Ken Early: From Delaney drama emerges some Irish positivity
Is it too much to suggest that the former FAI CEO deliberately took spotlight off the team?
FAI executive vice-president John Delaney and Emma English in the stands during Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualifying win over Georgia. Photo: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.
Maybe it hasn’t been the best 10 days of John Delaney’s career but, for once, could Ireland’s legendary football administrator share in the credit for a positive performance out on the pitch?
Managers like José Mourinho are often said to deliberately attract criticism and controversy, the better to take the pressure off their players. It seems unlikely Delaney has engineered his travails of the last 10 days or so as a mind game to unblock the hidden potential of this Republic of Ireland side, but perhaps that is to underestimate the lengths to which he is prepared to go to serve his country.
What is beyond doubt is the sustained, gleeful anti-Delaney chants from the singing section greatly improved the stadium atmosphere. Ireland fans often seem at a loss for things to sing about, but on Tuesday night whenever things got quiet somebody just started up another song about Delaney. The last time Mick McCarthy took charge of an Ireland match here the crowd was baying for him to be sacked, but this time it was Delaney in their sights.
McCarthy had admitted he had hated almost every minute of the match in Gibraltar, but he had defended the players afterwards, saying nobody could be judged on their performance in such difficult conditions. His team selection for Georgia suggested he understood the team’s problems had run a bit deeper than a fake pitch and a blustery gale.
Against Georgia, who had dominated possession in the last two encounters – the last match in Tbilisi by the astonishing margin of 74-26 – Ireland could not afford to vacate midfield as they so often did in Gibraltar, where Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick had drifted far apart and scarcely linked up. So McCarthy brought Glenn Whelan back in to assist Hourihane and Hendrick, dropped Sean Maguire, and went with Robbie Brady rather than Matt Doherty on the right wing.
Ireland’s best performer in the Premier League this season was therefore left out but choosing between Coleman and Doherty was a decision McCarthy had to make. It’s just Ireland’s bad luck two of the best players in the squad play in the same position. In Gibraltar Doherty and Coleman just got in each other’s way. The combination of one of them plus the left-footed Brady, a winger who wants to cut inside creating space for overlaps, looked a lot more natural. You could make a case McCarthy picked the wrong man out of the two – that he chose Coleman on status rather than form – but the manager deserves credit for accepting a choice had to be made.
The real revelation was McGoldrick, who showed from the outset he’s the kind of front-runner this team needs – one who combines the mobility and awareness to be first to the forward passes, with the strength and technical ability to hold on to the ball and link with players arriving in support. It’s a priceless advantage when you are not losing possession every time you try to reach the centre-forward. If there was one single reason why Ireland seemed to play more football in the first 45 minutes than in the previous year and a half, it was McGoldrick’s hold-up play gave them a chance at sustaining attacks.
For most of the first half hour Ireland kept the pressure on Georgia but when the breakthrough finally came it was after both teams had paused for a lengthy breather, and once again in a small way it was thanks to Delaney. As the match entered the 34th minute a sudden cheer went up and everyone looked around to see the tennis balls being thrown onto the pitch from the Ireland supporters.
At a rough count there were maybe 50 balls scattered on the south end of the pitch, but even that small number delayed the match by a couple of minutes. The match restarted with Ireland taking a free-kick from 25 yards out. Hourihane struck a beautiful shot around the wall – the end of which had been helpfully rolled up a little by Shane Duffy – and into the net to the goalkeeper’s right.
Hourihane’s dead balls were good all night, though his work in open play was a touch ponderous. Alongside him Jeff Hendrick gave a zesty performance and had a goal ruled out for a marginal offside. Overall it felt like the performance of a team tentatively reconnecting with supporters and with the concept of optimism, and with maximum points from the first two games we can say, for the first time in nearly two-and-a-half years, that things are going our way.