Ireland need a hero to take us through to Russia
Ken Early says the World Cup draw is too good to be true but Ireland need leaders to progress
Former German striker Oliver Bierhoff shows the name of Wales during the preliminary draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Photograph: Getty Images
‘Wales?” George Hamilton’s exclamation was disbelieving, as though a little part of him suspected Oliver Bierhoff and Jérôme Valcke were playing some kind of cruel joke. John Delaney’s decision not to travel to St Petersburg for the draw meant there was no immediate chance to see his reaction to Ireland’s World Cup qualifying draw, but you have to imagine the FAI’s chief executive allowed himself a secret smile, as he famously did on camera when Ireland were drawn against Estonia in the playoffs for Euro 2012.
The comments on the draw from the Ireland camp were characterised by careful understatement and scrupulous respect. “It makes interesting reading,” David Forde told RTÉ.
“It could have been worse, it could have been a lot better,” Martin O’Neill told Sky Sports.
In truth, the draw is almost too good to be true. Ireland were drawn in a six-team group, which will have pleased the FAI because it means they get to host an extra competitive home game, but also managed to avoid all six of the football superpowers (Germany, Italy, Spain, France, England and the Netherlands) Uefa decreed had to be placed in the six-team groups.
Wales’s ascent to the status of top seeds is the most powerful demonstration that in international football, where the talent is now more evenly distributed than in the elite club game, one world-class player can make all the difference. Wales have a Premier League star in Aaron Ramsey and decent performers in Joe Allen and Ashley Williams, but Gareth Bale’s gigantic talent has made all the difference for them.
The same thing has been happening to a lesser extent with Austria, which took four points off Ireland in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup largely because they had David Alaba. Maybe it’s unfair to say that Wales and Austria are one-man teams, but it’s quite reasonable to point out that if Bale or Alaba happens to be injured, they are much less of a threat.
O’Neill said that he was “fearing the worst” when Serbia emerged as the third-seeded team in Ireland’s group. Right now, Serbia are the only team in Euro 2016 qualifying who currently have a negative points total, after having three points deducted for their part in the chaos that resulted in the qualifier against Albania being abandoned – although they have appealed that ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The Serbs, whose Under-20s recently won the World Cup, will probably view the draw as their just deserts after the injustices inflicted upon them by the CAS. They will probably expect to top the group, and yet they still plainly have a lot of work to do to marshal their obvious talent into a functional team unit.
Georgia are one of those teams who are always said to be tricky opponents, and yet reliably finish last or second-last in the qualifying group. Moldova, meanwhile, contrived to lose at home to Liechtenstein in Euro 2016 qualifying, and only managed to draw the return game.
On paper, then, this is close to the ideal group for Ireland. So it’s an indication of where Irish football is at right now that the bookies still give Ireland only a 25 per cent chance of actually qualifying.
Forecasting Ireland’s chances is complicated by the fact that we can expect the team that plays these qualifiers will look quite different from the current side. Shay Given will be 40 by the time the matches kick off, Robbie Keane will be 36, John O’Shea 35, Wes Hoolahan 34 and Jonathan Walters 33. It seems likely that some of these players will have retired from international football by then, but it’s not yet clear who will succeed them.
Still we will be tormented by hope. There are examples all around Europe of smaller nations that are hardly laden down with world-class footballers yet are making a much better fist of international football than Ireland.
Northern Ireland are second in their group having won four out of six qualifiers. Slovakia, who couldn’t beat Ireland in four attempts over recent qualifying groups, are leading a section that includes Spain.
The best example is Iceland, who are currently leading a qualifying group that includes the Czech Republic, Holland and Turkey. In their different ways these teams have all become greater than the sum of their parts.
If Martin O’Neill can crack the Iceland code, maybe Ireland can do it too.