Ken Early: Second-string display shows talent pool lacking depth
Martin O’Neill knows he will need his frontliners back for Austria qualifier
Aiden McGeady battles for the ball with Iceland’s Aron Einar Gunnarsson during the friendly international at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ireland and Iceland have become sporting buddies in recent years, largely thanks to mixed martial arts: Conor McGregor regularly goes to Iceland to train, and his Icelandic team-mate Gunnar Nelson is regarded as a kind of honorary Irish man.
Win Or Learn is the mantra beloved of their coach John Kavanagh, and last night at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland didn’t win but they did learn. They learned that if most of their best players aren’t available again by the time they play Austria in June, their chances of getting to the World Cup are suddenly not looking so good.
We should have remembered the lesson of Iceland’s Euro campaign, which is that the depth of your talent pool counts for less than what you do with it
Iceland used to be regarded as the kind of country you would end up playing in a friendly when nobody half-decent was interested in playing you, one of those teams that had a teacher and a couple of fishermen, essentially a northern Oman.
Euro 2016 changed that forever, of course, as Iceland knocked out England on their legendary run to the quarter-finals. Everybody respects them now.
Still, the Icelandic team that turned up in Dublin was without nearly all their star players: Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Alfred Finnbogason, Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson, and both Bjarnasons, Birkir and Theodor Elmar.
Ireland were, of course, missing a lot of important players themselves, with the return of John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters to their clubs after the Wales game lengthening the already-impressive list of absentees.
But still, looking at the Icelandic absences, you wondered how this nation of 300,000 had even filled out the squad: did the coach Heimir Hallgrimsson stand outside the Parliament building in Reykjavik and announce: “OK, the first 22 of you to put your hands up get a free trip to Dublin”? How deep could this Icelandic talent pool possibly be?
We should have remembered the lesson of Iceland’s Euro campaign, which is that the depth of your talent pool counts for less than what you do with it. It was obvious from the start that Iceland’s patched-together team had a much clearer idea of what they were trying to do than Ireland’s patched-together team.
Within a couple of minutes of the start debutant John Egan had to have his head bandaged after taking an elbow to the forehead, and things got even worse on 21 minutes, when he was booked for pulling down Kjartan Henry Finnbogason on the edge of the area. Naturally, Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson scored from the free-kick.
Keiren Westwood was clearly surprised by the shot, which seemed to have taken an unusually low trajectory over the Irish wall; replays showed that the ball had passed between the heads of Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane in the Irish wall, with neither player having made a giant effort to get in its way.
Now the onus was on Ireland to attack. The popular choice would have been to play Daryl Horgan from the start, but Martin O’Neill, typically, decided to go another way.
Aiden McGeady, whose superb recent performances for Preston were rewarded with the Championship Player of the Month award for February, was given the chance to show that he could take his club form to the international stage.
It was McGeady’s 88th cap, drawing him level with Tony Cascarino in the all-time Ireland appearances list. Only seven players have played more times for Ireland, and it’s a roll-call of legends: Robbie Keane, Shay Given, John O’Shea, Kevin Kilbane, Steve Staunton, Damien Duff and Niall Quinn.
And yet in all those matches it is difficult to think of more than a handful of memorable McGeady moments. For whatever reason, he almost never does himself justice on the international stage. Against Iceland it was the usual frustrating story. Jinking past his man only to put in a poor cross; getting crowded out by defenders on the touchline; confidence gradually draining away with every disappointing touch.
McGeady turns 31 next week, and he’s nearly out of time to mount a convincing counter-argument to Roy Keane’s withering remark last summer: “He can do a lot better, but maybe that’s the story of Aiden’s career.”
The roar when he was replaced by Horgan told you what the crowd thought. McGeady’s Preston team-mate immediately put in a good cross from the left across the face of the six yard box, but he had arrived in the game as one of four substitutes, and the match had lost its shape.
But for a flash of class from Callum O’Dowda on a run through the middle, there was little for the crowd of 37,241 to get excited about – though the fact that Ireland can now draw 37,000 people to a friendly will have excited the FAI. It’s not long since scarcely 20,000 were turning up to see Ireland play qualifiers against Georgia and Kazakhstan.
The apparent resurgence of public enthusiasm won’t be much consolation to Martin O’Neill after a week he is unlikely to recall with much fondness.
One draw, one defeat, and a catastrophic injury that costs him the services of his captain for the foreseeable future. Ireland will hope for better luck next time.