Thursday, 12 October 2017

James of Thrones

If Cersei Lannister is looking to enlist some help for her final battle with the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen as HBO's Game of Thrones reaches its climax next year, then she could do worse than look to Ireland's Dragonslayer, James McClean. That said, it's probably unlikely he'd sign up considering that, as the now famous chant goes, “James McClean, he hates the fu#&in’ Queen!”.

So it turned out the worry I'd been feeling going into the last round of group games proved to be ultimately misplaced. For all the questions that can be asked about our generally agricultural style of play and our inability to make the most of any advantageous positions we find ourselves in, the one thing this team has in spades is courage and an ability to fight and see out do-or-die scenarios. We don't do it the easy way but when our backs are against the wall, this management and team deliver time and time again.

With Bristol a stones throw from Cardiff, we'd decided to make a weekend away out of it so, despite the weariness after a late night at the Moldova game the night before, myself and Louise dragged ourselves to the airport for an afternoon flight and an evening by the Avon.

By coincidence, regular away travelling companions, Gary Amsterdam and his better half, Lina, were also doing a stopover en route so we arranged to meet up with them to check out the local nightlife. I'd heard Bristol was a lovely city and the reports turned out to be right.  Gary and Lina had already hooked up with a few friends that Gary had met in Thailand a few years earlier so we wandered to a strip of pubs on Kings Street to meet them on Saturday evening. With the city being a bit of a Hipster haven, there were no shortage of craft beer establishments to sample before the four of us wandered off for some cracking Japanese food. 

Bristol also has a reputation for a thriving music scene with a lineage going back to The Wild Bunch who begat Massive Attack and Tricky, also the whole Trip Hop scene that Portishead were to the forefront of can really be traced back to it. After asking a local where some live music might be found, we were directed to a bar called The Old Duke where there was a really tight band called Mango Factory playing a style that covered everything from jazz to ska to funk and whatever you fancy yourself. Once they'd finished, the bar staff had the likes of Talking Heads, The Doors and other classics playing. There was a really good vibe in the pub as we chatted to a few locals so it was a shame when the shutter came down around 2am. That said, we had a long couple of days ahead of us so maybe it was no harm we called it a night at that point!

This Factory works!

The only downer on the evening was hearing that Cyprus had failed to do us a favour after predictably losing to Greece which meant that another group had gone beyond our reach in the race to avoid dropping out of the play-off reckoning. So it was going to have to be either Scotland to drop points on Sunday or
Ukraine and Croatia to draw on Monday for a win against Wales to be enough for us.   

Bristol Docks
Gary and Lina were getting an early bus to Cardiff but myself and Lou weren't travelling until 3 in the afternoon so we had a few hours to kill on Sunday.  Although the city no longer relies on it's port as it's main economic source, the whole area around the docks is still thriving with markets, street food and craft beer stalls with sound systems booming and even a bungee jump over the water on the go. 

Bristol Bungee!
There's also a beautiful Cathedral quarter which we took the time to explore. Famous mystery street artist Bansky (rumoured to be Massive Attack band member, 3D) is also a local with some of his early graffiti works now classed as masterpieces of modern art. So we were able to wander around in the unseasonable sunny weather looking out for what are now art installations and just take in the vibe till it was time to head to Cardiff. It was definitely a good call to do the stop-over in Bristol and  it's a city I'd like a bit more time to explore some day.

Banksy's Naked Man Hanging from Window
Our bus journey to Cardiff was handy enough at just over an hour and we literally just dropped our stuff at our Air BnB before heading into the city to see if Slovenia could do us a favour in their match against Scotland. Gary and Lina were already ensconced in a pub called The Old Arcade with another friend, Ollie, when we arrived just before kick-off and there was already a decent crowd of Irish fans in to cheer on the Slovenians.

The convoluted play-off system employed by UEFA this campaign had nearly made mathematicians out of us all by now and it was funny that after cheering Scotland to the rafters for beating Slovakia on Thursday, we were now dead set against them in this game. But our needs come first and as it happened we were cursing the Scots as they took a first half lead through Leigh Griffiths and held on comfortably till half-time.

More Irish we'd bumped into on previous trips over the years seemed to constantly be arriving in the pub and there was some roar when Slovenia equalised early in the second half. And an even louder one when they went 2-1 up meaning a win the next day would be enough for us unless Scotland scored twice. The nerves were sent jangling again when Robert Snodgrass leveled the match with two minutes to go but despite a late red card for the Slovenians, they held on for the draw to leave the Scots heartbroken. I do believe that tournaments are poorer from a fans perspective without the Scots (and the Welsh for that matter) but it was good to know exactly what we required before kick-off rather than having to worry about other results.

The fact that any worries about us winning but still missing out were allayed was a nice bonus as we moved from bar to bar to catch up with a few of the late arrivals such as Steve Amsterdam's crew and Andrew, a colleague of Louise's who'd been over in France. The scenes outside O'Neill's on Mary Street were more akin to a tournament crowd then a regular away game as our ranks were obviously swelled by a lot of people attracted by the short distance for this one.

Tops off for The Boys In Green??

It was all fairly good natured rowdiness but my days of getting into the thick of the on street singing are long behind me so we ducked into The Brewhouse across the road. There was a big YBIG crowd present in there so we ordered food and enjoyed some refreshments on the back terrace for a while before heading down to give the karaoke a workout in a bar called Walkabout where The Quinn Towers were holding court.

I'd started the evening drinking a Welsh stout from the local Brains brewery but, as it fell well short of the standards we'd produce in Ireland, had switched to a bitter called Smooth. Not a bad drop but it did have the unfortunate side effect of getting that Santana and Rob Thomas song of the same name stuck in my head for the next 48 hours. Not even giving Mustang Sally a go in Walkabout worked, nor did Rhinestone Cowboy or The Irish Rover for that matter but we had a good laugh trying before the bar shut with the unseemly haste that's the norm in the UK! Given that it was a Sunday night, there didn't seem to much in the way of late bars open and having had a fairly long day and with another in store, we decided to call it a night and recharge the batteries for game day.

Well, if it's going to be stuck in my head.....!

A Monday lie-in is always nice and it was around half 11 before we surfaced and found a fairly fancy cafe that our Air BnB host had recommended for breakfast. Having had a few photos of pints sent on various WhatsApp groups since we'd got up, it was difficult to resist the temptation to head straight to the pub but resist we did, for a couple of hours at least!

Having been to Cardiff a few times before, there was no great desire to do much sight seeing but we checked out the castle and the famous Animal Wall before strolling through the centre and finally heading to a bar called the Queen's Vaults where John, Ray and Pete, part of our Poland 2012 crew were lording it on the pool tables. Well, when I say lording, John was busy winning 3 games in a row where his opponent went in off on the black but you get the gist!

We'd had a heads up that there was a good YBIG crowd in a bar called The Prince of Wales so that was our next stop. As the Brummie contingent were only making their way down on the day, we'd told them to meet us there and Philly and Greg from our season ticket crowd arrived in as well so there was no shortage of craic. There was a good crowd of Welsh fans there as well with plenty of back and forth chants echoing across the pub building the atmosphere.

Game Day in Cardiff
After a few hours there, a few of us moved over the road to a very well placed Pie Minister restaurant for a pre match meal which provided a great view of the madness unfolding outside O'Neill's on Mary St. I was starting to feel a little tense now with the importance of the game really sinking in and with about an hour to kick-off was glad to have food in before heading to the ground. Another sign of old age creeping in as I've definitely left the "eatin' is cheatin'!"mantra behind these days!

Rather than walking, we jumped a couple of cabs to the Cardiff City Stadium which is about a mile and a half outside the centre. Although we got dropped a good distance from our end, we still got into our spot well before kick-off. Given that this is a fairly new stadium, I was expecting it to be a bit like those identikit stadia that have become very common in the UK over the last twenty years or so but it was actually pretty decent once we got inside. I can see why the Welsh have decided to play their home games there rather than at the far larger Principality Stadium. Better off atmosphere wise to have 33,000 in a full stadium than the same number or slightly more in a half empty 75,000 seater. The only issue was that places to hang flags were at a premium so the 69ers flag was banished to a corner that was pretty much blocked by our standing supporters.

I was back at our spot in plenty of time for the anthems and Amhrán na bhFiann was given a fairly stirring rendition considering our relatively small numbers. However, that paled into insignificance with what happened next.

Credit where it's due......

I've seen some impressive anthems in my time with France in Paris in 2005 standing out in particular. But the Welsh effort on last Monday night will take some beating. When the band started up Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of Our Fathers), I was expecting the Welsh to belt it out given their choral singing reputation. I wasn't expecting the music to be cut off after just one bar of the first verse to let the fans take over. Apparently, the Welsh team had requested it and their support didn't disappoint as they roared a spine tingling a capella rendition that you couldn't help but applaud. It was absolutely magnificent and lifted what had already been a brilliant atmosphere through the roof.

And so, onto the football. The team sent out by Martin O'Neill didn't surprise me. Shane Long's injury meant that Daryl Murphy was always going to start and as I suspected, Wes Hoolahan and Callum O'Dowda made way for the returning Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady with Harry Arter making up the extra body in a five-man midfield. The fact that Gareth Bale was injured for Wales was an obvious game changer and a huge positive for us.

Although I would have liked to see Wes start, it was clear what O'Neill's thinking was, keep it tight for as long as possible and then bring on some creativity when the game stretched later on. However, we seemed to be finding it pretty tough to keep it tight in the first quarter of the game as Wales dominated the early exchanges with Allen and Ramsey passing rings around us. But despite ceding all the possession, our defence was holding firm with any early corners easily dealt with and Darren Randolph tipping over an Aaron Ramsey pot shot that probably wasn't as comfortable a save as he made it look.

It was about 17 minutes in before we had a sniff of a chance with a free following an Allen challenge that saw the Welshman booked. Brady swung a good ball in that found its way to McClean who in turn hit a great ball across the box that got turned away for our first corner. Unfortunately, the corner came to nothing as Hendrick's resulting shot flew well over.

At least we were gaining a foothold in the game by now albeit by turning it into a bit of a scrap. A few corners were exchanged before a half chance for Hendrick around the 25 minute mark was cleared with Lawrence immediately countering for Wales but not doing enough to trouble Randolph. Our best chance arrived on 30 minutes when a Brady free eventually reached Shane Duffy who flashed a shot wide.

It's probably safe to say that the next big incident of the game has been one of the main talking points since and most likely changed the course of the game. I've seen online Welsh opinion since then that the McClean / Myler sandwich that Joe Allen found himself in was deliberate but having watched it back since, I don't see how anyone could say that with any certainty. Collisions like that happen regularly in football and there was no way that either player would know that Allen would end up having to go off with concussion. Without wanting to revisit old ground in any great detail, it pales into insignificance with Neil Taylor's over the top tackle that broke Seamus Coleman's leg in the first fixture in Dublin.

Was Allen key for the Welsh?
What can be said with certainty is that Allen leaving the fray seemed to knock the Welsh off their stride and they lost the control that they had in midfield for the first half hour which meant that the game petered out a little as we got close to half time. That said, the closest that the Welsh came to a goal came in that period as Ciaran Clark sliced a clearance that we were relieved to see go safely behind for a corner. From our perspective, a Brady shot from the right that was comfortably saved by Hennessey at his near post was the best we could muster and we entered the break all square. Considering that Wales had had double the possession we had in that 45, the feeling was that our dressing room would be the happier at the break.

First half action
After venturing onto the concourse at half time, we bumped into the Amsterdam lads so made our way back into the stand with them for a bit of company for the second half. The half itself started in a similar pattern with Ireland content to let Wales have possession but with Ramsey dropping deeper to where Allen had been dictating the first half, there wasn't the same zip to the Welsh possession. A corner that James Chester got on the end of caused a ripple of Welsh celebration in one part of the stadium but it was clear from our angle that it was the side netting that had billowed.

We weren't as comfortable a couple of minutes later as some good Welsh play ended up with Allen's replacement, Jonny Williams, swinging a great cross in from the right. Our hearts were in our mouths as Robson-Kanu got a thumping header onto it but Randolph dazzled us yet again with another super save to tip it over for a corner. Again, the corner was dealt with comfortably.

Despite the nerves and the fact we only had 10% of the crowd, the atmosphere in our end had been superb all game but the Welsh fans were responding with vigour whenever we got too loud.  So it wasn't a surprise when a noisy rendition of COYBIG around ten minutes into the half was drowned out by the Welsh launching into the Euro 2016 anthem they'd adopted on the march to the semi finals. The refrain of "Don't Take Me Home, Please Don't Take Me Home" was still booming out as a long Irish ball flicked on by McClean made its way past Murphy and though to Hennessey in the Welsh goal. There seemed little danger as he rolled the ball out to his centre half but I think if you'd given Hennessey and Ashley Williams the option to be at home rather than on the pitch twenty seconds later they'd have snapped your hand off!

Hennessey's throw wasn't great but Williams still looked to have plenty of time to clear his lines. Looking back at replays, Jeff Hendrick points at Williams before Hennessey released the ball as if willing him to throw it there. As soon as Williams dawdled, Hendrick was onto him in a flash to win the ball. Even then, it looked like Ben Davies should stop the attack but the Irish midfielder did superbly to wriggle free and keep the ball in as he knocked it down the touchline. From behind the goal, we were willing the ball not to go out of play as Hendrick got towards the goal line and our wishes were granted as he pulled it back across the area. Arter was advancing and executed a beautiful step-over rather than playing the ball to leave it for McClean who was steaming forward. And the bould James couldn't have hit it any sweeter as he put his right foot through the ball and hammered it into the net. Cue pandemonium!

Lift off!

The whole move had happened so quick that it seemed almost unreal, I was bouncing around in disbelief almost waiting for the ref to call play back for some reason as McClean tore towards the fans in celebration followed in close pursuit by his team mates. He's taken over from Jon Walters as the team talisman this campaign and it was brilliant to see him thumping his chest and pointing at his badge. There are many players who do that, particularly at club level but you just know with McClean that he means it. His pride in the jersey is immense as was the joy he unleashed in the away end. Now it was just a case of getting through the next 33 minutes!

Chris Coleman wasn't long in changing things with the Liverpool youngster, Ben Woodburn, coming on for Andy King but in reality little changed. Word had now come through that Croatia were winning in Ukraine so a draw wouldn't be enough for Wales to sneak into the play offs. We settled back into our holding pattern and while it was clear that we had no intention of trying to hold possession for any sustained period of time, it was up to Wales to break us down.

A further Wales change saw Sam Vokes introduced for Robson-Kanu which indicated to me that the Welsh were running out of ideas in a similar way that we had at home after Serbia went down to ten men. Vokes would increase their aerial ability but that was playing right into Duffy and Clark's hands as they kicked blocked and headed everything that came their way. I would have brought Hoolahan on to try and get us a bit more possession but that clearly wasn't the game plan. Instead, as Arter finally succumbed to cramp it was Glenn Whelan who joined the fray to help us see out the last 12 minutes.

While Wales had practically all of the possession in those last 12 minutes, their composure had deserted them at this stage and a Ramsey free fired wildly over the bar on 85 minutes was typical. Another corner a couple of minutes later was cleared by Duffy, who'd had a magnificent game and he was there again when the second ball came in. Being honest, we were using every trick in the book to waste time and Randolph was next to join Clark in the book for that offence. But the seconds were ticking down and Wales still looked no closer to scoring.

Five minutes stoppage time was broken up by a further defensive change which saw Murphy withdrawn for Kevin Long as we looked to see the game out with three centre halves and no strikers. Still Wales huffed and puffed and still Ireland held firm as the second ticked by. A Welsh free awarded on their right four minutes in caused more fingernails to be bitten to the quick and the roar that erupted from our end as Tom Lawrence promptly hoofed it straight into touch for an Ireland throw was nearly as loud as the one that had greeted the goal.

Despite putting the ball out immediately from our throw, the Welsh throw came to nothing and was again cleared up the pitch. With all the Welsh outfield players pushed forward this resulted in a foot race between Hennessey and Meyler with whoever came second certain to be booked. Unfortunately, given how well he's played the last two games and how well he's captained the side, it was Meyler who just missed out and the resultant booking rules him out of the first leg of the play offs.

The whistling from our end was incessant by now as the game moved into its 97th minute. The Wales free was launched long and wide down the right but a last cross by Gunter was blocked by Ward and the final whistle finally blew before anyone could gather the rebound. Game over for Wales as Ireland marched on to another play off!

Put your hands in the air!
The Irish end was a sea of green as the players came down to celebrate and this was one of those times where staying behind in an away ground wasn't a chore. All the songs got an airing with the "Don't Take Me Home" chant being sung back as the Wales ends emptied out being particularly sweet. A long walk back into the centre wasn't enough to dampen the atmosphere as we made our way back to the Queens Vaults to meet up with The Brummies. In fairness to the Welsh support, they were very magnanimous in defeat despite their disappointment and I had a good chat with a few both on the walk and in the pub over a pint afterwards.

Ole Ole!

The usual early closing time meant a search for a later bar and after bumping into Terry the Tash, The Quinn Towers plus the famous GerK from YBIG on the streets we eventually managed to find somewhere to finish the night and start wondering about potential play off opponents. An early 10.45 train to Birmingham for the flight home put manners on us to some degree though and after grabbing some food, we called it quits around 3 with plenty of Irish fans still wandering the streets in a happy daze.

Don't take us home!
So, we've reached the end of the group, if not the campaign, and although it's been a roller coaster with some very shaky moments, all credit has to be given to the management. To take seven points from nine on the road against our three main opponents is a phenomenal achievement and while Wales are not one of the traditional European superpowers, the fact that this was the first time we have beaten a top seeded team away is a notable feather in the cap.

The home form clearly remains a worry with a two point take from those reverse fixtures a poor return. We seem to struggle to to impose ourselves and m games where the onus is on us and we can take the initiative but, as mentioned earlier, the team seems at its best when their backs are against the wall which will hopefully serve us well in the play offs. While I try and see each game on its merits meaning that performances such as the game in Tbilisi are very disappointing, there is an argument that looking at the bigger picture is required when judging this regime. Under Martin O'Neill, we've beaten Germany, Bosnia, Italy, Austria and Wales in the last two years having struggled to beat teams ranked above us for years. The fact that the wins against Austria and Wales have come away from home also deserves respect given our last away win against a team seeded above us before then was Scotland in 1987.

The special nights have definitely outweighed the disappointing ones and let's hope that, with two legs against Italy, Croatia, Denmark or Switzerland to come, they're not over yet. As for James the Dragonslayer, maybe he should wander over to the Game of Thrones set the next time he's back home in Derry. Given what he's produced so far this campaign, who knows what magic might result!


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Not 'Ova Yet

Well, it’s a positive that we’re not out of it yet and we’re not travelling to Wales for a dead rubber. And although meeting the top seeds away in Cardiff is obviously a totally different proposition to playing the bottom seeds at home, if we show the application and verve that we showed in the first half at Lansdowne, we still have a chance.

Being back in education has meant a change to my pre-match routine this last year and with DCU being my current port of call, it was Glasnevin that I made my way to Lansdowne from rather than the old walk down the canal. With a quick stop home to drop my bag off en route, I decided to hop the train rather than wander across. The bulk of the passengers on the DART were fans and I wound up having a quick yap about the match with the bloke sitting across from me. He was bringing his 8 year old son to his first Ireland game which brought on a pang of nostalgia thinking about Da bringing me to my first game at a similar age. There’s been many miles travelled since then!

Once I got up to Grand Canal, it was only a short wander to the Beggars where Terry the Tash was already ensconced along with a few of the usual faces watching Wales’ away game against Georgia. Given the proximity of the Wales game, a few regulars were missing this one with Bren being the only one of the Brummies to make the trip and the Quinn Towers also sitting it out. Of our season ticket crew, Frankie the hands arrived just after me but with Eoghany Mc and Mark not making it, a couple of the lads from the college course had said they’d use their tickets. So for this game, our ranks were swelled by a Scot and an Indian which probably earned the Singing Section some diversity points!

While we were holding out a bit of hope that Georgia might do us a favour after they kept Wales scoreless at half-time, an early second half goal for the Welsh mean that our pre-game chat turned to  what team Martin O’Neill would send out. Robbie Brady and James McClean suspensions along with Jon Walters’ injury obviously forced O’Neill’s hand somewhat but it was good to see him be positive with the changes as Jeff Hendrick, Calum O’Dowda and Daryl Murphy were all likely to offer something going forward. The only question now was whether we’d line up in a straight 4-4-2 or if Shane Long would move out wide in a 4-5-1. I’ve been impressed with David Meyler when he’s had to come in and do a job in various positions in the past. He possibly hasn’t got as many caps as he should so it was just reward to see him given the armband for the night.

The importance of the game meant a near full house and a decent atmosphere around the ground pre-game despite the disappointing run of results which had seen us end up in the last chance saloon after being in a dominant positon in the group six short months ago.  There always seems to be a different buzz around Friday evening games and the Singing Section launched into its usual repertoire as soon as the game kicked off.

Starting games strongly hasn’t been a problem for Ireland this campaign with goals in the first five minutes away to Serbia, Moldova and Georgia already racked up. And once again the initial chants hadn’t even had a chance to subside before we hit the front! Having started on the front foot as hoped, a long Stephen Ward throw was flicked on by a combination of Shane Duffy and a Moldovan defender before Murphy did really well to wrap his foot around the defender and flick the ball home! One nil up and only two minutes in.

In the previous games where we’ve taken an early lead in the group, it’s generally been the team’s cue to retreat further and further back and invite pressure on. We saw it particularly in Belgrade and Tbilisi and even in Chisinau to an extent. However, any fears that we might do similar here were quickly allayed as we pinned the Moldovans back and mixed up some decent football with some long balls into the box that their defence seemed to have difficulty dealing with. O’Dowda had already seen a mishit shot roll wide before Shane Long really should have made it two on 15 minutes. Hoolahan had played a neat reverse pass to O’Dowda who surged into the area before squaring an inch perfect pass to Long. Unfortunately, in keeping with his recent form in front of goal, Long couldn’t apply the finish and saw his shot flash past the left hand post.

As it happened, we didn’t have to wait too long for the second and when it arrived, it was a beaut.  Hoolahan had picked the ball up on the right wing just inside his own half and looking up, spotted Ward tearing down the opposite flank. He then hit a perfect ball which Ward galloped onto before pinging a cross back from the dead ball line. Murphy was waiting and, as he peeled off his defender, cushioned a superb header back across goal and into the far corner! Two nil after 18 minutes and now it was surely all about pushing on and building as much confidence as possible before Monday.

114 was bouncing by now and five minutes later it was nearly three. This time Hendrick was the creator, picking up a loose Moldovan ball in midfield before driving forward and playing Long in. However, once again Long’s luck was out as the keeper saved his initial effort before a defender hooked the rebound from Long clear in front of the empty net.

Moldova had offered nothing going forward at this point but almost got back into it out of the blue on 27 minutes. There seemed little danger as Plătică picked up the ball at the edge of our area but he unleashed a thunderbolt that was destined for the top corner before Randolph managed to deflect it over at full stretch. A warning that even with a two goal cushion, one slip could open the door for the opposition and given how flaky this team has been on occasion in the second half of the campaign, I didn’t want to have to see how they’d respond to a concession.

O’Dowda was popping up all over the pitch and having a really impressive game in my view. He’d created a chance for himself just after the Randolph save and was linking well with Cyrus Christie on the right. Unfortunately Long’s woes in front of goal were continuing and you could nearly see the confidence drain from him as the game went on. I’m a big fan of his for his work rate and attitude and was desperate for him for get a goal before Monday but it just didn’t look like it was going to happen. None of the options he was taking seemed to come off but to be fair to him, at least he was still putting himself in there.

Ireland finished the half strongly with chances for Clark, Hendrick and Duffy all missing the target so everyone in the ground was pretty happy with the first 45 minutes.  The hope was that more of the same would follow after the break with Ireland attacking the South end where we were gathered.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. The good tempo that we had delivered in the first half didn’t seem to be there and, while we could have had a penalty on 54 minutes when Long appeared to be elbowed in the face by Racu, we seemed to fall into our old habit of sitting back and inviting pressure on. This resulted in the Moldovans gaining a bit of confidence and while we never looked in major danger, they were still able to force a series of corners around the hour mark.

Shortly after, Long should have made it three but again, his touch let him down when it seemed easier to score. Hoolahan had played in O’Dowda once again and when the Bristol City man’s shot was blocked it dropped perfectly for Long with the goal gaping. However, somehow he managed to put it wide. His reaction was telling as he roared in anger at himself and he really does look a player bereft of any sort of confidence right now. Whether O’Neill decides to persist with him for Monday is going to be a huge call.

By now, I’d have liked to have seen new squad additions, Seanie Maguire and Scott Hogan get some game time, particularly given Long’s issues in front of goal but despite the chants for Maguire from the crowd, the changes, when they came on 78 minutes were pretty standard O’Neill with Harry Arter and Aiden McGeady replacing Murphy and Hoolahan.

The game was petering out by now but McGeady, in fairness, looked lively enough when he came on. The final substitution arrived on 83 minutes and it was Maguire, the man that everyone had been looking for, who came on for his debut with Long finally being put out of his misery.

Seven minutes was never really going to be enough time to make a huge impression but Maguire showed some promising touches without creating anything clear cut. A final fracas between Arter and Gatcun was the last flashpoint of the game as the Moldovan, having already been booked, received a straight red for head-butting the Irish midfielder right on full time. With news by now filtering through that Austria had got a last minute winner against Serbia, top spot in the group had suddenly opened up again as well albeit that it’s dependent on the unlikely event of Georgia beating Serbia in Belgrade. Still, we’d done what was required and at least go into Monday’s game with a shout.

The performance itself, as with a lot of games in this regime was a bit Jekyll and Hyde. We saw a positive team selection and a start with great tempo for the first 45. A good mix of neat interplay from O’Dowda and Hoolahan in particular was displayed and some good long balls when needed to stretch the Moldovans and put their defence under pressure. The second half on the other hand was concerning. Instead of kicking on and putting a team who are winless and bottom of the group to the sword, we looked lethargic and invited pressure on ourselves. I felt that had the third goal gone in the floodgates would have opened but despite the missed chances from Long, I didn’t feel we did enough to force the issue in the second half. All the same, a win is a win and that was what we required.

All eyes now turn to Monday and I’ve just touched down in Bristol for the night before heading down to Cardiff tomorrow. The fact that it’s winner takes all should suit us. Under O’Neill, Ireland have been at our best when we’ve had nothing to lose. Our finish to the European Championships campaign when we had to beat Germany and then had to beat Bosnia were excellent. When we needed to win in France against Italy, we did it. There are no second chances now and there’s no excuse not to go for it from the off. While Wales undoubtedly have players such as Ramsey and Allen who are classier than what we put out, the loss of Bale is a great leveller.

A lot could depend on who makes way with Brady and McClean sure to come back in. Outside of Murphy, O’Dowda was probably our best player on Friday but is likely to miss out. With Hoolahan playing 80 minutes, I suspect that he may make way on Monday as well which may leave us shy on creativity. Brady, for all his ability and his big goals in recent years has been poor when played centrally for us since the Euros and will really need to step up if he’s given that role. 

At least we arrive here with it all to play for. It’s not ‘Ova yet!  

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Revenge Serbed Cold

It's disappointing that what was one of our better performances of this group ended up being our worst result. But having rode our luck in Belgrade a year ago to escape with a point, the Serbs extracted revenge in clinical fashion and the optimism of the first hour evaporated in a string of poor final balls and snatched shots as desperation took hold.

The majority of us who gathered as usual in the Beggars after work on Tuesday evening were still looking a bit worn out from all the travel with the likes of the Quinn Towers only getting in that morning. Even those of us who'd arrived home on the Sunday were still feeling the pinch and the disappointment of the result but the energy levels were lifted by the bulk of our home season ticket crew and the Brummies who'd missed Georgia but had flown into Dublin the night before this game. There was a good crowd in the area with a full house expected and despite how poorly we'd played the previous weekend, the hope was that we couldn't be as poor again and that a win would get us back on track.

The team duly came through a little earlier than the normal hour beforehand and all were agreed that, despite not being certain what formation we'd line out in, an eleven of  Randolph, Christie, Clark, Duffy, Ward, Meyler, Hoolahan, Brady, McClean, Walters and Long looked more positive than had been selected for a while. The only questions were would it be a straight 4-4-2 or a diamond formation and whether the positive selection could be matched by the play on the pitch.

As normal, we arrived at our usual spot in a packed Singing Section just before the anthems and then witnessed a very special moment as our fallen comrade, John 'The Bear' Dowling, was remembered with his picture on the big screen being greeted by a solid minute's applause as the Lansdowne Road crowd paid their respects. I doubt there was anyone in the stadium that wasn't moved by it and it definitely helped ignite the atmosphere as the game kicked off.

It was clear early on that Martin O'Neill seemed to have gone for a diamond formation with Shane Long and Jon Walters up front and Wes Hoolahan playing at the tip of the diamond behind them. However, it was Serbia who created the first chance as some nervous play by Meyler on 3 minutes led to Shane Duffy having to charge down a Matic shot.

The atmosphere had kept going from the off and it seemed to have rubbed off on James McClean as he fell back into his old habit of getting too involved and was lucky to escape a booking about ten minutes in as he clattered into Rukavina and was given a serious talking to. Unfortunately, this was a sign of things to come with McClean. While I wouldn't have been unhappy to see him taking a card late on to get his suspension out of the way against Moldova rather than the final game against Wales, I didn't want him to walk a tightrope the majority of the game.

The first corner of the game followed closely from Serbia and the atmosphere was further enhanced as Kostić hit the ball straight out of play without even reaching the near post. Ireland then responded with some good pressure to win a throw closely followed by a corner and it was from that corner that the most enjoyable 20 seconds of the game materialised.

As we were attacking the North end of the ground in the first half, it was impossible for us in the South to get any sort of a view of the Serbian defensive line. So after the short corner was worked back to Hoolahan and his clipped ball was powered home by Duffy, our end went ballistic. The fact that the FAI insist on playing goal music and that the person in charge of it also didn't realise that Duffy was a good yard offside meant that we were still celebrating long after the flag went up and it was only when the music cut off that we twigged something was wrong. Playing music after a goal is a bug bear of mine as I don't see any need for it. The atmosphere is going to be bouncing anyway so what's the point in drowning it out with Seven Nation Army? After it being accidentally played when Scotland equalised in the last campaign, it's now twice that it's been incorrectly put on. Again, what's the point?

Despite the disappointment of the goal being chalked off, it seemed to lift Ireland and a few jokes were cracked among us about the fact that it was too early for us to score anyway given how we've defended early goals this campaign. We actually started to string a few passes together with Hoolahan at the core. Long had a good effort tipped over about twenty minutes in. After a few borderline Serbian challenges, we finally got a free in a good position but, as has often been the case since the Euros, Robbie Brady's delivery failed to beat the first man.

We were certainly holding our own by now although Randolph had to get down well to keep a good Mitrovic effort out as we entered the last ten minutes of the half. Meyler was putting himself about nicely and we were mixing up our direct approach with a decent bit of football in a way that had been missing in the previous three qualifiers. I felt we had been the dominant side for most of the half and although Serbia began to get a bit of a hold of the ball in the last 7 or 8 minutes, a couple of excellent tackles from Meyler and McClean really got the crowd going again. When the half-time whistle came, the general consensus with those around was that all were satisfied with what we'd seen.

The first ten minutes of the second half saw more of the same with Ireland winning a couple of set pieces including a corner which was, once again, poorly delivered by Brady. However, while we were having our fair share of possession, we weren't really testing Stojkovic in the Serbia goal with a Long effort comfortably saved being as good as it got in that spell. And unfortunately, we were made to pay for that lack of cutting edge a minute later.

The worst thing about the concession was that we had a number of half chances to clear our lines. A Brady header clear from a Tadic cross didn't have enough purchase on it to reach McClean even though it looked like McClean might be able to win possession back from Tadic again but the Southampton man wriggled free and fed Kostic. With Cyrus Christie pulled inside, Kostic fed Koralov in the space on our right and, despite his best efforts, Walters couldn't get back in time to prevent Koralov unleashing an absolute rocket. Although Randolph got a hand to it, the pace it moved at meant that all his touch did was deflect the ball onto the underside of the bar on its way into the net. 1-0 Serbia and suddenly we had a mountain to climb.

The goal really sucked the atmosphere out of the stadium and the hope was that we could regain some of the composure we'd been showing in the previous 35 minutes. However, with Hoolahan not getting on the ball as much, O'Neill decided to roll the dice five minutes after the goal and it was Wes who paid the price.

While I'd have preferred to see Arter come on, given the manager's history, the fact that it was Daryl Murphy shouldn't have been a surprise. Like a wedding DJ trying to get people onto the dance floor, O'Neill's philosophy when things need changing is to go back to the 1980's and pump it all night long. The message a substitution like that sends out is essentially to stop playing football and revert to banging balls up the pitch. And, in fairness, it paid off in a way on 67 minutes as a long ball from Brady wasn't dealt with by Vukovic and with Murphy bearing down on goal, Maksimovic took him down while stretching for the ball. The ref had no doubt it was a straight red card and the sight of it re-energised the crowd as we faced into the last quarter with an extra man and a free kick at the edge of the box.

A couple of minutes had passed by the time Brady got to take the free but once again, it was wasted as he struck it straight into the wall. The irony of the situation now was that, had Hoolahan been on the pitch the space generated by the extra man would have suited him down to a tee but had Murphy not been on, the red card may never have come. O'Neill seemed to realise this and shortly after sent on Callum O'Dowda for Stephen Ward as we shifted to three at the back. The unfortunate thing is that, while O'Dowda looks like he may have potential on the ball, he doesn't have the experience or guile to dictate play like Hoolahan.  That said, he was involved in our best chance to get something from the game as he played a cross in to Murphy who was blatantly manhandled as he challenged for the ball only for the ref to wave his protests away.

Our composure had totally deserted us by now with Christie's follow up shot blazing over the bar in what was becoming a pattern with McClean having done similar a couple of minutes before. As mentioned earlier, McClean has a habit of letting his emotions and pride in the shirt get ahead of him and that was the case again here as he got his customary booking and hit another couple of shots over when recycling the ball would have been a better option. I couldn't count the amount of times that players took wrong options with poor final balls and wayward shots but Christie, McClean and a newly introduced Conor Hourihane were all guilty of it. With news filtering through that Wales had finally taken a late lead against Moldova, our situation was looking more desperate by the minute.

Any hope I had that the introduction of O'Dowda might lead to a more nuanced approach didn't last long as we persisted with the long ball game rather than trying to make use of the extra man. In fact, it would have been impossible for anyone who walked in halfway through the second half to know which team had an extra man. Instead of pulling players out wide to create space, we persisted in putting high balls into the box that were meat and strong to a team as big and strong as Serbia. Why persist in letting them keep it compact in the centre when it wasn't working even when they were down to nine men for a couple of minutes as another of their defenders was off getting treatment? Let's not forget this was the second game where our approach prevented us taking advantage of an extra man after failing to do so against Wales in March.

A half-chance for Murphy hit straight at the keeper was as good as it got as we moved into stoppage time. While the Serbian tactic of time wasting was as frustrating as it was unsurprising, our use of the ball by now was non-existent and our brute force approach wasn't paying dividends as silly fouls gave away possession time and time again. A final flurry finished with Randolph coming up for a last corner in the 5th minute of stoppage time but another poor delivery was easily dealt with and the Irish players slumped to the ground as the ref blew up for full-time.

I'm not going to do a post mortem on the campaign at this stage with two games left and an outside chance of still making a play-off. But questions have to be asked as to how we've let such a promising position six months ago drift away so badly. The annoying thing is that we showed on Tuesday that we can play reasonable ball when the right team and tactics are employed. In fact, I'm convinced that, had we approached the home games against Wales and Austria and the away game in Georgia in the same manner as we did on Tuesday, that we'd still be in the driving seat in the group. Instead, the managers innate conservatism meant that we set up not to lose those games and in doing so ceded the initiative to our rivals.

While losing Seamus Coleman was a massive loss and injuries to James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and even Aiden McGeady haven't helped, it's clear that with Hoolahan in the team, we play a different sort of game and, in the long run, a more effective one. Most of our best moments in recent years such as the goal in Gelsenkirchen and those against Sweden and Italy in the Euros have come with him on the pitch. I appreciate that he's getting older and I've always said that I can understand why a manager would take a different approach against the top sides. However, I can't understand why he's not trusted against the lower seeds when we play them. It's not just what he does on the pitch, it's what he enables other players to do as well.

So, we now face our last two games having picked up 10 points from our first four and only 3 from our second four. That said, having picked up 4 points despite been outplayed by Georgia at home and Serbia away, maybe we shouldn't be surprised at how we've unraveled considering the only two good performances have been away to Moldova and Austria. Even in those games we gave up chances but the chickens seem to be coming home to roost. Even turning things round and winning our last two games may not be enough with our group currently bottom of the second place table with only eight of nine runners up making the play-offs. As for Serbia, the 3 points gained here have made them almost dead certs to reach Russia next summer. Revenge for them after that point we pilfered in Belgrade was indeed a dish best Serbed cold.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Midnight Plane To Georgia

In all the years I've spent following the Irish team, we seem to have drawn Georgia on an inordinate number of occasions. An initial meeting in 2003 during Brian Kerr's first campaign ended in an ill-tempered 2-1 victory best remembered for the various knives, bottles and ball-bearings thrown at Kevin Kilbane, Shay Given, Gary Breen and Gary Doherty. This was followed by an August 2008 clash in Giovanni Trapattoni’s first away game which ended in the same score and is best remembered for the fact that it was moved to the neutral venue of Mainz in Germany after the Russo-Georgian war broke out that month, much to the chagrin of the hosts. Fast forward to Martin O'Neill’s reign and Georgia once again provided the first away opposition with 2-1 also the scoreline as a bit of Aiden McGeady magic secured the 3 points. Throw in the home fixtures and a friendly and I'd imagine we've played Georgia more than any other opposition in the last 15 years. And I even include Oman in that!

The sheer distance of travel involved (and the lateness of the venue change in ‘08) meant that I'd skipped those games so when we inevitably drew them again for this campaign and having heard good reports from previous trips, I decided to take the plunge and undertake my longest trip since Japan and Korea in 2002. The big difference being that this was a three dayer rather than a four weeker!

With no direct route in, many convoluted options were available and after deciding the rollover option via a lock-in till three in Steve Amsterdam’s Molly Malone’s bar before heading for a 5:30am flight from Schiphol, was too much to take on at the start of a trip, a Wizz Air route through Luton to the city of Kutaisi suited best. The only fear was that a ninety minute connection at Luton might be cutting things a little fine if the Ryanair flight from Dublin got delayed at all. As it happened, any worries were unfounded as a two hour delay on the Luton-Kutaisi meant I had plenty of time to meet with the lads I was travelling from Luton with, Borussia and Charlton’s Child from YBIG and their mate Seamus, over a couple of pints.

On boarding, it was clear that the bulk of the flight was made up of Irish fans and there was a good-natured atmosphere for the duration of the five hours. That said, the two hour delay on top of the three hour time difference meant that there were some fairly tired heads disembarking when we finally landed at 4:30 in the morning. While the bulk of the fans on the flight were going straight onto the final leg; a four hour bus journey to Tbilisi, the four of us had booked into a hotel to grab what we thought would be about five hours sleep before getting a 10am train. This necessitated getting a cab from the airport to the city which is where the fun and games really started.

There doesn't seem to be any regulation of the taxi industry in Georgia so it's basically a free for all. There are no meters in the cars and it seems that everyone fancies themselves a cab driver. With no metering, a price has to be agreed beforehand and you have to be prepared to haggle. Walking out of any airport or train station you get accosted by any number of lads looking for a fare and with us not knowing how much was a fair price at this point, we ended up agreeing to pay a guy 40GEL (about €3 each) to bring us to the hotel. We were all pretty certain that was over the odds but at that price and at that hour of the morning we were beyond caring.

The other thing that's noticeable about cabbies in Georgia is that none of them seem to have a rashers where they're going. So, despite giving him the address at the start of the journey, it was clear as soon we got into the city centre that this lad was hopelessly lost. A stop at a 24-hour store yielded no leads and a couple of phone calls didn't seem to get him anywhere. We were starting to get a bit unsettled by now and this went to the next level when he turned down some side-street and brought us into a dead end! I think we all expected his mates to appear and Borussia already had the front door open while the three of us in the back were entering flight or fight mode! With no-one appearing from the shadows, we all calmed down a bit as it turned out he'd genuinely taken a wrong turn and managed to persuade us he'd get us where we wanted! A three point turn got us back on the main road and ten minutes later, he finally found the street we were looking for when we finally managed to convey that it was beside Kutaisi train station.
By the time we checked in, it was 5:30 and despite being dog tired, sleep wasn't easy coming. I think I finally nodded off around 6:30 and with an early train to catch, was back up about 2 hours later. As there was no train from Kutaisi till 12:15, which didn't get to Tbilisi till after 5, we'd decided to get the 10am train from Rioni, a town about 10km away. This meant another cab ride, this time from what seemed like a more legit taxi. That said, when he turned onto a dust track with a pack of stray dogs roaming around, we began to wonder what was going on until we saw a few Irish shirts waiting on a Soviet-era platform that had definitely seen better days. The lads waiting had got in earlier the previous day via Warsaw and despite having a few beers the previous night told us that we hadn't missed much in Kutaisi, which still seems quite underdeveloped in comparison with Tbilisi.

After two hours sleep, a four hour train journey wasn't much fun and nor was another haggle with a cab driver. As I was staying with Terry the Tash and Pete McG who had arrived earlier in the week, the rest of the lads went off to their hotel and I jumped a cab on my own. Despite having the route saved in Google maps, this driver still managed to miss a turn and take another ten minute detour to get back on track. It's worth mentioning that the driving in Georgia is full-on insane with the rules of the road seemingly more suggestion than actual laws! There are cars weaving everywhere, cutting across lanes, pulling u-turns and drivers roaring abuse at each other constantly. All the while trying to avoid pedestrians who just walk out wherever they want to cross. I'm talking about pensioners with walking sticks, mothers carrying children, the whole nine yards! I thought Italy was bad for traffic and Dublin bad for jaywalking but this was next-level stuff!

So by the time I got to the hotel it was 2:30 and as I knew a walking tour had been arranged on YBIG for 3: 00, literally had time to drop the bag off in the room and head straight back out. Terry and Pete had gone on a day tour up the mountains with the Amsterdam crew so, after another roundabout taxi journey, I hooked back up with Borussia and the lads at Freedom Square to see a huge crowd of assorted YBIGers getting sorted into two groups by a pair of tour guides.

The walking tours are a great way to see a city and get your bearings, as well as learning something about where you're visiting. Plus, the older I'm getting, it's a good excuse to get a few hours out of the pub! This tour took in a number of old churches, some Catholic but mainly Georgian Orthodox, where the green clad hordes walking in raised a few eyebrows. After walking around some local food markets where we were given a lesson in the importance of being a toastmaster at a wine drinking session and treated to some freshly baked Georgian bread and some Churchkhela, a local fruit and nut type of salami, we walked over the Bridge of Peace which straddles the Kura River and links the old and new towns.

Heading on towards the Presidential Palace, we were given a potted history of the city since independence following the collapse of the USSR before getting the cable car up to the Narikala Fortress where the panoramic views of the city were absolutely spectacular. As was the sight of a helicopter overhead with a huge water bucket attached attempting to quell a small forest fire caused by the searing heat, which was hitting the mid 30’s at this stage. Having spent three hours on the tour, we finished up by getting some mountain top snaps with a peacock and a peregrine falcon perched on either arm followed by a visit to the Mother of Georgia statue. As I promised the missus, these would be the only birds on my arms while I was away!

Although there was still a visit to the sulphur baths and a wine tasting to come, we'd promised to head to the YBIG fans match which was due to kick off at 6:30 so we slipped away to haggle yet another taxi and headed to the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium where Ireland had actually played their 2003 qualifier. Although this game was on the back pitch with only a single stand, the venue would still put plenty of League of Ireland grounds to shame. We even managed a quick sneak into the main stadium before being collared by security and politely told to move on.

The fans match was played out against a backdrop of thunder and incredible forked lighting which must have caused a bit of worry for the Quinn Towers who, as the centre-half pairing, were by far the tallest things in the immediate vicinity of the stadium! A good crowd saw the YBIG team lead 1-0 and 2-1 before a late Georgia equaliser sent us to penalties. The drama wasn’t finished there as Ireland thought they’d won it only for the ref to demand a retake due to the keeper moving before the kick. With nerves now playing a part, the Georgian keeper saved the retake only for the ref to call it back again for the same reason meaning a third kick had to be taken with Keitho holding his nerve to eventually win the shoot-out 5-3!

Although we'd arranged to meet the gang who'd gone on the day-trip after the game, their tour seemed to have taken a lot longer than anticipated so by the time they arrived around midnight we'd already had a few beers and had hit a cracking restaurant for the bit of dinner. The Hangar bar in the old town had become a bit of a meeting point for the fans and indeed the media and, after finding myself sitting at the bar beside RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue, had an interesting chat about various things, including his infamous rapport with Martin O’Neill, over an enjoyable pint. Having only had two hours sleep in the past twenty hours, I wasn't up for anything too mad and spent the last part of the night chatting with our tour guide from earlier who had come in with her other half to enjoy the atmosphere. Asking me about Irish history is one of those things that sets me off but after an hour or two bending their ears, I decided that 2:30 was time to call it a night so had one last taxi haggle to get back to the hotel before crashing out to rest for match day after a quick call home.

The morning of the match brought more sweltering sunshine but given the lack of sleep from the previous day, all I saw of it was a trudge downstairs for breakfast before going back up for another couple of hours kip. The game was kicking off at 8pm local time so tentative plans were made to meet up at the Hanger bar between 3 and 4. This gave me a couple of hours after finally rising for a bit of exploring and shopping, although given the prices on offer for top quality labels and scents on offer, I think it was fair to question the bona fides! Pretty much everything in the city seems to be open to negotiation so if you enjoy a good haggle then you’re in your element! Having dropped a couple of things back to the hotel, the three of us from the room wandered down to the square at the Hanger where the crowd was already filling out with the Amsterdam Crew and Quinn Towers arriving to join us. All the various flags and banners were being hung up around the area which made an interesting backdrop for a local wedding that was passing through. As did the chants of “Stand Up For the Bride in White!” that started up as the bride and groom posed for some pictures with the fans!  

The few hours before travelling to a ground are one of my favourite times on an away trip with everyone optimistic and in good spirits as the excitement and atmosphere builds up. The nerves haven’t normally kicked in yet, you’re bumping into people you only really see on these trips, nobody is too hammered and you haven’t had a game to pick apart yet so it’s always a great time. So the next couple of hours were spent mingling with familiar faces and meeting friends of friends with the regular chants and songs getting a good airing. Given Georgia’s proximity to the Middle East, a good number of Irish who were working in the likes of Dubai and Doha had taken advantage of the fact they had less travel time than us to get there so some interesting conversations were had about working in that area and before long, it was time to head up towards the ground.

A couple of local fans we’d been talking to had directed us towards the metro so rather than have the hassle of haggling yet another taxi fair, we took a good-natured march through the city having a bit of banter with the locals on the way. The metro itself was an interesting experience as we had to descend the longest escalator I’ve ever seen in my life which also happened to move at breakneck speed. I’m talking something that must be double the size of the really long ones on the Northern Line in London and moving at twice the speed! The stations are fairly vividly decorated which provided a contrast to the Soviet era trains that service it.  A couple of stops later and we came up from the depths and walked through the subways (full of more stalls and shops selling anything and everything) to surface back at ground level not far from the ground.

By this stage the team had come out and the line-up of Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Whelan, Arter, McClean, Brady, Walters and Long was pretty much as expected. With a home game on Tuesday, I hadn’t expected Wes Hoolahan to start 2 games in four days and expected him to get a cameo off the bench if we needed to close the game out before starting on Tuesday. My only issue was my suspicion that Jon Walters couldn’t have recovered sufficiently from the ankle injury he’d picked up a couple of weeks back. I know most players will play through the pain barrier and both Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have gone on the record as being in favour of risking players with fitness concerns once they come through training, but it didn’t work with Walters in Euro 2016 and I was doubtful that it would work here. Still, maybe we could get a good hour out of him I thought, pushing the negative thoughts out of my mind as we walked up to the stadium itself.      

The Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena was previously the Lenin Dinamo Stadium before being renamed after the man said to be Georgia’s greatest player. Despite its 54,549 capacity, it’s a fairly standard Soviet era building from the outside but is a decent enough functional stadium once you’re in. The lower tier that we were situated in had nothing that you could hang a flag off on the concrete barriers separating the crowd from the running track so all the flags that were hanging when we got in had been stuck up with gaffer tape. Not wanting to take a chance of seeing the 69ers flag fall down the 20 foot or so drop , I decided to see if I could get up onto the next level where there were barriers that you could tie flags to, so as soon as the anthems finished I tore up the stairs and found a decent spot. I’d literally just run back to my seat as Cyrus Christie whipped in a great free and, with the Georgian keeper flapping under a dubious bit of pressure from Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy got his head onto the ball and buried it! With Duffy’s last action in green being his harshly disallowed effort for a foul on the keeper that denied us a win against Austria, this was a nice bit of karma for him. One-nil after four minutes. Unfortunately, this was about as good as it got for us.

I’ve said in previous blogs that scoring early seems to nearly be one of the worst things that Ireland can do. Even though that sounds ridiculous, we’ve generally always played at our best when we have to chase something in a game and, the honourable exception of the France last 16 game aside, if we score early we tend to drop further and further back in a desperate attempt to hold what we have. We’ve seen it time and time again, with the away game v. Serbia early in the campaign turning out to be a marker for how things progressed here. It’s understandable against teams the calibre of Germany, Spain et al. but against teams ranked as lowly as Georgia then we need to impose ourselves on them rather than sit off them and let them dictate the play. Unfortunately, and exactly as we did against Serbia, this was precisely what we did.

Although, we had a great chance to go two up around 20 minutes in when James McClean should have got his header from a Walters cross on target, Georgia were already dominating possession at that stage. And when the equaliser finally arrived, no-one could argue that it hadn’t be coming for a while. Our habit of sitting deep meant that Georgia had all the space they wanted in the first two-thirds of the pitch and had dominated the possession to the tune of 78%. We’d already had a few desperate clearances by the time Kashia slipped the ball down the right-hand channel to Jigauri who played a lovely angled pass back inside to Ananidze. With two defenders drawn out to him, he still had all the time he needed to play in Kazaishvili in acres of space who picked his spot past Randolph. One-all and at this stage, I just wanted to get to half-time level.

We still looked rocky for the next ten minutes although after finally winning our first corner on 44 minutes nearly took the lead again with Makaridze in the Georgian goal parrying a Duffy header clear. That said, that seemed to just annoy the Georgians and they finished the half putting our goal under pressure again for the final minute. The whistle, when it finally came, was a blessed relief.

I assumed that Martin O’Neill would put a rocket up the team’s collective backside at half-time and we might see some sort of reaction but with an aimless Irish hoof down the pitch pretty much straight from the kick-off, it soon developed into the same pattern as the first half. At one point after Georgia had played about twenty plus passes, I actually counted how many we would have till we lost it. Five passes later and the sixth went straight into touch. The only positive was that Georgia weren’t creating any clear-cut chances but conceding possession in the manner we were doing against a team ranked 112 in the world was unacceptable.

The game was crying out for some changes and the introduction of anyone who could actually put their foot on the ball and pass it. When the first substitution came, it was Aiden McGeady, rather than Wes Hoolahan, who came on for a very disappointing Harry Arter. In fairness to McGeady, he is capable of good creative football in the 10 position on his day and his arrival did see a slight improvement. A chance was finally created on 69 minutes with a Long header over from a Christie cross but despite the change, it still looked like any chance we might create would be from a set- piece.

Georgia carried on dictating possession but we were at least pressing them a little better now and another corner, this time Walters heading straight at the keeper just after Daryl Murphy replaced Glenn Whelan, who was another to have a very disappointing game. Having got a smash and grab victory 3 years ago in Georgia after a poor performance, I started to think that there might be a chance of doing similar the longer the time ticked on and we really should have done that on 86 minutes. Long did very well to keep another long ball in play on the left wing and with the Georgia players appealing for a throw-in, played a lovely ball into McClean. While he didn’t have as much space as he did for his Vienna winner, he was still favourite to score but a poor second touch gave the keeper time to narrow the angle and a combination of the keeper’s legs and Kverkvelia’s head kept the ball out.

A chance for Georgia to win it then came with a Merebashvili shot well wide of the past. McGeady then has the chance to repeat his feat of 2014 and win it at the death as he found himself in acres of space on the end of a Walters knock down from yet another launched long ball but instead of hitting it first time or even taking a second touch to control it, he instead leant back and blazed the ball over the bar. With that being the last meaningful action, we reached the end of stoppage time coming away with a point we scarcely deserved. The players, with the exception of Shane Long, couldn’t wait to get off the pitch and were clearly too embarrassed to even come down and applaud an angry and frustrated fanbase.

With final statistics of 31% possession for Ireland and 150 completed passes against 568 for Georgia, legitimate questions have to be asked of the players and the management even allowing for the clear cut chances we had to rob the extra two points. While it wouldn’t be my preference, I’ve no issue with long ball tactics if they bring results. However, to employ that game then you need to press up on the opposition and not give them space to pass the ball at will. We’re not talking about Spain at Euro 2012 here where their quality was so good that we couldn’t get near them. In this game we deliberately sat back in our own third and made Georgia look like a top quality nation. I’ve seen some articles since pointing out the obvious that our players are generally lower Premier League/Championship level but those articles seem to ignore the fact that that is still a far higher level than the Georgian team (which was also missing key players) who dominated on Saturday play at. There’s an argument that the horrific injury to Seamus Coleman has left us without one of our leaders although he was playing in Belgrade when we only managed to complete 94 passes and were lucky to get away with a draw. The fact is that Austria and Moldova away aside, we’ve been very poor in this group and haven’t kicked on from the Euros. The tactics being employed are generally to be blamed for that, along with our decades old tendency to retreat into our shell when we take the lead. Rather than this fear that we seem to have shrinking under O’Neill, it seems to have gotten bigger. All I can hope for tomorrow is that our habit of producing good performances after poor ones (such as the Italy game after the Belgium loss in France) comes good again tomorrow but that’s been three poor performances in a row since the win in Vienna and we’ve now found ourselves in the last chance saloon from a dominant position in the group three games ago.  Another concern is that the worst second place team doesn’t even qualify for a play-off and there’s a real danger that without wins against Serbia and Wales, we could potentially finish second but still miss out that way. The team selected tomorrow will tell a lot about our ambition and Hoolahan surely has to play unless this ‘injury’ mentioned today is more serious than it seems.

Once we got out of the ground, we found an offie and sat outside with a drink waiting for the crowd to die down before getting a taxi back to the old town. I wound up having an interesting chat with a couple of lads in Ireland tops from Leipzig who had decided to follow Ireland after what they considered their team, East Germany, was disbanded following reunification. As far as they were concerned the Germany team didn’t represent them (and nor did franchise club Red Bull Leipzig) so they been following Ireland for a good few years. Certainly couldn’t accuse them of glory hunting anyway!

When we got back to the old town, a good mob of us went back to the restaurant that we’d eaten in the previous night and drowned our sorrows with some good food, good wine, a few glasses of the local grape brandy, chacha and a few songs. The frustration was subsiding a bit and things were put in perspective when we bumped into Danielle and Lexie, the daughter and granddaughter of a man no longer with us and who wasn’t far from our thoughts during the whole trip.  John ‘The Bear’ Dowling was a regular travelling member of the YBIG family who I’d met at many games home and away over the years and who unfortunately lost a brave battle with cancer a few short weeks ago at the dreadfully young age of 55. Even those who didn’t know him would surely have recognised his face and his infectious laugh, especially if they were the sort to nip outside of pubs for a cheeky ciggie or fancied a chat at the bar. The Bear would welcome and talk to anyone and he’ll be sorely missed on trips in future but it was great to see his family carrying on the tradition. Kudos to the FAI as well who had arranged for Danielle and Lexie to meet with the management and team and had provided a memorial key ring for all who travelled. YBIG had also had a flag printed up in his memory which was on display at the game.

My own favourite memory of him was an early morning drink the day after the Bosnia away play-off in Sarajevo when a couple of straighteners were required before heading to the airport. The Shake It Up Brady chant was beginning to catch on and a gang of us were giving it socks. Unbeknownst to me, Bear was filming away and by the time I got home, I had a message from a friend pointing me to a story on the Irish Independent. One click later and there’s a video of myself and the rest of the gang belting it out looking a little the worse for wear while Bear stayed safely out of shot! That said, he did have a little © John Dowling watermark on the bottom even though his face wasn’t in it!  

While I’ll miss his company on trips, it’s his family and close friends such as AidoM, Brianie Sligo Hornet, Mr and Mrs Moscow Mule and Claret Murph that I really felt for and I’m sure this first trip without him was very poignant. It did bring home to me that football is only a game after all, albeit a game that we’ll hopefully win tomorrow. Qualification for Russia next year would be a nice tribute to him. RIP Bear and hopefully we can do it for you.