Glass should be a little bit more full


 LockerRoom: Back when I was young and nubile there was a joke which we'd all gather around and laugh at in the gloomy evenings when the television closed down. The teller of the joke would affect the accent of Phillip Green, the noted wireless commentator, and in tones of increasing excitement he would provide the details of a notional attack by the Irish soccer team. Generally it went like this:

"Giles. Nicely outside to Brady. Brady finds Highway. Cuts inside. Back to Brady. To Giles. Giles forward to Givens who knocks it back into the path of Giles who has Stapleton making the run to his right, he lays it outside . . . Stapleton! Stapleton is through, Stapleton must score! Ooooh! Safely back to Giles. To Brady . . ."

And so on. With each sentence we'd look at each other grinning. Heh. Heh. The excitement would be building. Waiting for the crescendo. Stapleton must score! And then safely back to Giles. When we'd picked ourselves up off the floor and dusted ourselves down we'd nod at each other and say that, hey, it might be a joke but there was a lot of truth in it. A simpler time.

On Saturday night, with about 10 minutes left in Tel Aviv, the Irish broke away on a counterattack. Steve Finnan got a sweet first contact and went haring down the right. Clinton Morrison and Duffer were charging up the centre. Robbie Keane was steaming towards the far post waving his arm like a man desperately trying to hail a taxi.

And then Steve stopped. He put his foot on the ball. He dawdled until such time as Steve Carr arrived. There was a series of short, lateral passes until the ball went out of play on the other side of the pitch. We turned to each other and said, "Phew, if Finnan hadn't stopped there, we were in danger of having an attack."

Not long afterwards the Israelis finished with their huffing and puffing and blew our house down (pardon the non-kosher allusion to the little piggies, we're still a little discombobulated). The ball plinked around our penalty area for a few moments too long (again), and finally Abbas Souan swept a lovely daisycutter into the corner of our net.

Jesus wept. So did all the other deities who vie for the rostrum in that locality.

It felt like a good, hard kick in the gut, and if we were to be frank we deserved to be crumpled like that. After Morrison had scored that wonder goal while people were still taking their seats, we shelved our ambition. We strung passes together in nice necklaces across the middle of the pitch and occasionally we gave the ball away stupidly, but we never did what we are good at, which is hassling and hustling and going about the job with passion as well as control.

We played well in what was an anaemic impression of a Continental side, but if you are going to do that you have to make sure you don't get caught.

The signs were there. We were sitting on Clinton's goal like a miser on money and already thinking about what a hot time we'd be having in the old town tonight when Idan Tal slammed a free at our goal. From the press box you could just see the ball swerving and dancing, a sea of net waiting to welcome the ball, and at the last possible second Shay Given, like Elastaman, getting his fingers to it. That'll teach us, we said.

It didn't. And at half-time veterans of late goals in Macedonia, Croatia and Iran shook their heads over their free coffee and noted there is something in the national character when it comes to giving away late goals.

Funny thing is, by the time Israel had spurned two beautiful invitations to score in the second half we began to think that perhaps we were going to be a bit jammy and get away with the whole pot.

In the end, we came away with the rueful feeling that what had just been done unto us was that which we had so often done unto others. Brian had thrown a few shapes during the week hinting here and there that he might spring a surprise in the line-up, that one or two people had been impressing him greatly in training and so on. The team which stood for the anthem, though, was pretty much the one which all KerrWatchers had assumed he would go with.

It was Avraham Grant who pulled the surprise, going for a few big, muscular guys to hustle us and bustle us. So we bashed off them all evening and played the ball in front of them a lot of the time and watched Robbie Keane come deeper and deeper and we never made a second incision. The Israelis took the heat generated by the crowd and surged at us.

There are two ways of looking at the result, though, and Kerr will be forgiven if he chooses to see the glass as half-full. On one hand, it was a game we could have and should have won. It was two points lost. On the other hand, and possibly in the end the only hand that matters, we have gone to the houses of our three fiercest rivals and taken a draw at each stop. We have done no serious entertaining yet.

Brian said afterwards on Saturday that nobody really knew how many points it would take to qualify. Of course, this wasn't precisely true, and that much was confirmed for us when in the next breath he went into a long and Jesuitical explanation of how the manner in which Ireland's nine points had been seized was textbook as it involved inflicting wounds on all enemies.

Right now Brian is figuring that taking four points each off Switzerland, France and Israel and six points each off Cyprus and The Faroes would give us 24 out of a possible 30. That's a best case scenario. What we have lost, though, by not taking all three points in Tel Aviv is a little wriggle room, a small space in which to make a mistake.

It hurts to have given away leads in two of our most important away games, but if you look at the table and then close your eyes and pretend that we scored second in Basel and Tel Aviv there's plenty of room for optimism.

The French have dropped six home points. It will be a surprise, though, if they don't beat a depleted Israeli side in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, giving them the standard four points which the bigger sides expect to take off the Israelis. (We and the Swiss are eminently capable of beating the Israelis at home. Assuming we all take six points off the other two minnows, everyone has 16 points before the real league begins.)

In that context, the French, Swiss and Irish hopes of qualification come down to three games in the autumn. Ireland and France in September at Lansdowne. Switzerland v France in Basel in October. Ireland v Switzerland in Lansdowne in October.

There's lots of permutations there with each side slugging it out for a maximum of six points. With Ireland playing at Lansdowne twice, though, it's hard to imagine fewer than four points coming our way. If we get four points then nobody gets six, irrespective of what goes down in Basel between the Swiss and the French.

We'll be there in the shake-up. Half-way through the qualification programme that's as much as you could have hoped to say. We have better football in us, too. That's the salvage from a disappointing weekend.