Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Only The Names Have Changed

So, in typical Irish fashion, a game that we probably should have lost but could have won in the last ten minutes ends up a draw. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise as these sort of results are exactly what we've been getting against teams similarly ranked to ourselves going back to the days of the Jack Charlton era. While we've produced some big wins against top seeds such as Spain, Holland and Germany over the years, the amount of home draws going back to Scotland in 1986, covers almost every campaign up to the draws against Poland and Scotland again last time out. In fact, only World Cup '90, Euro 2000 and strangely enough, Steve Staunton's ill fated Euro '08 campaign buck the trend with yesterday's opponents already featuring having secured a two all draw during the World Cup '14 campaign. And now we have another frustrating result to add to the list. No matter how often the players or management change, familiar failings recur.

The pleasant weather during the walk across the city had switched to torrential rain and back again over the course of the afternoon but had settled into a fine summer's evening as the hours ticked by to kick off. With this being such a vital game, we had our full compliment of eight season ticket holders present and pretty much our whole ex pat away crew had come over with the Brummies and the rest of the UK dwellers all present as well as Gary and Lina from the Dam and the Quinn Towers all the way down from Newry. The Beggars was pretty packed with plenty of Austrian fans enjoying the craic and both sets of fans displaying the sort of misplaced optimism that never seems to get knocked out of football fans who should know better!

Having set my preferred team out in last week's Uruguay blog, I have to confess to being disappointed when news of the team came through. For all Martin O'Neill's talk of going at Austria from the start, this was a team picked and set up not to lose the game. While playing Kevin Long at centre half was a surprising call, persisting with Darren Randolph in goal, when many had been calling for Kieren Westwood, was less so. However, it was his midfield selection that signalled his intent with Glenn Whelan in the anchor role and no place for Wes Hooahan further up the pitch. I actually quite like Whelan and think that some of the criticism he has taken over the years, particularly from Eamon Dunphy has been unwarranted and has been scapegoating at its worst. However, it's my belief that Harry Arter can play in that deeper role and would offer more fluency going forward. Jeff Hendrick could then drop further back as he's clearly not a number 10 and that would create space for Hoolahan in that 10 role. I can understand why O'Neill might have concerns about playing less defensively against a Germany or other top level side, against the mid ranking teams we should be prepared to be less cautious and given how well we played with Hoolahan in the team for the reverse fixture in Vienna, it was a very conservative team selection to leave him out. There is also an argument that, at 35, Hoolahan may not have the legs for 90 minutes but I'd counter that by saying start him and give him 60 minutes or so to try and win the game rather than 30 at the end to save it. The fact that Austria were missing five of the players that played in the Vienna game due to suspension, injury, retirement and even a players wedding emphasised how negative a selection it was as the opposition were there for the taking.

We arrived at our usual spot as the anthems were being played and it was great to see Lansdowne Road full for the second qualifier in a row. The atmosphere in the Singing Section was good as ever with the brass band that had been present for the Wales game thankfully binned. The game itself started pretty cagily in contrast to the "going to war"analogies peddled by Roy Keane before the game as both sides started to feel each other out. Austria were playing more of the football but we were dealing with it comfortably enough, By the time we got halfway through the half, the game had degenerated into a very scrappy affair. Our first chance of note came on the 23 minute mark when Whelan, who actually had a reasonable game, played Stephen Ward in down the right wing. Ward's cut back was laid off perfectly by James McClean (who seemed to have swapped positions with Hendrick by now) for Jon Walters but, instead of just putting his laces through it, his attempt at a side footed finish went horribly wrong and the ball went high and wide.

That seemed to rouse Austria somewhat and a succession of corners on the half hour mark eventually led to the opening goal. It was a well worked corner in fairness but it really could have been defended better. David Alaba played the corner in low and hard and the fact that both Prodl and Dragovi dummied it seemed to cause a bit of confusion in our defence. By the time the ball reached Hinteregger, we'd been stretched and he made no mistake with a sweetly hit finish into the bottom left corner. Had we had a defender stationed on the near post he'd have been able to clear it off the line but without that there was no chance of Randolph or anyone else keeping it out. 1-0 Austria but would that prove to be a wake up call? The short answer was no as we reached half time without managing a shot on target the whole half. Things surely had to improve in the second half but in my opinion it was going to take a personnel and tactical change to do it.

Half time saw no changes but there did seem to be a better intensity to our play after the restart. A Duffy header went wide early on. Austria were still looking dangerous on the break but we were pushing them further and further back without creating anything clear cut. The change when it came didn't see Hoolahan come on as hoped with Daryl Murphy replacing Ward resulting in a shuffle to the formation as Robbie Brady moved to left back and we switched to a 4-4-2. It was a decent change to make as Walters had been a little isolated and the physical presence offered by Murphy was likely to cause problems for the Austrians.

We were clearly going even more route one but despite a number of free kicks and corners, we still hadn't created a huge amount but at least had a bit of a head of steam up. Hoolahan was finally introduced on 70 minutes but I was surprised that it was Arter, who is our best passer of the ball after Hoolahan, to make way. The crowd were now really getting behind the team now and there was a sense that something might be coming. Hoolahan nearly made an immediate impact by playing a fabulous cross that fizzed across the box but Murphy couldn't stretch enough to connect with it and an Austrian defender was able to steer it back to his keeper.

The final sub followed shortly with Aiden McGeady on for Whelan with thirteen minutes left as we went more attacking to try and salvage something from the game. We thought we'd done it on 80 minutes when Long got onto a Brady corner but, unlike us in the first half, Austria had  a defender on the post who cleared it off the line. Four minutes later Randolph justified the decision to stick with him as he made a great save to deny Grillisich and keep the game alive. Things were very frantic now as time ticked by and myself and the rest of our crew were at the stage when we'd have taken your hand off for a draw given how little time was left. But none of us could have predicted just how frenetic things would get as the last three minutes of the 90 plus the four minutes stoppage time provided more incident and talking points than the previous 87!

The equaliser, when it finally came was route one at it's finest and, like Shane Long's Germany goal, any Jack Charlton side would have been proud of it. There didn't seem to be much danger when Brady launched a clearance high up the pitch with Walters having Prodl and Dragovic for company as he chased it. Prodl was looking a big leggy and left Dragovic to deal with the danger but Walters put him under serious pressure and cleverly used his strength to disrupt Dragovic's balance and ease him to one side. There was still plenty to do as the ball bounced a second time but Big Bad Jon never took his eye off it and arrowed a cracking volley into the far corner. Lift off in the stands and suddenly Austria looked very vulnerable and the team scented blood.

Captain Fantastic!

Lansdowne Road was still bouncing ninety seconds later and went into another stratosphere for ten seconds or so before the Spanish referee painted himself as the villain of the piece. McClean was running riot on the left by now and some more direct running had resulted in a corner which Brady swung in. Murphy managed to get his head to it but it looked like Linder had it covered in the Austrian goal. That didn't stop Grillisich deciding to take matters in his own hands and take responsibility for clearing it. However, all he succeeded in doing was slice his clearance high into the air and back towards the near post where Lainer was still stationed on the goal-line with Walters for company. It was clear that he didn't fancy clearing it as you could see him looking at what was coming in rather than solely focusing on the ball. What was coming in was Duffy who only had eyes for the ball. Whether Duffy should have gone for it is debatable as there was a fair chance the ball was dropping in anyway and Walters looked in a good position to get to it regardless. I'm loath to blame Duffy for going for it though but by leading with his arm, he gave the referee a chance to give the decision against him, You can generally tell if a foul has been committed by the reaction of the opposition and I think it's telling that none of the Austrians were complaining as they all expected the goal to be allowed despite Lainer ending up in the net as Duffy bundled ball and man home. Even Austrian defender Prodl admitted the goal should have stood after the game and had this been a Premier League game I've no doubt it would have been awarded.

Anything Wrong?

Looking at it in real time, no one in the South Stand saw anything wrong and the ecstatic celebrations were going for a good ten seconds or so before the realisation that it had been disallowed dawned on people. Still, there wasn't much time for the disappointment to sink in. Ireland instantly regained possession and another ball over the top sent Walters through but just as he lined his shot up, Lainer came running across behind him meaning that Walters connected with him as he drew his leg back. This sent Walters tumbling and took all the pace off his shot which ended up sending the ball wide to McGeady instead of at the goal. Everyone including myself screamed for a penalty but the ref wasn't having it. McGeady tried to pick out a cross to the two men on the far post as Walters lay prone but he couldn't get beyond the defender with it. The ball then came back to Hoolahan who fluffed a shot and Austria hacked it clear. They were looking so ragged now that it felt like a second goal was inevitable but once the four minutes of stoppage time were signaled the Austrians settled somewhat and despite our best efforts we failed to create anything as clear cut as we had in the previous ten minutes and had to settle for the draw. The question is why we had to wait until so late in the game to start playing the sort of football needed to win games like this.

Goals and Highlights

The management and players were uniform in their criticism of the referee after the game and they have a point in some instances. On a number of occasions, the ref looked like awarding a free only to let play develop for a minute to see if an advantage would develop. That's all well and good but each time it became clear straight away that there was no advantage he simply let the play go rather than go back for the free. Disallowing the goal was harsh although he can point to how high Duffy had his arm as he jumped. For the penalty shout I think he probably got it right having seen the replay, There was also a clear back pass in stoppage time that their keeper picked up he missed as well though which could have given us a free in a great position.

More importantly, the management and team also need to take a look at themselves. Why do we react so badly to any situation where we're deemed favourites? Our mindset seems to be set to underdog mode meaning that we're at our best when we're up against it. This is well and good against the top teams and has served us well against Germany, Italy and even for sixty minutes against France. However, there are numerous games we can point to where a more positive mindset could have yielded better results. Scotland and Poland home and away in the last campaign and now Wales and Austria at home in this one, for example. The one game where we seemed to embrace the pressure to dominate at home in the last campaign was the play off against Bosnia.

Given that Hoolahan started all three games I've mentioned in the last campaign, it's not as simple as some would have you believe that his inclusion turns us into world beaters. However, I think it's clear that his presence does alter the way we play. Simply having someone who's prepared to look for the ball and be positive with it encourages the other players into playing more positively. While he himself wasn't brilliant when he finally came on on Sunday and Whelan actually did quite well on an individual level, it's the ripple effect they have on the rest of the team and on the opposition that's relevant here. As mentioned earlier, there's no reason why we can't play our best two passers of the ball in Hoolahan and Arter in the same team but it seems to a chance that Martin O'Neill isn't prepared to take.

The news that Serbia and Wales had drawn put a better complexion on things and softened the disappointment of the two dropped points with the table remaining as it was showing a four point gap separating Serbia and ourselves from Wales and Austria with one less game left. On the positive side, we proved yet again how difficult we are to beat and have another late goal to add to the list. After years of conceding late goals we're now the ones scoring them which is something in the credit column for the manager. Next up is Georgia away which is always a tough game but one I'm really looking forward to as my travels haven't taken me to that country as yet so it'll be a first for me. A win there would set us up perfectly for the home game the following week against Serbia but who'd bet against that match ending up as a draw? One thing we don't do is make things easy for ourselves!      

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Christie's Left Foot Writes Another Chapter

With nothing of value learned from the previous Thursday's Mexican stand-off in New Jersey, it was good to have another friendly before the serious business of next week's home qualifier against Austria and the Sunday evening of a bank holiday weekend was a nice time for it. With the rest of the squad joining those who had traveled, the expectation, as we strolled across town towards the Beggars, was that we'd see something a lot closer in terms of team selection and formation to what we'll see against Austria. From the opposition point of view, the absence of Luis Suarez due to the injury that kept him out of the Spanish Cup final was the main talking point. From our perspective, it was obviously a bonus that he was missing but, as a football fan, there was also a hint of regret that we'd miss the chance to see one of the best players in the world in action.

In keeping with the expected attendance, the Beggars wasn't as busy as you'd get for a competitive game but there was still a good crew there and the consensus was generally positive as news of a much changed team came through an hour before kick-off. Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie and Shane Duffy were the only three who started in the States to hold their places, with Kevin Long, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Jonny Hayes, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Jon Walters coming into a more familiar looking 4-5-1 formation. After a bit of chat and the usual last minute delays as spare tickets were distributed, we made our way into the singing section. The smaller than normal crowd meant that the searches on entry were quicker than has often been the case recently so we were in our usual spot well ahead of kick-off. The attendance looked sparse enough with a number of season tickets and tickets bought as part of the duo package with the Austria game clearly not being used. Although, to be fair, the reported crowd of 27,000 was still almost double that of the one-all draw thirty one years ago against the same opposition in a game better known for the first goal of Jack Charlton's reign so it's not as if small crowds for end of season friendlies is a new thing! As usual, there was still a decent crowd in the singing section that did their best to get behind the team as the game kicked off.

Ireland v Uruguay 1986 Vintage

We started fairly positively, winning a free and then a corner early on but neither set piece came to anything. In the absence of Suarez, PSG's Edinson Cavani, was providing the star quality for Uruguay but his evening came to an early end when Randolph took a bit of a chance with a ball across his goalmouth that just evaded Cavani as he went full stretch for it. That was a lucky escape but also served to take Cavani out of the game as he seemed to pull something as he stretched and was soon signalling to his bench that his day was done. So, thirteen minutes in and Uruguay's first choice front pairing were now both absent. While the change was being prepared, another corner  was won following a Brady shot and from the resultant cross Duffy was inches away from making it one-nil but just failed to make contact with his diving header.

Once he finally joined the fray, I'm sure our defence was happier to be dealing with Cristhian Stuani of Middlesbrough rather than Cavani. To be fair, Stuani got involved fairly quickly forcing Randolph into a save and as the game settled down and moved towards the half-hour mark both sides were creating chances. First off, Urreta played in Laxalt for Uruguay who put the ball over the bar when he really should have scored. And within a couple of minutes they were regretting that as Walters scored a goal that both Suarez and Cavani would have been proud of.


One to Remember From Walters 

The ball had found its way to Brady on the right after a challenge on Whelan. Whelan then played it into Walters who had his back to goal at the edge of the box. Walters' touch to control was a little heavy, which seemed to encourage Whelan to come back for the ball. This in turn encouraged one of the Uruguayan defenders to wave his leg at the ball which only succeeded in teeing it up for Walters. Big Jon still had a lot to do but produced a glorious finish as he lifted the ball over the keeper into the top corner.

This should really have been the trigger for us to push on but instead it powered Uruguay up a gear as they forced a number of set pieces over the next ten minutes. Having got away with it twice when a free from  Urretaviscaya was cleared by Duffy for a corner, from which Caceres then hit the bar, it proved third time lucky for the opposition. This time it was another free kick around the area that was lofted into a mass of bodies in the box by Sanchez. There seemed to be more than enough defenders there to deal with it but, in a worrying reflection of the late season form that cost him his place at West Ham, Randolph made the wrong choice in coming for it. Not having got close to claiming the ball, he was left in no-man's-land as Gimenez got a combination of his head and shoulder to the ball to loop it into the empty goal.


One to Forget For Randolph

In fairness, that was the cue for Ireland to start playing again and a minute before half time Walters really should have put us back ahead after getting on the end of our best move of the half. Arter, who was having an excellent game, played a long diagonal ball which Coates failed to clear. The second ball made it's way out to Christie on the right wing who played a deep cross to Brady. He volleyed the ball back to Walters who was waiting two yards out. From our end of the ground everyone was convinced it was a goal and leapt up to celebrate only to unbelievably see the ball come back off the crossbar! It was one of the moments where you're struggling to believe your eyes and most of the half-time talk revolved around people trying to work out how he could have missed an open goal from there, especially after scoring such a cracker earlier in the game. I'd expect Walters has taken some ribbing about it but that's football, I guess.


One to Forget For Walters

The start of the second half saw a couple of changes as Wes Hoolahan replaced Whelan and, in what may prove to be significant given recent form, Kieren Westwood came on for Randolph in goal. As Uruguay had also made three subs, it was a bit of a scrappy start to the second half and in keeping with that, it was a somewhat scrappy lead goal that put Ireland back in front on 49 minutes. Uruguay were finding it hard to clear their lines, a couple of Irish balls weren't cleared beyond thirty yards. The ball was eventually played to Christie on the right. Although he was covered, a nice little body swerve bought him a bit of space and Christie's left foot was deployed to great effect once again! I've seen a couple of people argue that it was an effort at a cross but I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt as what was a fairly weakly hit effort rolled into the far corner. It was actually quite reminiscent of his goal away to Gibraltar in the last campaign only hit with his left rather than the outside of his right. Either way, it's encouraging to see Christie step up in Seamus Coleman's absence so I was delighted to see him get his goal and play as well as he did. I've been impressed by him when he's been called on despite concerns over his defensive positioning. He's obviously not at Coleman's level but he's proving himself a more capable deputy than many thought he would.


Chrstie's Left Foot!

The game was actually being played at a pretty decent tempo for a friendly but as it reached the hour mark, a further raft of substitutions broke things up a bit more with Aiden McGeady, Alex Pearce and Daryl Murphy on for Hayes, Duffy and Walters followed by Federico Ricca being replaced by Pereira for the visitors. A disallowed effort from Stuani had us worried for a second before we saw the flag and Westwood comfortably dealt with one effort as well as pulling off a great stop from Giminez  before the final Irish sub came on for Hendrick and finished the game as a contest.

James McClean has really stepped up since being brought into the side for the Italy game at the Euros. As I've written before, he's been our player of the qualifiers so far and is nailed on to start next Sunday in my opinion. Having captained the team for Thursday's game in New Jersey on his 50th cap, the fact that he didn't start this game can be discounted and even if there was any doubt, he surely dispelled it with his cameo here. Within three minutes of entering the fray, a loose Silva pass deep in Irish territory was cut out by Hoolahan who helped it on to Murphy. Murphy, in turn, played a ball more akin to something Wessi himself would have pulled off to give McClean something to chase. Finding himself in a footrace with Giminez, McClean put the burners on and hurdled a last gasp challenge from the Uruguay defender before advancing on goal and dispatching it past Conde. It was a very confident finish and was essentially a carbon copy of his finish from the same position in Vienna last November. 3-1 on 77 minutes and that nearly became four as McClean again came through on the same wing only to be tackled by Giminez just as he was about to shoot. He could potentially have got the shot off earlier but that's being hyper-critical to be honest.


McClean as a Whistle

A couple of Uruguay shots that gave Westwood no trouble and the announcement of Harry Arter as man of the match (I'd have given it to Christie) were all to report from the rest of the game and, given that Uruguay are ranked 15th on the world, it was an encouraging performance and win ahead of next weekend's vital qualifier against Austria. Having learnt nothing from the Mexico game, there's plenty of food for thought after this game with potentially a couple of places up for grabs.

Randoph's form in goals was a concern before this game and that concern won't have been allayed by the Uruguay goal. I've always rated Westwood but Randolph has taken his chance well since coming in for Shay Given and has never let us down in a competitive game. He's actually been very good for us in general. I'd personally play Westwood but I think O'Neill will stick with Randolph, I just hope that's not a mistake. He's a loyal manager but there's an argument that he stuck too long with Given last campaign when he could have done better for the goals at home to Poland and possibly Scotland (although the two deflections on the latter probably give him a pass on that). O'Neill doesn't seem to trust Westwood going back to their time together at Sunderland, even his praise of him after Sunday was tempered with a comment about having to have his head right. “I knew Westy at club level and you know my view of Westy - he's a really talented goalkeeper. Just get his head right and he's great". This indicates to me where he's leaning for that position.

Christie and Ward will start at full-back as will Duffy at centre-half.  Kevin Long was possibly a surprising choice to start v Uruguay and has had a great end to the season after making his Premier League bow with Burnley and now winning a couple of caps. But I think he's very unlikely to start and wouldn't be surprised to see John O'Shea slot back in, although it's a toss-up between him and Richard Keogh.

It's in midfield where the big decisions are to be made. Harry Arter's career for Ireland has been stop-start to say the least with Sunday being only his fourth cap since making his debut two years ago. He's come in for what I would deem to be unfair criticism about his commitment, mostly down to some ill-informed comments made by Paul Merson who suggested he should be in the England squad even though he'd already played for Ireland against England at that stage. A combination of personal issues and injuries have hampered his Ireland career since then and the fact that he has missed a couple of squads only to play for his club the following weekend has added more fuel to the criticism. In fairness, some of our greatest players in the past (Ronnie Whelan and Roy Keane to name some of the more high profile ones) have had similar criticism aimed at them so it's hardly a new thing. Judging him on how he played in his competitive debut v Austria in November and his performance on Sunday, then he has to play in my opinion. Glenn Whelan has been a great servant but as he was the one that was dropped during the Euros and only got back in through injury, his place has to be under threat even in the absence of James McCarthy. McClean, Brady and Hendrick are nailed on to start so Whelan's place will really come down to whether O'Neill is prepared to play Wes Hoolahan in the Number 10 with Walters up front. If he does, then a starting XI of Randolph, Ward, Duffy, Keogh (Or O'Shea), Christie, McClean, Arter, Brady, Hendrick, Hoolahan, Walters looks the best team to pick with the alternative being that Walters moves out right, most likely at the expense of Hoolahan with Hendrick moving further inside and Murphy starting up front.

Whatever team he puts out, there's no doubt that the squad will have been given a boost by the manner of the victory on Sunday, albeit that it was only a friendly. Given that a win would essentially get rid of Austria by opening a seven point gap, hopefully we'll see something that shows some attacking intent.

Friday, 2 June 2017


I'm struggling to work out what was the more pointless action, me staying up till 3:45 am to watch the Ireland v Mexico friendly or the actual sending of the management and squad (or at least a skeleton of it) to New Jersey to play the fixture at all.

Although the USA will always be associated with one of the greatest moments in our history after Ray Houghton's goal in the 1-0 victory v Italy in our opening World Cup '94 fixture, it's been a less than happy hunting ground other than that. The 1994 campaign petered out in disappointing fashion including a defeat to Mexico now more famous for John Aldridge's conniption fit on the sidelines. Even before then, the 1992 US Cup brought a team (that really should have been preparing for the European Championship after being pipped by England despite an unbeaten qualifying campaign) over for defeats to the USA and Italy before a victory against Portugal. However, that trip was overshadowed by the first shots in the Mick McCarthy / Roy Keane spat being fired on the journey home following an afternoon's unscheduled drinking. Four years later, another US Cup saw McCarthy as manager taking over a squad in transition (after Big Jack's team imploded during the Euro '96 run in) only to have his appointed captain, Keane, not show at the airport for departure without even notifying the manager that he wouldn't be travelling. This overshadowed the games (another defeat to the US, a draw with Mexico and a win v Boliva) and provided another marker in the McCarthy / Keane dynamic as it trundled towards it's conclusion six years later.      

Another four years brought another US Cup with the team and fans still smarting from the injury time Macedonian goal that cost us qualification for Euro 2000. Even whatever scant consolation for missing the festival of football in Holland and Belgium may have come from winning the tournament was denied when, despite a credible draw v Mexico and a win against South Africa, a 1-1 draw as the result of a clearly offside goal awarded to the USA cost us the trophy. As this was the last US Cup to be played, it was another seven years before Ireland returned, this time under the guidance, for want of a better word, of Steve Staunton. Another trip more remembered for something other than the results, this one saw the two 1-1 draws against Ecuador and Bolivia being relegated to side news as the headlines focused on Stan's decision to bizarrely award 20 year old Notre Dame college student Joey Lapira a cap in the first game, becoming the first amateur player to represent Ireland since Bohs' Willie Browne 43 years earlier.

Our final two jaunts brought a 2-0 loss to Spain in 2013 towards the end of Trap's reign and, as Martin O'Neill tried to get to know his options in 2014 a 1-1 draw to Costa Rica, notable for a rare missed Robbie Keane penalty, followed by an absolute chasing by Portugal in a 5-1 defeat as both our opponents prepared for the Brazil World Cup and we prepared for another summer on the sidelines. Suffice to say, the only thing to benefit from these regular transatlantic trips seems to be the bank balance of the FAI as the US based diaspora make us an attractive draw for the third party companies who arrange these games. In football terms, any benefits have been negligible.

And so, on to last night's game which, it's fair to say, followed the pattern outlined above. It was clear from the unbalanced squad selection (two keepers, seven defenders, six midfielders and only two strikers) that the management didn't seem to be taking this seriously. Six centre halves making the cut but only one full back? Why not bring the likes of Matt Doherty who's been playing well at left back for Wolves, could do with being blooded and would have jumped at the chance to go? The team selection seemed to back this up with an experimental 3-5-2 formation seeing Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and John Egan line up as the back three in front of Darren Randolph with James McClean and Cyrus Christie providing support as wing backs. I can see the logic of those selections within that formation but the selections of two wingers, Daryl Horgan and Callum O'Dowda, in central midfield raised a few eyebrows as did seeing Conor Hourihane line up in the holding role given that he's more known as an attacking midfielder. Personally, I'd have preferred to see Wes Hoolahan start and someone like Eunan O'Kane, who actually plays centre midfield, tried rather than putting square pegs in round holes, but, if you're going to persist in doing so, then a meaningless game is the time to do it. Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick unsurprisingly completed the side as the only two strikers that traveled.

Funnily enough, we actually started the game quite well with Christie getting forward to great effect on the right wing and winning a number of dead balls. In fact, Ireland nearly went ahead four minutes in as a cleared corner was played into McGoldrick who crossed to see Murphy just fail to make contact.  It was immediately clear what the problem was. Despite us being on the front foot, the game was really open with Mexico creating chances either side of ours and our midfield had very little shape to close those spaces. Still, we kept pressing forward and won another corner but it was from that corner that our lack of shape in midfield was ruthlessly exposed. Mexico had been employing a tactic of leaving a number of players up the pitch to prevent us getting bodies up for corners. The corner was played short to Christie whose cross was easily headed clear. With our midfield completely missing in action, Hernandez broke unchallenged through the wide open spaces before passing out to Jesus Corona on the Mexican left. Despite still having plenty to do, he easily shrugged off any defensive attention to curl a great finish into the top corner. A Corona making our lads look like lemons, I guess. Fifteen minutes in and it already looked an uphill task.

Things went from bad to worse 8 minutes later as a simple ball over the top into the box left our defence totally exposed and ex-Arsenal striker Carlos Vela slowed his run enough to initiate contact on his back from McClean as he tried to make up ground. Stone-wall penalty with which Raul Jiminez sent Randolph the wrong way to double the Mexican advantage.  We looked absolutely ragged by now and spent the rest of the half desperately hanging on as Mexico cut us open with ease. The siege was finally lifted towards the end of the half as a goal-bound Hourihane effort was deflected wide, but as the half finished we were lucky to still be only two down.

Given how that half developed and how at sea we looked, I was expecting a few changes at half-time but with none forthcoming, the second half started in the same vein as the first and it was no surprise that we found ourselves three down within ten minutes. Again Mexico cut a swathe through the centre of the park, this time moving the ball out to the right to Oribe Peralta who had a free run at goal. Although Randolph did well to deny Peralta both initially and on the follow up, the ball squirted across to goal to Vela who had a tap in to make it 3-0.

Mexico quickly made a few subs but it was another ten minutes before we did the same with Wes Hoolahan, O'Kane and Kevin Long replacing Murphy, Hourihane and Egan. Another couple of subs followed on 73 minutes with Stephen Gleeson on for Horgan and Alan Browne replacing Christie.This eventually seemed to lead to us moving more towards a 4-5-1 with Richard Keogh moving to right back and McClean dropping into the left.  The changes paid off within a couple of minutes as a McClean foray forward led to a cross only being cleared as far as Gleeson who marked his fourth cap, over a decade after winning his first on a previous US tour, with a tidy finish.

Any hope that this might lead to a barnstorming comeback quickly dissipated as our basic passing remained poor and despite looking a little more comfortable in our shape with Hoolahan and O'Kane in the centre, a nice run and shot from O'Dowda and a good effort from McClean that were both comfortably saved was as good as it got. Mexico were still lively enough to keep Randolph busy and when the ref finally blew for full time, it was a relief that the margin of defeat hadn't been a lot higher.

So, was there anything at all that can be learned in the context of the vital upcoming qualifier at home to Austria on Sunday week? To be frank, I don't think so. It was clear that the players picked weren't comfortable with the 3-5-1 formation but I'd have to wonder how much work in training was actually done on it. I don't think there was ever a chance that we'd adopt that formation in a competitive game with anything riding on it and even if we did, I doubt that we'd be playing two wingers in the centre. It seemed to me that the formation was chosen to try and fit the players he'd brought into the team but playing so many square pegs in round holes seemed counter productive. More likely, this was a game that O'Neill could have done without and we should see a better indication of how we'll line up against Austria in the Uruguay friendly this Sunday.

In relation to the players, there aren't many that can be said to have come out with any credit. McClean put his usual shift in although the penalty is a black mark. Randolph kept the score respectable and Christie was probably our best player going forward. Other than that, none of the starters could be happy with their night. From the subs, O'Kane and Hoolahan at least seemed a bit more comfortable in the middle when they came on and Gleeson will be happy with his goal. Whether that formation would have worked better with O'Kane and Hoolahan in the centre is moot but it surely couldn't have been much worse. All in all, another American road trip to forget.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Pat's Get The Blues

St Patricks Athletic 2-0 Limerick FC

It may be a cliché but Limerick took advantage of the “new manager bounce” to pick up their first win since the opening day of the season in Willie Boland’s first game as interim manager following Martin Russell’s mid-week dismissal.  Pat’s, on the other hand saw their mini revival of recent weeks brought to a halt in an entertaining game at Richmond Park.

Both teams showed one change with Josh O’Hanlon coming in for injured striker Christy Fagan for Pats and David O’Connor making way for Chris Mulhall on the wing for Limerick. Pats began playing a very high press in the opposition half but it was eight minutes before a chance arrived with Josh O’Hanlon heading over a Kurtis Byrne cross. Limerick started playing themselves into the game after the first 15 minutes with Rodrigo Tosi using his strength to great effect.  First the big Brazilian laid off a great ball to Lee J Lynch who shot over on 18 minutes before another layoff to Chiedozie Ogbene who headed back to Shane Duggan to shoot over the bar the following minute.

The Blues’ pressure was rewarded seven minute later following a foul from Ian Bermingham on Mulhall. Duggan stepped up to whip a dangerous ball into the box which Tony Whitehead flicked beyond Conor O’Malley. The goal lifted Limerick’s tails further and Tosi nearly made it two on 30 minutes with an acrobatic effort from an Ogbene cut back pushed wide by O’Malley.

Pats finally came to life as half time approached when an Alex O’Hanlon corner found its way to Lee Desmond on the far post but Brendan Clarke somehow got down to save when a goal seemed certain. Another chance went begging from the resultant corner as the ball was lobbed back into the box only to bounce off the bar enabling Limerick to eventually clear.

Pats started the second half in the same vein and really should have levelled on 52 minutes. JJ Lunney beat 3 players but scuffed his shot into the path of Alex O’Hanlon who looked certain to score only to get his feet tangled up and fall over the ball. Still Pats came forward and finally looked to have got their reward as a penalty was awarded on 64 minutes. A bit of head tennis at the edge of the box fell to Kurtis Byrne whose shot was handled by Robbie Williams. Fresh from his goal of the season contender in last week’s win against Bohs, Conan Byrne stepped up to take it but Clarke got down brilliantly to parry with Bermingham then hitting the post from the resultant scramble. Pats were made to play for their missed chances late on as Limerick hit them on the break. Substitute John O’Flynn had already been denied by O’Malley on 80 minutes but made no mistake three minutes later when picked out with a ball over the top from Ogbene after a Pats corner, waiting for the keeper to commit before coolly slotting it home.  O’Flynn really should have made it three in stoppage time but O’Malley saved leaving Limerick happy to settle for a 2-0 victory.

St. Patrick’s Athletic: Conor O'Malley; Michael Barker, Ian Bermingham, Gavin Peers, Lee Desmond, Conan Byrne, Patrick Cregg, Kurtis Byrne, Alex O'Hanlon, Jonathan Lumney, Josh O’Hanlon (Aidan Keena 77)
Subs Not Used: Barry Murphy, Rory Feely, Billy Dennehy, Sam Verdon , Graham Kelly, Darragh Markey.
Yellow Cards:  Ian Bermingham, Gavin Peers

Limerick FC: Brendan Clarke; Shaun Kelly, Robbie Williams, Tony Whitehead , Tommy Robson, Shane Duggan, Paul O’Connor, Ian Turner, Chiedozie Ogbene, Lee J. Lynch, Rodrigo Tosi (John O’Flynn 73), Chris Mulhall (Dean Clarke 68)
Subs not used: Freddy Hall (gk), Stephen Kenny, Bastien Hery, David O’Connor, Ian Turner

Referee: Paul McLoughlin

Monday, 27 March 2017

Cymru Plaid Their Cards Wrong

Any disappointment in dropping two points at home last night is put into perspective by what was done to Seamus Coleman and my first thoughts on the game this morning were about that horrific injury rather than the game itself. Coleman is one of my favourite players in the squad, has been a superb captain since getting the armband and always comes across as a very sound, down to earth lad which makes what happened all the more galling. The fact that he may now miss the rest of the campaign is a blow but that's as bad an injury as I've witnessed live in all my years watching football and we can only wish him a full and speedy recovery.

After the total scarcity of tickets in the build up to the game, as usual a few spares started appearing on the eve of the game. As I'd had plenty of people onto me looking, this meant a break with tradition as I had to collect a few in Mulligans rather than going straight to the Beggars, meaning we didn't get across to Ballsbridge till an hour before kick off. As it happened most of the usual crew were in Mulligans anyway with the Brummies, The Quinn Towers, McCoy, Terry the Tash and various others dropping in over the afternoon. After collecting Frankie, Greg and Philly and sorting out the last of those short at the Beggars, we picked up the rest of our gang and made our way into the ground in plenty of time for the anthems. As it was a beautiful balmy spring evening and perfect conditions for football, the hope was that the game would match the weather. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be the case.

There were no surprises in the team when it came through and with James McCarthy fit it was the same eleven I'd have picked. However, as we got into the ground, word came round that McCarthy had felt his hamstring in the warm-up and was out with David Meyler coming in in his place. Although I can understand that with such a late change, a like-for-like replacement was required to keep disruption to the game plan at a minimum, given the doubts about McCarthy's fitness all week, picking him was a gamble. Knowing that he was struggling, I think Martin O'Neill should have gone for a bolder approach and worked on the basis that McGeady would play as the fifth midfielder further up the pitch, in the free role that Wes Hoolahan normally plays when selected. I've argued on this blog before that McGeady is worth trying in certain games in that position and he's been excellent playing the role for Preston this season, a move that had rejuvenated his career and his form. My gut feeling is that with all the injuries, O'Neill was taking a safety first approach and trying to ensure that we got a draw at worst. Still, the selection did mean that we at least had that option off the bench.

The atmosphere in the Singing Section was raucous as ever although I'm not so sure that the presence of a brass section really added anything to it. The game settled into a fairly dour affair reasonably quickly with little in the way of invention from either side and a few robust challenges from each team being the only things to get the crowd going. There was a very poignant moment on the 5th minute when a commemorative banner was unfurled and a minutes applause broke out as a tribute to Ryan McBride, the Derry City captain who tragically died at 27 earlier in the week. As James McClean was a close friend and former team-mate of McBride, he was wearing the number 5 in his own tribute and it seemed apt that he laid down a marker with a hard but fair tackle on Gareth Bale just before the applause began. McClean seemed to be channeling his emotions in the right manner but the game itself wasn't catching fire at all. Wales were certainly enjoying more possession but this was mainly in the middle third of the pitch with both sides having similar activity in each final third without either keeper really being tested.  A couple of set pieces for Ireland had come and gone without anything being created and it was about halfway through the half before the first piece of proper skill was seen with Bale playing a beautiful cross field pass that just skidded away from Neil Taylor after Coleman got caught out of position and played him onside. At the other end a one two between Jeff Hendrick and Shane Long also skidded away from Long as he moved in on goal but that was really as good as it got for either side in the first half. The half ended with Ashley Williams having words with Long after Long left his foot in a little longer than necessary and Glen Whelan going in on his club-mate Joe Allen with his arm somewhat high but both challenges were the sort of thing you see week in, week out in the Premier League. So nil all at half time and I imagine that O'Neill would have been happy with that.

The second half started in similar fashion to how the first finished with Meyler going into the book for challenging Aaron Ramsey with his arm raised. A second free for a handball by McClean minutes later was in Bale territory it didn't trouble Randolph. Another Bale shot minutes later flew past the post but as the half went on the excitement started to peter out again as containment seemed to be the order of the day. There was still a bit of niggle with Ramsey drawing blood from Whelan's head as Whelan stoo ped to reach a ball. Again, this was one of those things you see regularly and not the sort of challenge that I'd have an issue with. There didn't seem to be any chance of a game breaking out although Ireland were certainly having more possession than in the first half. A couple of Ireland set pieces came and went without stretching Hennessy in the Wales goal. Unfortunately, the next major action was what has dominated all the talk since and what has no place on a football pitch.

68 minutes were on the clock and Wales were pushing forward. Chris Gunter had pulled a ball back towards Bale but John O'Shea was clearly getting there first to clear it . Bale had plenty of time to pull out but instead launched himself miles over the ball with his studs showing straight into O'Shea's leg. It was as clear as red as you can get and I have no doubt that had it been any other player the ref would have shown one. I think that the fact it was one of the most high profile players in the world made the ref bottle it a bit and instead showed him a yellow. Had he been given his deserved red card then what happened next surely wouldn't have happened as the game would developed differently.

Once the game restarted, Randolph had launched the ball long and from a Long flick, Walters had tried to get a cross in that was blocked by Taylor. As the ball rebounded, Coleman was onto it in a flash and was running into a gap about thirty yards from goal. Taylor was clearly not going to get the ball and only he will know whether he panicked or just decided he was leaving his foot in. Either way, just like Bale a minute before it was a coward's challenge that was always potentially going to injure an opponent. When I was taught how to tackle as a kid, keeping your studs down was the first thing we were told. He was miles over the ball and had his foot at a 90 degree angle to Coleman's shin. There is no excuse for it. As soon as I saw it in the stands, I knew it was serious even before the ref branded the red card. While there had been some hefty challenges earlier in the game, Bale's and Taylor's were different. It's come out since that O'Shea needed stitches after Bale's and had the ref shown a red then what happened within the next minute wouldn't have happened in my opinion. I'm really disgusted by what transpired and Bale and Chris Coleman did themselves no favours with their response afterwards. To suggest that Bale wanted to appeal the booking is farcical and I don't even think that appealing bookings is possible. It seems to me that Chris Coleman wasn't happy with the robust challenges at the end of the first half and told his players to get stuck in a bit more. The fact that Wales seem to be suffering a bit of a Euro hangover caused them to get frustrated by their inability to break us down and they lost their heads. There's no excuse for those sort of challenges and as a man who's own career was ended by a bad leg break, a bit more class from Chris Coleman should have been expected.

Given the horrific nature of the injury, it was difficult to get back into the swing of the game. Cyrus Christie came on for Coleman but given that we were now playing ten men, I feel a double substitution should have taken place then with McGeady for Meyler being the obvious choice. With twenty minutes to go, it was time to go for the jugular but although we definitely started committing more men forward, it was still a bit laboured and it was ten minutes too late for me by the time McGeady was finally introduced on 80 minutes. Our best chance had actually come five minutes earlier when McClean had two bites of the cherry with a left foot shot rebounding back to him and his follow up shot with his right deflecting just wide off a Welsh defender. McGeady did get on the ball as soon as he came on and we finally saw a bit of creativity but despite almost incessant pressure in the Welsh area, it was Wales who actually came closest to stealing it in the last few minutes. After inexplicably escaping a second yellow for a high challenge on McClean moments earlier, Bale pounced on a loose ball from Richard Keogh and unleashed a thunderbolt from his left foot which thankfully swerved wide of the far post. Ireland ramped up the pressure again for the last few minutes but despite some nice trickery from McGeady and a few long throws from Christie, nothing of note was really created with a few scrappy balls cleared after bouncing around the six yard box as close as we came. So a draw at the finish and while most present would have accepted that before kick off the fact that we've most likely lost our captain for the rest of the campaign and couldn't take advantage of the extra man we had for twenty minutes meant that the atmosphere was fairly subdued leaving the ground.

Most of the discussion after the game focused on the bad challenges and that's as much a reflection of how bad they were as how poor the game was. That said, it was a disciplined performance from Ireland who stifled Bale, and Wales in general, which partly led to their frustration. I would have liked to have seen us take a few more chances, particularly when they went down to ten men and would have introduced McGeady immediately and then brought Daryl Horgan on for the last ten minutes. McGeady clearly caused problems when he came on and I feel that, give how successfully he's adapted to Championship football in England, Horgan could have caused similar trouble for their defence. A lot of our attacking play was long ball and set plays, which isn't unusual for us but there was a missed opportunity to mix things up. Still, the fact that the gap to Wales remains at 4 points is a positive and having gone five games unbeaten in the group with home fixtures against Austria and Serbia to come we are still in a good position.

We're definitely going to miss Coleman for his ability at full back and for his leadership qualities. I quite like Christie but he's clearly not in the same class and needs to get himself back into favour at club level. I'd have called up ex Bohs man, Matt Doherty from the standby list for this week's Iceland game to ease him into the squad as he's probably our best option after Christie and is playing well and regularly for Wolves, albeit at left back rather than his natural right side. O'Neill has decided against this but I think it's safe to assume that he'll be in the Summer squads as cover for Christie. Meyler has filled in there before but I'd sooner have a natural full back in that position.

With regard to Coleman's injury, it's the worst leg break I've seen an Irish player get since another superb full back, Jim Beglin, suffered his way back in 1987. Beglin was never the same player after he came back but recovery rates have improved in the last thirty years and while we've seen some players such as ex Arsenal man, Eduardo, struggle to come back, there have also been others like Celtic legend, Henrik Larsson, who came back as good as ever. We can only wish Seamus all the best in his recovery and hope that he's more like the latter than the former. Interestingly, the game on Friday was reminscent of the staid nil all draws with Scotland and Belgium in the campaign when Beglin got injred but bythe end of that campaign we'd topped a group for the only time in our history. A repeat of that outcome and a trip to the World Cup in Russia would certainly give Seamus a nice target to come back to. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Wien-ner Alright!

Family commitments in the shape of a wedding meant I had to sit this trip out and that I only got to see about 20 minutes of each half live.  And indeed, other personal commitments have meant that it was six days after what turned out to be our best away win in almost thirty years, before I got the time to sit down and watch the game in full.  It's never the same trying to analyse a match when you know the result before actually seeing how the game developed and when you've read numerous reports and listened to plenty of analysis as well but in the spirit of this blog, I'll try to judge it on it's merits as I saw it.

I'd had a text from a friend confirming the team an hour before kick-off and my first thoughts were that this was as strong a team as we could field given the significant injury list we were suffering.  It was good to see Harry Arter get his first competitive start and finally put to bed that ludicrous story, generated by Paul Merson and Jeff Stelling's lack of knowledge and jumped on by the permanently outraged bottom feeders that social media has given a public voice to, that Arter was considering switching allegiance to England.  I doubt the majority of those abusing him were even aware of his caps at Under 17 and Under 19 level and Arter's decision to ignore the story rather than giving it credence by commenting on it was the correct one.  Those journalists that did pick up on it, in the wake of the social media storm to the extent that Martin O'Neill was actually asked about it after the Georgia game last month, should give their heads a shake and realise that the echo chamber of twitter cannot be considered any sort of  reliable source.  Arter's ability rather than any worry about him jumping ship was why I was happy to see him start and with Wes Hoolahan also on the pitch, the team looked to have that bit of creativity that was missing from the Serbia game. The much improved Stephen Ward's absence meant that Robbie Brady was pushed to left back but at least his set-piece delivery was still available. The rest of the team pretty much picked itself, with the lack of available numbers up front meaning that Jon Walters was the only real option to play there meaning Jeff Hendrick would cover right midfield and the in-form James McClean would offer support from the left after being passed fit.  And while I was delighted to see League of Ireland stalwart, Daryl Horgan, make the match day squad, I agreed with the manager's decision not to throw him straight in for his debut in such a vital game. With Austria struggling for form since their disastrous European Championships, this looked a team that was set up to have a go at them.

However, despite the positive set up, it must be said that there wasn't much positivity on display in the initial twenty minutes of the match which I saw live before being called in for the wedding meal!  Austria certainly started on the front foot and we had to defend a series of corners and free kicks before creating our first opening around 15 minutes in with a McClean snapshot from a loose ball deflecting just wide.  Still, that was the only real opening we'd created by the time I took my leave but watching the game back, it was from here that we started to play ourselves a bit more into things. In fairness, despite the initial Austrian pressure, we'd looked comfortable in defence and Randolph had dealt with anything that came his way.  Our first corner had resulted in a bit of a scramble in their defence as Shane Duffy flung himself at the ball and the fact that we had dealt with their initial spell quite comfortably seemed to have impacted on their confidence levels which had remained low since the Euros. 

The next moment of note was one that would end up having a significant impact on the game as Glen Whelan pulled up holding his thigh with no-one near him, resulting in David Myler coming in from the bench.  The substitution didn't change things initially, as the half continued in a very stop/start manner with a lot of niggly fouls committed by both sides.  There were occasional chances with one of those fouls resulting in a Brady free which Duffy headed wide and Coleman getting a superb block on an Arnautovic shot, but it was only in the last five minutes of the half that things really opened up and the deadlock should have been broken.  First, Sabitzer was played in by Arnautovic and clipped a lovely chip over Randolph which came back off the angle of the far post and crossbar before Clark got a great block onto Janko's follow up.  It was a big let-off for us and a few minutes later we really should have rubbed salt in the wound when some nice interplay between Hoolahan and Brady resulted in a Brady cross that Walters should have buried from six yards out.  Unfortunately, he managed to get slightly under the ball and put the chance over, grazing the bar on it's way. A booking for Duffy, the first of the match, finished off the half and I've no doubt that O'Neill would have been happy going in all square.

 Looking back at the second half, Austria again seemed to start on the front foot but we seemed to have figured them out to a degree, so rather than sitting as deep as we had early in the first half we looked to have pushed a bit further up in the opening couple of minutes.  Hoolahan had been a little slack in possession on a number of occasions in the first half but was still trying to make things happen and had already tried to play Walters in with a lovely back heel just before his most influential moment of the game.  Play had moved back down towards our end where Austria's Tottenham defender Wimmer was contesting possession with Meyler. Although Meyler's hand came across Wimmer in the tussle, the contact was completely minimal and was the sort of thing that happens dozens of time in any game.  Inexplicably, Wimmer decided that there was enough in it to go down and then to compound that error, started moaning at the ref when Meyler took possession rather than making an attempt to win the ball back.  Meyler didn't need a second invitation to play on and used the space to drive forward before picking Hoolahan out in the centre circle.  Although I've since seen a lot of praise for all parts of the move, I think that the initial pass still left Hoolahan with a lot to do as it was actually just behind him and meant that he had to check his run. Paradoxically, this actually worked out for the best as the extra couple of seconds he needed to spin and gather the ball gave McClean the chance to charge a few yards further forward.  Hoolahan spotted this and his pass was absolutely perfectly weighted so that McClean didn't have to break his stride to get the ball onto his feet.  Walters made a great run into the box, dragging two of their defenders with him, which gave McClean a little bit of extra space and time to pick his spot and bury the ball home through the keeper's legs! 1-0 Ireland: just as I was getting my dessert! Word came in a minute later that we'd gone ahead so, needless to say, I had that weird feeling of delight that we were ahead coupled with being sickened that I hadn't even seen it on telly, let alone in the flesh! 

McClean as a whistle!

A few of us nipped out at that stage to catch the next 15 minutes of the game before the speeches and I was up and celebrating a couple of minutes later as Walters headed home a Brady free, only for it to be correctly called offside.  Still, as was the case against Moldova, it was positive that we had kept pushing on after scoring rather than sitting back, as has been our habit more often than not for countless campaigns.  Austria's already brittle confidence had taken another nosedive since the goal and another couple of chances went begging for us not long after with McClean hitting the side netting and Clark having a header from a corner cleared off the line.  At the other end, we seemed to be well able to keep the opposition at arms length with the only blip being a silly booking for Brady on 70 minutes for kicking the ball away which means he'll be suspended when the group resumes at home to Wales next March.  Having also been booked in a tussle with Arter a few minutes earlier, Baumgartlinger was lucky to stay on the pitch following what was, arguably, a worse challenge on Hoolahan.  Both managers were ringing the changes now but those changes were having little effect on the pattern of the game, although McGoldrick coming on for Hoolahan with thirteen minutes left indicated to me that we might start looking for a more direct outlet. That said, it wasn't as if we started to park the bus, McClean was still causing problems on the left until he was finally withdrawn with six minutes left to be replaced by McGeady.  It had been a superb effort from McClean considering he needed an epidural earlier in the week to enable him to play.  Naturally enough, the last few minutes we were concentrating more on defence and we did give up a couple of chances. Luckily, both fell to Janko, who'd been having a nightmare, and he really should have taken at least one of them.  First, he managed to shake off the impressive Coleman to get a free far-post header which he put harmlessly wide. Then, deep into stoppage time and just when we seemed to have weathered the mini-storm, Hendrick was dispossessed deep in Austrian territory and they broke the length of the pitch through Arnautovich.  He played in Alaba (who'd also had a nightmare) and his cross was mishit by Baumgartlinger straight to Janko about five yards out.  It looked like all he'd have to do was volley it home but for some reason he ducked down to head it and put it a yard or so wide!  All that was left was a final kick out from Randolph and the ref blew up for full-time. Our first away win against a higher ranked side for 29 years and our first against Austria since 1963! The fact that I missed it has me wondering if I was the Jonah all along!  Needless to say, the various updates on Facebook and texts on WhatsApp groups from mates at the game brought on more than a few pangs of jealousy but there'll be other games.  I just hope it's not another 29 years before another!

Way back Wien!
Looking at the game as a whole, it's clear that Austria are in real crisis.  Their big players were totally out of sorts, with Alaba, so often their talisman, looking a shadow of the player that tormented us home and away in the last World Cup campaign.  I literally lost count of the number of misplaced passes and mishit shots he had.  But we've faced sides that were out-of-sorts in the past on our travels and generally achieved draws at best, so credit has to be given to Martin O'Neill for the results this team have got over the last thirteen months.  We've now beaten 4 higher ranked teams in that period (Germany, Bosnia, Italy and Austria), had a successful Euros and broken our away hoodoo.  In recent games where we haven't played well, such as against Serbia and Georgia, we've hung in there and scraped out results.  We've also proved that we can bounce back from disappointing results, such as the Poland and Belgium defeats and picked up wins meaning it's been a long time since we've had two poor results in a row. Seamus Coleman has proved a very astute choice as captain and has really grown into the role. James McClean has been superb since becoming first choice and is fast turning into this campaign's Jon Walters.  For me, he has to be favourite for player of the year, despite a good claim from Robbie Brady.  And as I've mentioned before, the fact that the team seem to be able to cope with significant injury lists and not be too adversely affected by them shows that the squad in it's entirety has bought into the managers methods, personnel can slot in and be effective.  On a couple of occasions now, such as against Italy in the Euros, injuries have actually resulted in us nearly stumbling across our best team and it's possible that the injuries to James McCarthy and Glen Whelan before and during this game may well usher in a new central midfield combination with Arter doing well, if not outstandingly, and Meyler doing his chances no harm.  I think that an Arter/McCarthy combination may well be what we see v. Wales, given that Brady's suspension means that Hendrick can play on the right again, but McCarthy's place may well be in doubt in future and, while he still has a part to play, Whelan's long stint as a regular has essentially been over since the Euros with his starts since then having been to cover injuries and suspensions.

There's still a long way to go in the group and I predict plenty of twists and turns to come considering the fact that there's no traditional power in the group and there's not much between the top four seeds, as backed up with the Wales and Serbia draw.  Even though Austria are in trouble, remember that we looked in a similar position halfway through the last campaign and were able to turn things around.  Although there is no third place get-out-of-jail card for them to fall back on, the fact that there's no Germany or similar nailed on to top the group negates that to some degree. But for us to be sitting on top of the group with 10 points from 12, having only played once at home is beyond most expectations and puts us in a great position to kick on in the new year. The Euro '88 qualifiers remain the only time we've topped a qualifying group in our history.  It was a 1-0 away win against Scotland that kicked that campaign into life and we've now emulated that result with this win.  Hopefully we can go on and also emulate the final table without having to rely on a Gary Mackay to get us there! 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

They Think It's Moldova!

A home international on the Thursday and the Dublin derby on the Friday weren't exactly ideal preparation for the 7 hour trek to Moldova on Saturday morning, but the back to back 1-0 victories had the mind in good spirits even if the body was beginning to creak. The fact that the direct flight left at half past midnight on Friday meant it wasn't a runner so a Stansted stopover was required. As online check-in wasn't available on Air Moldova flights from London, it was a tight enough squeeze from landing at 13.15 and checking in by 13.40 but luckily there were no delays and a quick dash from arrivals to departures left me at the check-in desk with 20 minutes to spare. Brummie Bren was waiting in the departure lounge having bussed it down from Birmingham that morning and we'd enough time for a swiftie in amongst a good contingent of Ireland support taking the same route before heading to the gate. Our numbers were swelled by the RTE commentary team and an uneventful 3 hour flight was livened up by a quick chat with Ray Houghton as we came in to land. My first Ireland away game was at Giants Stadium for that famous win v Italy in 1994 so it was nice to have a reminisce about the game with the man who scored the winner that day!

The word from Moldova was that foreign bank cards didn't work in a lot of the ATM's over there so it was straight to the bureau de change in arrivals when we landed. As Moldova is ranked as the poorest nation in Europe with an average annual salary of approximately €2,800 or 61,000 Lei, I assume that any opportunity to get foreign currency in is taken hence the proliferation of bureau de changes. Once we'd sorted ourselves with cash it was over to the taxi desk to get in the queue to grab a cab to the hotel. And it was here that it became clear that this wasn't going to be your average away trip!

We'd got chatting to another lad from YBIG, Corkery, on the flight and ended up asking if he wanted to share a cab with us as his hotel was close to ours. Having got to the top of the queue, some lad with a clipboard took our hotel address, went outside and came back to bring us out past the cabs to some random skinhead dude who had no meter or taxi sign. Bren and Corkery got in the back leaving me to get into the front. Straight away the driver bangs on the stereo full blast and puts this cheesy Moldovan rave tune and puts the hammer down! He's weaving in and out of lanes of traffic roaring abuse at other drivers as this MC roars out Welcome to Moldova and various other unintelligible raps in Romanian, it was absolutely comical stuff! He then starts talking to me in Romanian, I think, and seemed to be asking me do I speak any other languages as he lists off that he speaks Russian, Romanian, Polish and Turkish! Asked him did he speak Irish for the laugh but he hadn't a word of English so that went right over his head but I think he was berating me for not having a selection of Eastern European languages! Of course he didn't seem to have a clue where he was going but managed to find the road we were looking for before missing the turn and having to take another lap around the back streets and then finally found the hotel. We got out and were going to give him 150 or 200 Lei but we couldn't see what notes we were giving him because most of the residential streets over there don't seem to have street lights. We ended up handing him a 20 Lei note by mistake and I thought he was gonna swing for us but one of the lads handed him a 200 Lei note and it was all smiles and laughter again before he headed off and took Corkery round the corner to his place. It was some taxi ride though and set the tone! 

 Welcome to Moldova!!

Having checked into the hotel and freshened up, we got word from a few of the other lads that they were heading down to a place called the Beer House so on checking Google Maps, we said we'd walk the 20 minutes journey to get our bearings. Only problem with that was the lack of street lights which meant we were stumbling through pitch dark streets. Add in the fact that it had been lashing all day, the majority of pavements are half finished and full of potholes where they're not mud tracks and you can imagine how difficult that was! We both nearly went flying at least 3 times on the paths and then I had the pleasure of stepping straight into a 6 inch deep pothole full of water! Having spotted the Beer House across the road we saw an underpass to get to it but again it was totally unlit and we both said no fucking way are we going down there! The alternative of taking our chances through gaps in the traffic definitely seemed the safer option!

On entering the Beer House, we were greeted by a huge crowd of Irish fans with the Amsterdam lads, the London/Birmingham lads and various others that I hadn't seen since France already in situ. There was plenty of representation from across Ireland as well with lads from Dublin, Cork, Donegal and the Cliftonville crew from Belfast dotted around the bar. Northmen, Southmen, comrades all!

Before long everyone was catching up on what people had been at since France, especially those of us who hadn't managed to make Belgrade in September. Steve Amsterdam and his group had arrived the previous day and had taken a day trip up to the self-proclaimed independent territory of Transnistria that afternoon which I was gutted to have missed so I was keen to hear about that. When the USSR had disintegrated back in 1990 and Moldova was moving towards independence, an area with a significant ethnic Russian and Ukranian population on the Moldova/Ukraine border broke away and declared itself the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic of Transnistria. Although it hasn't been recognised by the United Nations, so is still technically considered part of Moldova, a four month war in 1992 resulted in a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone on the de facto border. Despite only being recognised by three other similar "frozen-conflict" states, it has put in place it's own government, parliament, military, flag, currency etc. and, with a heavy Russian peace-keeping presence, exists in this de facto independent state. The rumours are that the economy of this soviet style state depends on smuggling and gun running! I'm always interested in seeing unusual new places but time wasn't to allow it and although the lads had visited on a day when it had lashed out of the heavens for the duration of their trip, I was still jealous as they showed me the plastic plectrum like coins used over there and told me of their encounters with the locals.

Here we go again!

After a few beers and a pizza, the tiredness from the journey was forgotten and following a few songs, the Beer House closed up around 2 and we made our way to a 24 hours bar aptly named Jack's around the corner where a good crowd of YBIGers were mingling with the locals so that gave another chance to catch up with a few more heads from home. The 24 hour licence meant the place was still in full swing as the clock ticked past 4.30 but with a walking tour of the city arranged for noon the next day, I took the sensible course of action and the few of us that were in the same hotel left the younger crowd to it and jumped a cab back to get some well needed rest.

 Subway Art

The sun streaming into the room had woken me only a few hours after getting to sleep but it was still an effort to get myself out of bed at 11:30 and move towards the same area we'd been in the previous night where the group for the walking tour were meeting. As the effort of getting up was beyond Bren, I had to retrace the route alone although this was a far easier proposition in daylight! About 50 of us had signed up for the tour so the local tour company had arranged for 3 guides to split us into groups. Our guide first took us through the underpass which was a little less threatening in daytime and actually had some really cool graffiti all the way through it. It still looked like it could be dodgy as hell at night though! A quick couple of stops up the road on a bus that looked like it was straight from the 50's and we were in the historical parliament area of Chisinau where there definitely seemed to be a bit more money around with plenty of monuments and nice architecture. Our guide took us around the civil service and parliament buildings, their Arc of Triumph, the city's Orthodox Cathedral and various museums taking us through a very nice park and down to a lovely boulevard by the River Bac while telling us the history of the city and country. The country itself has been regularly occupied throughout history, first by Crimea, then being part of the Ottoman Empire from the 1500's to the 1800's (bar a spell when it was united with other Romanian principalities and then as part of the Polish/Lithuanian commonwealth in the early 1600's) before finally succumbing to the Russian Empire who had already annexed half the territory during one of the many Russian-Turkish wars. The various influences can be seen in the multi-lingual ability of most of the people we met who spoke Romanian (or the Moldovan dialect to be precise), Russian, Turkish and Polish in addition to the bit of English many had. Having spent an enjoyable 3 hours wandering, we finished up close to the Old Bus bar where some of the lads who had been at the fans match on Friday had spent the previous night so we arranged to meet the rest of the gang there. Having met Corkery on the tour, the pair of us agreed that 3pm was a respectable enough time to begin the pre-match festivities once we'd got a bit of food in.

City Sights

By the time we'd ordered food, most of the other lads started to arrive so having treated ourselves to the most expensive item on the menu (a gorgeous steak that cost all of €7), we managed to get a table that sat about 15 of us. By the time the Quinn Towers produced a bottle of Jaeger the songs were flowing quicker than the drinks and the word that Georgia had managed a draw v. Wales in Cardiff had notched the mood up another bit! The 2 hour time difference meant that the local kick off time was a fairly late 9:45 so around 8 we started to gather people together to head up to the ground. Flagging taxis was proving problematic however, but the fact that locals seemed to be happy to stop and give you a lift for a few quid was mitigating that difficulty somewhat! And so it was that 3 of us ended up in the back of a car with 2 local students in the front having a good old waffle about the city en route to the stadium! The team had been revealed at that stage with no real surprises as Glenn Whelan came in for the suspended Jeff Hendrick and much to the relief of everyone who thought he should have had a run in the last 2 games, Wes Hoolahan replaced the concussed Robbie Brady. No complaints from me given how short we were in midfield.

Zimbru Stadium complete with extra tiers!

The area around the Zimbru Stadium was thronged with Irish fans but the talk we'd heard of a boycott by local fans due to ticket prices seemed to be accurate as there were very few around. While €5 a ticket seemed a bargain to us, given the average wage over there it was a lot to ask and the locals had voted with their feet. Although, it has to be said, there was a good clatter of them watching from the balconies of the block of flats that overlooked the pitch! The stadium itself looked nice for a compact 10,000 seater and was the sort of ground that I'd love to see built for the League of Ireland over here. Most of the Irish tickets had been sold for behind one of the goals and the numbers meant a bit of a delay getting in. We were just getting into the stand as the game kicked off. I had made my way down to the fence behind the goal to try and hang my flag and was arguing the toss with an over-zealous policeman who wouldn't let me use the last space on the fence while keeping one eye on the game when I spotted Hoolahan playing an inch perfect ball to Shane Long who ran onto it and ended his recent goal drought with a tidy finish! One-nil before two minutes had passed! And while I've written before about how we can retreat into our shell when we take an early lead, surely against the likes of Moldova this wouldn't be the case?

1-0 to the Boys In Green!!

At this stage it was pretty clear that I wasn't going to win my argument with the local police who were intent on watching the game through the gap between the flags on the fence rather than facing the fans as they were there to do, so I headed back up to the stand. Having lost Bren on the way in, I was glad to bump into Borussia, another of the YBIG faithful, so stopped there to watch the first half with him. Within another couple of minutes, we could have been two up as a James McClean cross nearly found Long and it was clear that we had really approached the game in the correct manner. We kept the pressure on without really threatening their goal with Coleman and Ward getting forward well. Hoolahan was still pulling strings and teed Whelan up on the 30 minute mark but his effort, once again, caused no problem for the keeper. The next involvement from Hoolahan saw him find Long with a pass, only for the Moldovan player Armas to injure himself scything Long down and end up being stretchered off on 36 minutes. The break in the game seemed to impact on our momentum a bit and Moldova had a little more possession coming up to the break giving them a couple of attempts and a corner but as the clock ticked down we seemed to have weathered that little spell without any drama. In fact, we were finishing the half down their end with Hoolahan again setting up McClean who shot just wide and even having given them possession entering stoppage time, the Moldovan keeper booted the ball straight into touch so it seemed that we'd go in at half-time comfortable at 1-0. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be the case.

I like Shane Duffy as a player, he's brave, strong and fairly uncompromising. However, if he is to become a dependable first choice then his positional sense is really going to have to be worked on.  The fact that his club manager, Chris Hughton at Brighton, was such a cultured defender for Ireland, albeit at full back, can hopefully help with that.  After all, it took Richard Dunne time to  grow into the great player he was for Ireland and Duffy has time on his side.  But he was caught out of position badly for France's winner that knocked us out in the summer and again, when the game was effectively finished as a contest, as he lost Griezmann and had to haul him down.  He was badly caught here as Hoolahan initially won the ball only to be dispossessed and it was pumped over the top by Gatcan. Had Duffy not pushed up over the halfway line then he could easily have dealt with it but he was caught under the ball and Bugeav raced clear and coolly finished past Randolph. It was a really poor goal to give away and eminently preventable. Within a few seconds of us kicking off again, the ref blew for half time and suddenly the second half looked a bit more daunting than it should have been.


We'd found the rest of the lads by the time Moldova got us underway for the second half and it was clear that the goal had given our hosts a huge lift. The first 10 minutes of the half was their best spell of the game as they forced Randolph into a couple of saves and shaky moments. However, as the game moved towards the hour mark, I felt that we started to regain control and do the right things again. Half chances fell to Hoolahan and McClean but we had a blow on 62 minutes when Long seemed to tweak the same hamstring that had caused him to go off late against Georgia and with the lack of strikers on the bench, Callum O'Dowda was brought on for his competitive debut with Walters moving into the central position. At this stage some of our support around me were beginning to get a bit nervy although, unusually for me who's normally convinced things are sure to go wrong, I was actually beginning to feel a bit confident about how we were playing. O'Dowda got involved straight away and dropped a cross onto McClean's head, but the header was weak when it should have been headed back across the box. At this stage, Borussia beside me admitted that he was getting worried but whatever out of character, zen-like state had engulfed me, I just said "Relax, the goal is coming". And sure enough, two minutes later, it did!

There was an element of luck about the goal when it came, although credit has to go to Walters for his part in it. James McCarthy had got the ball on the edge of the box but had totally snatched at his shot. The ball ended up at the feet of Walters with his back to goal who killed it with a touch and looked like he was going to try and swivel and shoot until he saw McClean in a better position facing the goal. Walters simply stepped back and McClean stroked the ball into the corner to put us back in front. Cue an outpouring of relief behind the goal! Now it was just down to how we could close out the game.

As with the goal in the first half, I was glad to see that we didn't sit back and instead kept the pressure on. Moldova looked to be tiring and we created another chance straight away as Duffy headed a Hoolahan free wide. As it turned out, we didn't have to wait too long before the game was put out of Moldova's reach and when it came, it was another well worked goal with Hoolahan at it's heart.  Coleman had played a throw-in to Hoolahan who then nutmegged a defender before sliding a lovely ball through to Coleman who'd gone beyond him on the overlap. Coleman surged into the box and spotted McClean, who made no mistake on the volley as his captain picked him out. 3-1 and that was that! I was delighted for McClean, who I feel was our best player over the course of the double-header and although his quality can sometimes be hit and miss, his application, effort and desire to give everything to the cause is really admirable.  His performances, along with how Coleman has grown into the captain's role, were the big plus points of the two games for me.

McCleaning up! 

The rest of the game was more notable for the way that the Moldovans seemed to forget about playing the ball and very cynically started playing the man as soon as they went 3-1 down. There were some really bad challenges which resulted in things nearly boiling over a couple of times. A particularly bad kick into Walters' chest resulted in an angry reaction from him which the ref then punished with a yellow card for Walters. His reaction was totally understandable and it'll be very harsh if he misses a big qualifier as a result of picking up another one. Just before that a couple of late subs had seen Myler and O'Kane come in for McCarthy and Hoolahan and the fresh legs ensured we closed the game out comfortably to add another 3 points to those garnered against Georgia leaving us in a strong position with 7 points from our first 3 games.

Points in the bank!
Getting back to town proved to be a bit more straightforward than getting out as Steve had had the wherewithal to ask the cabbie who'd dropped him out to pick them up after the game and as they'd a spare seat on board I jumped with them as we headed back to the Old Bus Bar for a last few beers and songs. By the time the rest of the gang had arrived, we'd got the bars laptop hooked up to the stereo and had all the classics playing, from Put 'Em Under Pressure to Joxer, with everything from A to Z in between. By the time the shutters came down it was 3am and with a 12:30 flight the next afternoon and an 8 hour journey home, bed was the only real option.

Although this game was against the second lowest ranked team in the group, and indeed there is a case to be made that Georgia are actually a stronger team, there's no question that this was the best performance of the group so far. It was also a performance that was needed, coming off the back of two poor performances, albeit that 4 points were taken from those two games, with a tough away game to Austria coming up in November. Most fans would have taken 7 points from the first three games at the start, and the results that Serbia and Georgia have picked up since we played them put our results against them in a very positive light regardless of the performances. The fact that we're able to pick up results when not at our best reflects well on the management and long may it continue. But the key now is to try to bring the level of performance we displayed in Chisinau to the stronger opposition we'll face in Vienna. If we can do this and avoid defeat over there,  
remaining unbeaten with three of our away games out of the way, this would leave us in a great position facing into the Winter break. The fear is that if we go there looking for the draw, we can be hurt by the world class talent they have in Alaba and the quality they have in Amautovic if we're not on our game. Having dropped points to Wales and been beaten by Serbia, Austria really need the win so should be well up for it. 

On the flipside, if we can manage to get a win over there, we would be 6 points ahead of Austria and would essentially take them out of the qualification equation. In a group like this one with very little between the top four seeds, the chance to reduce the number of challengers to three at this early stage must be tempting. To maximise that chance, we have to play Hoolahan and given that there's only one qualifier in the next international window, the excuse that he doesn't have two games in four days in his legs won't hold water. And while he can sometimes lose possession and even totally miss the ball with an attempted shot, no one else in the squad could have played the sort of ball that sent Long through or the nutmeg that set Coleman up for the cross for McClean's second.  Having not started any of the away games against the other top 4 seeds in the last campaign, I'm thinking that he'll probably be left on the bench and that a credible draw will be the most likely outcome but who knows, maybe I'll be surprised?  Here's hoping!