Ken Early: Bright start bewitches Ireland as desperation takes grip
Martin O’Neill’s side look far more comfortable when they have got nothing to lose
It looks as though Ireland have the character to handle any game situation except taking the lead. Going behind is fine, this team is never afraid to struggle in what looks like a losing cause. But scoring first still seems to be a thrill that immediately scrambles everyone’s brain.
There was an element of luck about the Irish goal, as the ball bounced off Long towards Hendrick waiting on the edge of the box, but there was also quality in Brady’s initial delivery and Hendrick’s immaculate technique to strike a ball that arrived at an awkward height so solidly towards goal, first time with his weaker foot.
The unlucky thing about the goal is that it came in the third minute. There is a good way to defend an early lead, and it’s all about demoralising the opposition. Waste time, break their rhythm, and above all, make them feel as though they’re having to work really hard to get the ball.
But whenever Ireland go in front early on, they start defending as though there’s only three minutes left. The team drops far too deep and starts treating the ball as though it is a grenade that is about to explode.
This sort of desperate defending makes it hard enough to hold a one goal lead when there really are only three minutes left to play. When there are 87 left to play, it’s completely impossible. And yet the earlier Ireland score, the more reliably they slip into desperation mode.
When you play as though the only thing that matters is getting the ball as far away from your goal as quickly as possible, the result is that the opposition keeps getting the ball back. The Irish defence faces relentless waves of attack until somebody makes a mistake and they concede.
Unfortunately for Ireland, mistakes were not in short supply. In the event it took far longer to concede the equaliser than might have been expected given all the precarious situations Ireland had survived until that point. Serbia’s wing-back system was confusing our defence, with space frequently appearing on the flanks and the Irish full-backs unsure whether to tuck in or go wide.
Darren Randolph had his worst game in an Irish shirt. He was blessed that he wasn’t punished for either of his big errors, one in the first when he palmed a cross directly to the feet of an onrushing attacker, and one in the second when he allowed the ball to bounce off his chest to a Serb who cracked it off the bar.
The slippery conditions made it difficult for him, but that’s the tough thing about life as a goalkeeper - people remember the flaps and the fumbles, and not all the moments when you were in control and nothing really happened. If Keiren Westwood can maintain the form he showed for Sheffield Wednesday towards the end of last season - and if he can keep turning up for international duty - he must have a good chance of establishing himself in the side before the end of the qualifiers.
For the first Serbia goal John O’Shea couldn’t get the ball away and Seamus Coleman was fatally drawn towards the centre, leaving Kostic unmarked, and also playing him onside.
The second Serbia goal was a bad penalty call, but the free-kick that led to Ireland’s early goal also looked a soft decision, and not many of us were complaining at that point.
You wondered if O’Neill should have acted sooner; perhaps introduced Hoolahan to help Ireland keep possession better, or even Darryl Murphy if he felt all we could do was hit it long. Murphy did eventually come off the bench, though the decision to withdraw Hendrick deprived the team of arguably its most creative outlets.
But the change worked out. The big picture was that Ireland were back in the sort of situation they seem to enjoy: up against it, with nothing to lose. They pushed forward and quickly created a series of decent opportunities; to the extent that Murphy’s header eventually seemed like justice.
The timing of the goals made it a strange match to analyse. If Ireland had come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2, the mood at the final whistle would have been euphoric. Instead there was excitement, followed by frustration, followed by anger, followed by relief.
Emotions should not cloud the final analysis, which is that 2-2 away to one of the main rivals in the group is an excellent result. If Ireland are going to get to the World Cup, they’re going to have to get their heads around the concept of leads, and how to hang on to them.