Ireland Team Report: A Good Year, not a Great One.

17 Dec

mon

So another year has slid by in the blink of an eye. A much anticipated and hugely enjoyable World Cup in Brazil ended with worthy champions in the form of Germany. That Ireland missed out was of course disappointing but the scars of Euro 2012 carried into a very disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign under Trapattoni, who paid for our missing out on Brazil with his job. Martin O’Neill took up the reins as we know in 2013. So how was 2014 for the still new Irish regime?

O’Neill had to remain very patient for the opening nine months of the year as only friendly matches were available to him until the Euro 2016 matches kicked off in September. It was very hard to gauge where O’Neill’s team was going in the friendly matches we witnessed and many of the players remained from the Trapattoni era.

One notable change in those friendlies however was O’Neill’s inclusion of Wes Hoolahan, who was so disappointingly snubbed for almost all of Trapattoni’s tenure. Wes responded very well in most of those friendly matches, with eye-catching performances and being given leeway by O’Neill to show us the ability we all knew he possessed.

Two successive Dublin defeats however (both 2-1 to Serbia and Turkey) led to some early impatience among fans, but a hugely impressive 0-0 draw against World Cup bound Italy in London would have given O’Neill real encouragement. Excellent individual performances from Anthony Pilkington, David Meyler, Geoff Hendrick and Hoolahan hinted that the new era would exorcise the dreadful World Cup campaign as O’Neill then took his charges Stateside for two games against also World Cup bound Costa Rica and Portugal.

A bad-tempered 1-1 draw with Costa Rica was followed by a 5-1 slaughtering by Portugal and given what befell both nations in the subsequent World Cup, it still remained very difficult to assess how O’Neill’s team was taking shape. Costa Rica excelled in Brazil, while Portgual bombed and with only one more friendly match at home to Oman ahead of the opening qualifier, it was proving difficult to accurately predict O’Neill’s likely starting XI for the Euro qualifiers, not that it’s easy to second guess the Derryman’s mind anyhow.

Oman were despatched 2-0 in a boring enough encounter at Lansdowne, so O’Neill’s record in the seven friendlies in 2014 read two wins, two draws and three losses, enough for some pessimism among some fans and enough for the optimists to maintain that friendlies are no real indication of what will happen in competitive games.

The real business began in September, the opening Euro 2016 qualifier as Ireland headed to Tbilisi to play Georgia, always a difficult place to go at the best of times. Georgia were coached by former Newcastle United player Temuri Ketsbaia.

As stated above, it is very difficult and probably futile to predict what Martin O’Neill’s team selection would be and so it proved in Tbilisi. Despite the excellence of Hoolahan’s friendly match displays, he didn’t start in Tbilisi and O’Neill opted for a 5 man midfield of Jon Walters and Aiden McGeady wide and a central trio of Stephen Quinn, Glen Whelan and James McCarthy. Robbie Keane was the lone striker.

Ireland won 2-1 thanks to a McGeady double, with the second goal worthy of winning any game such was the breathtaking nature of McGeady’s skill and finish. The overall performance however was patchy, with a fine opening 20 minutes followed by a shaky last 20 minutes in the first half; little was happening in a dull second half until McGeady’s brilliance sent the travelling fans bananas in the 90th minute. Three points was three points however, job done. O’Neill’s tetchiness in the face of the post-match interview was disappointing and certainly misplaced, but as a results game, the perfect start.

Gibraltar were next up in October in Dublin. Matches against so-called “whipping boys” usually prove frustrating for Irish teams, but there are whipping boys and there is Gibraltar. Seven goals was a decent return (with Robbie Keane scoring a first half hat trick) with most of the talk again revolving around O’Neill’s selection as Germany away were next up three days later.   O’Neill made five changes from the Georgia game (Coleman and McCarthy were injured, with Quinn, Walters and Whelan “rested” ahead of Germany), with O’Neill again stating those rested wouldn’t necessarily return in Germany.

All those latter three did return as O’Neill sprung a real gamble by choosing McGeady in a role behind lone striker Keane to accommodate James McClean out wide (who had impressed in the Gibraltar rout). The McGeady gamble didn’t work, although the selection worked elsewhere as Germany never really opened Ireland up the way it was feared and Ireland looked quite comfortable despite Forde making one excellent save in each half.

Germany’s Kroos did however force O’Neill’s hand in the 70th minute when he scored from 25 yards with Hoolahan sprung from the bench (Hendrick had replaced the injured Whelan before the hour mark and Gibson replacing Keane prior to Kroos’ goal). Two of the three subs would play a huge part in a dramatic Irish equaliser as Hoolahan’s cross was deftly volleyed back across goal by Hendrick for John O’Shea to steer a glorious shot past Neuer in the German goal in the 93rd minute.

So a priceless point was stolen at the death from the World Champions, 7 points from the opening three games was a very fine haul for O’Neill and his team and the euphoria from that German game led to huge interest in Irish people looking for tickets to the November match against Scotland at Celtic Park.

The scramble for tickets has been well documented on this blog (see Archive for November) and the idiotic failings of the FAI in this regard. The match itself never really happened from an Irish point of view, as it seemed O’Neill’s mindset was to frustrate Strachan’s Scots and play for a point. Shaun Maloney’s 74th minute goal was the least Scotland deserved on a hugely disappointing night for O’Neill’s team.

So the four competitive games have resulted in 7 points, possibly what we would have expected when the draw was made (we would have written off getting anything in Germany) and our group remains extremely close at this point in time as we can see below.

Euro 2016 – Qualifying Group D – Latest Standings
Nation Played Won Drew Lost Goals F Goals A Points
Poland 4 3 1 0 15 2 10
Germany 4 2 1 1 7 4 7
Scotland 4 2 1 1 5 4 7
Republic of Ireland 4 2 1 1 10 3 7
Georgia 4 1 0 3 4 7 3
Gibraltar 4 0 0 4 0 21 0

I think as fans we can be reasonably happy with that state of affairs, but that there is serious room for improvement in general play and approach. After the bravery and delight at the point in Germany, the defeat in Glasgow was a bitter pill to swallow and the manner of it was worrying in my opinion. Ireland’s philosophy relied far too much on lumping balls up to Shane Long (who was deployed as the lone striker) and hoping that Walters would pick up loose ends, with McGeady and McClean helping from wide. None of that happened. By the time Keane came on after Maloney’s goal, Scotland sensed we were already a beaten team and we got what we deserved on the night, nothing.

The Scottish game was followed four days later by a convincing 4-1 win over USA with eye-catching debuts from David McGoldrick and Cyrus Christie in a much changed XI so the year finished on a relative high for O’Neill and it is hoped those fringe players who impressed will remain in Martin’s thinking in 2015.

So 2015 is a huge year now for Martin O’Neill and this group of players. O’Neill wasn’t helped by the absence of James McCarthy in Glasgow, but all international managers are hampered by unavailable players. What O’Neill needs to nail down is a recognisable playing identity among this current group and a consistency of performance for 90 plus minutes. Forget the Gibraltar games, everyone will slaughter them. Four of the next five games are in Dublin. Ten points would be great, nine is completely essential if we are to hope to reach the French Soirée the Summer after next.

I believe we will make it, but will give ourselves plenty of grief getting there!

Happy Christmas to you all and Peaceful 2015.

Phelim Warren, 17th December 2014.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: