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Ken Early: Mediocre fare as Ireland leave with a whimper

Martin O’Neill’s side only really began to find any fluency after several substitutions

Mikhail Hardzeichuk of Belarus scores his side’s first goal against Ireland at Turner’s Cross. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

International football at Turner’s Cross turned out to be a very pleasant way to spend a sunny evening in late May.

Something about it felt a bit like going back in time. The golden evening sunshine, the crowd excited to see the players and filling the ground well before kick-off, the apparently endless series of Bryan Adams songs being played on the old stadium sound system, Roy Keane supervising the warm-up in the austere black and white Adidas boots he has specially shipped from the early 1990s.

As for the football, there were a couple of positives to take. The first is that at least Ireland chose the right occasion to deliver such a mediocre performance. The second is that it got better as it went on.

Before the match the media learned they wouldn’t be hearing from Martin O’Neill afterwards (a decision he later changed) since he would be busy cutting his squad down to 23 and registering the official list with Uefa before the 22:59 deadline.

The question was not really why O’Neill had left it so late to confirm the squad. The reality is that injuries often make a coach’s decisions for him, and maybe it’s better to let those who are selected because others have been injured believe that they were the first choice for that place all along, rather than sending them home disappointed and then having to call them back up.

The question really was why Ireland were playing a game on the day of the deadline itself.

Second Captains

The match surely could have been scheduled for Monday evening which would have removed the need to compress the whole process into 90 minutes after the end of the game.

It was hard to believe that anything that happened in this match – barring injury – could change O’Neill’s mind on whether or not a given player would be making the trip. The players were painfully conscious of this and there were a couple of moments when they were clearly prioritising their limbs over winning the ball.

Back down

The exception to this was McClean, who can never back down from any confrontation no matter how pointless. Early in the first half he dodged past one opponent and fell to the ground under the next challenge. The referee gave no free kick. McClean jumped to his feet, face contorted with outrage, charged at the next Belarussian to receive the ball and smashed straight through him.

It was the kind of tackle that would probably have been an orange card in the Euros, but the crowd roared its approval. McClean is a long way from being the best player in the squad but he might be the one that best expresses the qualities Irish fans like to see in their players, for better or for worse.

His urgency was not shared by many of his team-mates. As the first half wore on it became apparent that Belarus, who had lost 3-0 to Northern Ireland, were bossing the game. You started to wonder when they might give Ireland a lend of the ball. It was no surprise when Mikhail Gordeichuk finished off a sweeping counter-attack by curling a brilliant 25-yard shot over Shay Given.

Ireland’s feeble efforts to get back into the game were summed up by an incident involving the unfortunate Daryl Murphy, who found himself lurking in the right position to latch on to a poor Belarussian backpass. He turned to see that he had only one man between him and the goalkeeper but an awful touch sent the ball straight to that one man.

Setting sun

In defence of Ireland’s players in that first half, the setting sun was shining directly into their eyes from over the low roof of the west stand behind Chernik’s goal.

But you couldn’t help worrying about what might happen if this level of play was repeated at Euro 2016. Turner’s Cross is overlooked by a couple of dozen houses which would command at least a partial view of the pitch. Ireland were effectively playing in these people’s back gardens but looking at the windows you could see some of them had drawn the curtains.

Things got worse in the second half before they got better. The second Belarussian goal, by Maksim Valadzko, was the cue for a series of substitutions.

Off came Murphy and Gibson, on came Long and Hoolahan. They and other subs including Eunan O’Kane and the impressive Callum O’Dowda transformed Ireland’s performance.

A team that had begun the game playing the sort of ponderous, bovine football that would get them destroyed at the Euros ended playing a high-tempo passing game and looking like a half-decent international side.

Stephen Ward’s goal, crunched past Chernik from the left of the area, was just reward for their improved efforts.

Not that it really meant anything. If this game had counted for anything then O’Dowda would be making the trip instead of McGeady, O’Kane instead of Meyler, McGoldrick instead of Murphy. But we know how that turned out.