Ken Early: Maybe Ireland would feel more at home in League C of the Nations League

Watching the Ukrainian players celebrate with their fans it was hard to feel too bad about the outcome

Is it time to admit that Nations League B is just a bit above our pay grade? Stephen Kenny started this campaign talking about wanting to win the league, but already after two games Ireland’s campaign is all about avoiding the ignominy of relegation to League C, which we have narrowly avoided twice, once on an administrative technicality. When you look at some of the teams down there − old friends like Georgia, Estonia, North Macedonia … you wonder if maybe we’d feel more at home.

Ukraine became the 12th successive opponents not to lose to Ireland in this competition after making 10 changes from their Sunday evening playoff against Wales, with Everton’s Vitaliy Mykolenko the only player to start both matches. But Ireland had known it was never going to be easy against their reserves.

Ukraine were coming from losing a World Cup playoff to a June Nations League game at the Aviva. In normal circumstances you would expect a team to be weighed down by the sheer anti-climax. Ukraine’s situation is not normal. The country has been invaded. This was the Irish men’s team’s first match against Ukraine. The return fixture next week in Łodz will be the second, and if the Russian president had his way, it would be the last. There is no place in the Russkiy Mir for a Ukrainian national football team.

For now it looks as though Russia is not strong enough to achieve those maximalist ambitions; these players will have a national team to play for for the foreseeable future. These Ukrainian players don’t need to be reminded that they have the privilege of representing their country as international sportsmen when so many of their generation are back home fighting the Russians. In such circumstances the Nations League, so unpopular with many of the top players, no longer seems like a chore but a gift.


The FAI had donated 2,000 tickets to the Ukrainian community in Ireland and a healthy Ukrainian crowd mainly consisting of children cheered on their team in a higher pitch than you usually hear from the away section. Hundreds of blue and yellow flags fluttered around the Aviva crowd for the Ukrainian anthem in a show of solidarity with the visitors.

And then the game. Chiedozie Ogbene had suggested in Armenia that Ireland had been complacent in possession, content to pass the ball without the speed and urgency required to pull apart the defence. They were not guilty of the same failing against Ukraine, mainly because the visitors dominated possession. Ireland had not created many chances against Armenia’s low block so this was a chance to see if they could do any better in a game that was more end-to-end against a side that left more space in behind.

Right at the start Jason Knight produced a beautiful turn and run before playing it through for Callum Robinson, but the forward’s first touch took the ball back in the wrong direction and that unfortunately set the tone for what followed.

The stretched game meant that Jeff Hendrick was often afforded the time and space to pick passes from midfield and on 34 minutes he slid Robinson through for another chance that should have resulted in an Irish penalty − but the refereeing team turned a blind eye to Valeriy Bondar’s contact with the back of Robinson’s calf.

A few minutes later it looked as though the usual hard-luck story was unfolding: Taras Karabcha on the edge of the box with time to hit a dropping ball, the ball flying in the familiar perfect arc over the familiarly helpless Irish goalkeeper, the high-pitched cheer from behind the goal as the Ukrainians acclaimed their golazo … but the VAR was paying more attention this time and ruled the goal out for an offside in the build-up.

Just after half-time Ireland did concede in the traditional fashion – to a shot that flew in from 30+ metres – but this time the shot was strictly unintentional and the goalkeeper could have done better. Several players had moved confusingly towards the ball as it travelled across Caoimhín Kelleher’s goalmouth but it had come such a long way from Viktor Tsygankov’s free-kick out on the right wing that the Irish goalkeeper would have expected to get more than his fingertips to it.

Ireland’s sterile domination in Armenia had been frustrating to watch but here it was replaced by a kind of entropic nothingness. James McClean, Dara O’Shea, Michael Obafemi, Alan Browne and CJ Hamilton were all introduced as Ireland mounted a feeble late onslaught in which all the best chances seemed to fall, as ever, to Shane Duffy. For all the talk of a vibrant new style of play, this team has never seemed more reliant on him. When the pressure is on, Ireland’s plan still boils down to “ball on largest man’s head”.

Still, watching the Ukrainian players celebrate with their fans at the end of the game, it was hard to feel too bad about the outcome. There will be no such silver lining if the Scotland game this weekend ends in a third successive defeat.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer