The most memorable thing about the match was the sound of the last few minutes. The shouts of the Irish players had of course been audible throughout in the empty Aviva stadium, but after Luxembourg’s goal they rose to a piercing intensity, like the screams of dying men on the battlefield. You could hear their fear of the response to this result.
Afterwards Séamus Coleman went through a well-thumbed litany: shocking, embarrassing, angry, etc etc, diligently enacting the sackcloth and ashes rituals he knows we expect from the players at these moments of national humiliation.
Unlike some bad Ireland games of the past, like Liechtenstein in 1995, when Ireland had 40 shots and somehow failed to score, or Cyprus in 2006, when they conceded a series of incredible comedy goals, there was nothing really outlandish or even unusual about this match. It had been a typical empty-stadium game between two quite closely matched teams that, until the last few minutes, felt a bit like a training exercise.
Like all tight games it was decided in a couple of key moments. The home team dominated the ball without carving out many openings; they created a couple of big chances and missed them. The away team pressed well and scored a belter off a half-chance. It could have gone either way: that’s football.
So why is this rather humdrum defeat being portrayed as some kind of historic disgrace? For no better reason than one of the teams is called Ireland, and the other is called Luxembourg. This apparently qualifies as a QED. Ireland once played in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Luxembourg is a postage stamp on the map of Europe: what more is there to say?
The hysterical Irish reaction shows that the FAI’s former CEO was not the only member of our football family prone to fits of entitlement, delusion and grandiosity. Champagne Football was Ireland’s best-selling book of 2020, but its lessons seem not to have been absorbed. We still have not accepted that there is a price to pay for the chronic mismanagement of the Irish game over the last 20 years.
Part of the price is that we can no longer take it for granted that we will always beat smaller countries who have spent that time building methodically, rationally, and competently. Instead of raging at losing to Luxembourg – Luxembourg! – we should be reflecting on what we can learn from them.
The most obvious and relevant difference between Ireland and Luxembourg was that Luxembourg’s players have played together a lot, and Ireland’s haven’t. Luxembourg had nine players who started at least five of the six matches in the recent Nations League campaign, and seven of those players started in Dublin. If Luxembourg’s press looked more organised and efficient than Ireland’s, it’s because their team is built around an experienced core of regular players, like literally every successful team.
Ireland used 30 players in the Nations League compared to Luxembourg's 23, and only three of those players started at least five matches: Shane Duffy, Darren Randolph and Matt Doherty, of whom Doherty was the only one to play against Luxembourg. Only four of the other 10 players in the starting XI started even a single Nations League match, while Browne, Coleman, Cullen, Clark, Robinson and Bazunu hadn't started any. If the Irish team looked like strangers to each other, that's because they largely were.
Stephen Kenny made mistakes on Saturday night. Persisting with the shape after Luxembourg showed they were able to handle it and Doherty had gone off injured; moving Browne from the centre to the periphery; using James McClean as a wing back; waiting too long to make his last substitutions – all these seem regrettable in hindsight. It's normal to look back on defeat and chew over what went wrong.
As for the view that this defeat – unacceptable! indefensible! Luxembourg! – is not normal, that it has more profound implications, that it proves Stephen Kenny was naive to think that Ireland are capable of what he calls progressive football, naive to think he could be the coach to get them playing it, and especially naive to have mentioned any of this in advance.
In this analysis, Kenny's hapless innocence is contrasted with what by implication is the steely-eyed, unsentimental pragmatism of Ireland's last few managers. Mick McCarthy, Martin O'Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni, all men of the world: their methods may have been ugly at times, but they knew how to get results. It goes without saying that they never would have lost to a team like Luxembourg.
What if I told you that only four years ago, Ireland – then coached by arch-realist double European Cup winner, Martin O’Neill – lost 1-0 at home to a country with barely half the population of Luxembourg? That night against Iceland, Ireland managed only one shot on target. “But that was only a friendly” – as though a competitive game would have gone any differently. If it had been an actual qualifier Iceland would have picked a stronger team and maybe beaten us by more, and then beaten us in the return leg for good measure.
You can only believe that Ireland would do better with a so-called pragmatic style if you wilfully ignore the lessons we have been receiving on the pitch since Trapattoni arrived in 2008. How many times do we need it spelled out to us that the game has moved on before we are all agreed that maybe the time has come to try to catch up?
The 'back to basics, it's not rocket science' crowd are classic reactionaries: they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They have forgotten nothing of the Jack Charlton era (except for the many boring and unsuccessful bits) and they have learned nothing from the last 20 years of football development all over the world.
The reactionary, whose worldview is based on the idea of a lost golden age, hates above all the idealism that says the future could be better than the past. It’s as though Stephen Kenny’s unforgiveable crime is to have come into the job talking with such obvious excitement about what he believed the Irish team could be capable of. The reactionary interprets this as an insult to the good old days, for which the offender must be punished, ridiculed, put back in his box.
There can be no mitigation allowed even for the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances forced upon him by the pandemic, the swathes of the squad ruled out of contention, the compressed schedule, the stilted and joyless atmosphere of life in the Covid bubble. The Irish football reactionary loves to boast about Irish fans being the best in the world but does not acknowledge that the absence of those fans from the stadium might have been bad for the team.
The reactionary sees Ireland losing to Luxembourg and wants to scream into the face of Kenny and the players: “Where’s your pride?!” It’s not pride Irish football needs right now, but humility, insight, and resilience. Histrionic and theatrical displays of outrage about a supposedly world-shaking humiliation will get us nowhere. The way back begins with acknowledging the position to which we have sunk in the football world. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are howling at the moon.