Pragmatic Ireland and Martin O’Neill still quick to revert to type
Wes Hoolahan has been far from peripheral but remains a passenger in long-ball game
Wes Hoolahan came off the bench during Ireland’s 1-1 World Cup qualifier draw with Austria. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
For quite some time now triangles have been football’s favourite geometric shape but to judge by Sunday’s frenetic World Cup qualifier, the Irish team is still very much going around in circles.
Almost every time Martin O’Neill and his men come in, there is talk about the team aspiring to play better, brighter football.
And despite Uruguay’s complete lethargy the week before, some of us were foolish enough to set aside our usual scepticism in the wake of that performance and embrace the notion that some sort of corner might have been turned.
Sunday told us otherwise.
We should not, of course, be all that surprised. Even as it became known that the FAI was attempting to hire O’Neill to replace Giovanni Trapattoni, it was clear that while some improvement over the Italian’s approach was desired, the northerner had little in his record to suggest that the change would be transformative.
O’Neill is, like Trapattoni, a pragmatist – the difference being that he has more faith in the group of players he inherited than the Italian had. However we got a pretty clear sense of the limits of those belief levels at the weekend when any attempt by the home side to play a passing game was abandoned after the break in favour of hoofing the ball upfield.
The exasperation of the Austrians afterwards was easy to understand and never again, it seems, will be we able to throw our eyes up to heaven and sigh heavily when some opponent mentions Ireland, the British game, passion and high balls in the one sentence. The sad fact is that once the going gets remotely rough, that’s still us.
Quite why this needs to be so, is another thing. The debate invariably seems to come down to Wes Hoolahan, with O’Neill’s team selections characterised almost entirely as positive or negative according to whether the 35-year-old starts or not.
O’Neill persistently protests this and he has a point. During their time in charge Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton, both of whom wanted to play a brighter style of football, overlooked the midfielder at a time when he should, in theory have been at his best.
Trapattoni, who talked endlessly about orchestras and performances versus results appeared to have some respect for Hoolahan’s ability even if he didn’t quite see him as concertmaster material. The Italian, though, gave the impression of regarding the team generally as second rate country and western material and gave him his early caps while generally ignoring him.
O’Neill, on the other hand, has used the Dubliner pretty extensively since taking over. In the last qualifying campaign, Hoolahan featured in all but one of the games for which he was reckoned by all parties to be fully fit and available and he averaged just over 60 minutes in the 10 of 12 matches in which he got a run out.
He played 90 minutes on two occasions – with one of those coming against Germany at home, a night in which Ireland defended for long periods, but when retaining possession under pressure was of particular importance.
However, it didn’t stop Ireland going direct at almost every opportunity, with Shane Long’s goal at the Aviva just as route one as Jon Walters’ on Sunday.
Still, only seven players (Seamus Coleman, Glenn Whelan, Jon Walters, John O’Shea, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Keane and Robbie Brady) saw more action over the course of that qualifying campaign. Hoolahan got more minutes than either Aiden McGeady or James McClean, both acknowledged to be firm favourites of the manager, and more twice as many as Long.
At the finals he started the first two group games and came on in the two remaining matches, averaging fractionally over 45 minutes in total and made key contributions when either on from the start, as with the goal against Sweden or as a substitute, as with his ball for Brady’s winner against Italy.
It is possible that O’Neill privately felt that that would be his last hurrah and he was an unused substitute in the opening two games of this campaign, both of which yielded results, one of them a chaotic but still precious draw in Belgrade. But, perhaps because of his strong club form, he has since featured in all three qualifiers he was available for, starting two then coming on on Sunday and, once again, averaging just 61 minutes in those three games.
None of which is to say that there isn’t an argument for him playing more; rather the point being he is nowhere near as peripheral as seems to be sometimes suggested. There is surely a case to be made that, at this stage of his career, hehas more potential to make a critical impact against good players when he is arriving on fresh to face them and they have played an hour already.
That, though, is completely undermined by the style of football that Ireland had reverted to against Austria. He showed precisely the sort of problem he might pose shortly after his introduction when, off a long ball down the right, Walters played laid it off to him, he took it onto his left foot and put in an in-swinging cross that Stefan Lainer was lucky not to turn into his own net after his goalkeeper had declined to come for it.
For the goal, though, as for much of the rest of the closing stages, Hoolahan was a bit of a bystander, struggling to ensure that his particular skill set brought anything to a party that had spiralled a little out of control.
That, however, had clearly been O’Neill’s intention on this occasion. The manager often laments the fact that his players simply seem to slip back into playing that way under pressure. But Shane Duffy confirmed afterwards that “getting it up to the big lads,” had been the specific instruction at half-time.
Given how poorly Ireland had been played in the first half, it was no great surprise but the question remains: why is it that Ireland players like Brady, Hendrick and McClean generally find it impossible to successfully impose themselves on opponents of any real ability with a more structured, passing game.
The fear is that they actually don’t trust themselves to do it – and though results are clearly better these days and everyone is delighted when Ireland make it to a tournament – that is unlikely to change as long as the manager does not seem to have enough faith in them to see things through.