RONNIE WHELAN DESCRIBED it as “the worst Irish performance in my lifetime”. And many people who watched Ireland’s 6-1 drubbing against Germany last year would have agreed.
While the 3-0 scoreline suggests somewhat of an improvement, in truth, last’s night’s return encounter was just as bad in its own way.
One of the key differences between the match at the Aviva and yesterday’s encounter was that the Germans came across a goalkeeper in inspired form in the latter fixture. If David Forde had been taken out of the equation and another goalkeeper put in his place, the hosts could have easily emulated their previous feat of putting six goals past Ireland.
Many correctly suspected the worst when the Irish first XI was announced. The signs earlier in the week had been good as Noel King reintroduced Andy Reid, Anthony Stokes and others who were unjustly ignored under Trap. Consequently, there was a new level of optimism surrounding the Irish set-up. The days of deeply eccentric team selections were over. Or so we thought.
The first bad sign from last night was the omission of Aiden McGeady. The Scottish-born winger created twice as many goals as any other player for Ireland under Trap. Granted, he can be frustrating sometimes, but his ball-carrying ability and tendency to draw challenges and win free-kicks would have given the defence some much-needed respite. Moreover, Glenn Whelan was preferred to McGeady. The Stoke midfielder was played out of position on the right, conceivably for his greater defensive ability than the Spartak Moscow player. Yet Whelan is desperately short of pace, hence playing him towards the wing is baffling. McGeady’s considerably superior pace and energy would, in fact, have given Ireland a greater level of defensive solidity.
Although it was in attack where McGeady was most conspicuously missed. In his absence, the team have now scored just once in their last three competitive matches. Moreover, aside from Kevin Doyle, the other 10 players had just four international goals between them. And Doyle himself was played out of position, hence his chances of getting on the scoresheet were also considerably diminished in the process.
Admittedly, Ireland were always going to be on the backfoot, but it helps to have a few players who at least seem capable of creating or scoring a goal. Noel King’s side, on the contrary, were set up like an outfit who were trying to keep the score down.
And ironically, for a team that is so often obsessed with damage limitation, no side has fared worse than Ireland against the Germans in Group C. It gives an insight into their disgraceful performance level when up against Joachim Löw’s team that the Irish side’s aggregate loss is worse than footballing minnows such as Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands — neither of whom were beaten by more than a three-goal margin when competing with the group winners.
Germany’s players are, of course, undoubtedly more talented than those at the disposal of the Irish side. Had King picked the best team available, they more than likely would have lost anyway. Yet what’s insulting to most football fans in this country is how easy the Irish side made it for the Germans, just as they have done so often in recent times against the bigger footballing nations.
(Ireland’s Glenn Whelan applauds supporters after the game — INPHO/Donall Farmer)
The game, however, was not without rare signs of hope for Irish supporters, as the odd chance was created on the counter-attack. It highlights the players’ character that, even after they had been passed to death, they created one or two opportunities late on.
But imagine how many more chances would have been initiated had Andy Reid — a player who is arguably in the form of his life at Nottingham Forest — been able to produce his characteristic defence-splitting long balls. During the week, in an interview with TheScore.ie, long-time Reid watcher and Nottingham-based sports journalist Paul Taylor opined that he would be better suited to international football, given the extra time and space players are afforded on the ball compared with the Championship. Yet King patently failed to take heed of this advice, not even selecting Reid on the bench.
Again, the logic for discarding playmakers was presumably that Ireland would be better equipped defensively, but ultimately, the team’s performance was statistically on a par with that of Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands. Reid or indeed Wes Hoolahan, far from being defensive liabilities, actually could have alleviated the pressure on the back four by assuming the responsibility to get on the ball and pass it intelligently. Yet as with McGeady, the positive way in which they could influence the game was overlooked in favour of the obvious, stereotypical concept of looking no further than tough-tackling midfielders intent on tracking back.
Ultimately, the presence of players such as Whelan and Marc Wilson in midfield was almost irrelevant. They rarely could get near the Germans and on the few occasions they made a tackle, they gave the ball straight back to them. Ireland’s patent disinterest in keeping possession was such that they might as well have fielded 11 cross-country athletes, as running was effectively all that King’s side did for most of last night’s match.
Instead of a tonic for Trap, we got a manager who, in many ways, was more than happy to follow his example. One of the most baffling tendencies of the Italian was to immediately elevate players who had previously not been in the squad into the first XI. King did just that with Damien Delaney, who initially was deemed not good enough to make Ireland’s 26-man squad, yet somehow was suddenly deemed suitable for the first XI. Granted, this is one of the few decisions King made that was ultimately hard to argue with, as the Crystal Palace player was one of Ireland’s better performers. Nevertheless, the original decision to ignore him altogether gives an insight into the hesitant nature and illogical selection policy of the interim Ireland manager.
But what was surely most disappointing about the team’s performance was the sense of it being an opportunity missed. It was a rare chance to genuinely experiment in a competitive game with little or no consequence. Bravery, for once, seemed mandatory, and yet, Ireland produced a more cautious performance than was ever seen under Trap.
Of course, the Irish sporting public has already had to put up with a disproportionate level of incompetence with Giovanni Trapattoni and Steven Staunton at the helm. Mediocrity is something with which fans have become all too accustomed to experiencing in the past decade. This time however, it was the hope that killed us.