification for the following World Cup became an impossibility that Trapattoni walked, by which stage the damage had been done. That ill-fated campaign was defined by a 1-6 home thrashing by Germany, the concession of a stoppage-time equaliser at home to Austria and defeat by Sweden, again in Dublin, after taking an early lead. In most other European nations, the overseer would have been run out of town long before those occurrences materialised, but in Ireland, shoulders were shrugged as if to say ‘Ah sure, it’s disappointing but what’s new?’
When O’Neill, assisted by national icon Roy Keane, became Trapattoni’s successor in winter 2013, it seemed an ideal appointment. He was a proven winner who exuded passion and had Ireland in his blood. After a satisfactory honeymoon period, the former Celtic boss is falling into the same traps as his predecessors when it comes to the defining matches. In big games, Ireland play with fear and uncertainty, with too many players not willing to take responsibility or simply not good enough to take the game by the scruff of the neck. They are not an attractive team to watch, relying frequently on a long ball to the attackers, and even though they have made a habit of rescuing points late on in games, there was never a sense that they would turn one point into three against the Scots last weekend.
Ireland have good players, but they are sorely missing a truly top talent who can carry the team and also lack a real leader on the field. Without these ingredients, they will remain a mundane side who, even with UEFA’s help in expanding the European Championships from 16 to 24, will struggle to qualify for big tournaments. The failings of recent campaigns will most likely see the Irish placed in the fourth pot of seeds for the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw next month. If that comes to pass, with second only being good enough to earn a play-off, Ireland will need a highly fortunate draw to be in contention to reach Russia – and also the wherewithal to capitalise on any such luck.
Of course, the immediate focus is on getting to France next year. It remains a possibility, but Ireland will realistically need to win at least three of their remaining four matches. Assuming they see off Gibraltar and Georgia, that leaves them with critical games at home to Germany and away to Poland. One, if not, both of those will need to be beaten, which will require Ireland doing something they haven’t managed in 14 years, namely winning a competitive match against a higher-ranked nation. As things stand, it’s difficult to see that happening and even if their direct qualification rivals take points off each other or stumble in Georgia (Gibraltar are a nailed-on three points), it might not be enough for Ireland. As O’Neill and Keane sift through the wreckage of the two matches against Scotland, Irish football fans are preparing once more to cope with that sobering feeling of failure – unless the team dispenses with recent history and finally records a competitive victory of a significant note.
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