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Ken Early: Ireland’s lack of composure proves costly

Hoolahan’s absence felt in final quarter as O’Neill’s men fail to capitalise on red card

Wes Hoolahan is replaced by Daryl Murphy as Ireland chase an equaliser against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

In the 61st minute the board went up: Wes Hoolahan off, Daryl Murphy on. Maybe Hoolahan had to come off, that’s the downside of being 35 years old. The problem was that all Ireland had to replace him with was a 34-year-old warhorse with one goal in 26 internationals.

At the very same moment, more than 3,000km away in Chisinau, Wales were making a substitution. Tom Lawrence came off to be replaced by Ben Woodburn, the extravagantly talented 17-year-old who also has one goal at international level, after scoring a brilliant winner on his debut last Saturday night. If you asked the rest of the world which team they’d rather have at the World Cup, they’d pick Wales.

Martin O’Neill was still insisting at the end that Ireland hadn’t blown it, that they can still go to the World Cup if they win their last two matches. But this defeat means Ireland will probably be watching this World Cup on TV, and the fact that they played better while losing in Dublin than they did when they drew in Tbilisi will not be of much consolation.

O’Neill’s team selection showed again that he is not a manager to persist with a failing formula. Last night, Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter paid the price for their insipid performances against Georgia, with David Meyler and Wes Hoolahan taking their places. James McClean and Robbie Brady were tucked in on either side of a diamond midfield, with Jon Walters pushed forward to provide some company in attack for Shane Long.

It was a set-up that was asking a lot of Robbie Brady, who would be responsible for setting the tempo in Ireland’s midfield, and from the first two minutes, when he made a crucial block to stop Nemanja Matic, he was up for the challenge.

It’s plain that Brady enjoys having Hoolahan in the team with him. After nine minutes, Hoolahan showed for a short corner and gave it back to Brady, whose terrific cross from the right was headed in by Shane Duffy – who was correctly called offside. A few minutes later Brady’s lovely no-look pass inside for the Norwich man showed the kind of sparky intuitive link-up that was totally absent in Tbilisi.

Hoolahan showed why so many people consider him to be Ireland’s best player, his quick feet equally useful in defence and attack, pressing opponents into mistakes and opening up angles in attack. He started Ireland’s best move of the half with a quick turn and pass to McClean, who found Walters, who released Long, who however found himself isolated.

Ireland had Serbia worried, but there was always a doubt as to whether they could keep up the high tempo, and Darren Randolph’s save from Aleksandar Mitrovic just before half-time was the first stop either goalkeeper had been asked to make.

Serbia took the lead 10 minutes after half-time, as some sloppy defending by McClean on the left allowed Dusan Tadic to find Filip Kostic running into the box. He rolled it nicely into the path of Aleksandar Kolarov, who cracked it in off the bar.

Ireland’s James McClean, Daryl Murphy and Jon Walters after the final whistle of their 1-0 defeat to Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Then came that substitution, Murphy for Hoolahan. Murphy had been brought on for his aerial prowess rather than his speed in behind, but suddenly he found himself running through on to a bouncing ball, only to be brought down by Nikola Maksimovic, who was sent off. Ireland would play for 22 minutes against 10 men: the stadium prepared for a rousing finale.

But instead of making the extra man count, Ireland resorted to a series of terrible shots from stupid positions. First, David Meyler blasted one wide from outside the box.

McClean minutes later blasted a first-time shot over from 30 metres out with three team-mates in good positions ahead of him – a decision that everyone else in the stadium could see was insane. Then Cyrus Christie blasted one over from the side of the penalty area as team-mates in the middle screamed for a cross. Undeterred, Christie hit another shot wide from the corner of the box a few minutes later.

Substitute Conor Hourihane seemed eager to get in on the act and hit two long-range shots well wide in the last couple of minutes. In injury time, McClean’s invincible self-belief meant that when he found himself again 25 metres out in front of a crowded box, he swung his right foot at the ball, with predictable results.

These were the kinds of decisions that would get you subbed off at most top European clubs. The Dortmund striker Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, for instance, is a lot more talented than McClean, but you will watch him all season without seeing him once try a shot from the sort of position that McClean apparently fancied himself to score from with his weak foot. Patience and teamwork, that’s how football is played at the top club level these days.

It looks as though Ireland have missed this memo and in their heads Ronnie Radford is always lashing it in from 30 yards. Serbia’s 10 men couldn’t believe their luck.