Richard Dunne and Enda McNulty put world to rights – or at least Irish soccer

Ex-international and sport psychologist differ on why Ireland can’t cope with leading

Just an idea, from the sports psychologist’s domain, for Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland: Instead of celebrating a goal how about celebrating victory?

Two perspectives: Richard Dunne bent his mighty back deep into the coalmines of international football, especially in Moscow five years ago, but he struggles to see Ireland ever changing from their hold-what- we-have default setting, especially under O'Neill's sparse tactical reign.

Enda McNulty believes there is an escape route from the mental penitentiary evident yet again in Belgrade on Monday.

“When Roy Keane was playing we might have played a bit of football because he was the one Irish midfielder for a long time who could dictate matches and control the tempo,” said Dunne at SSE Airtricity’s Power of Green launch.

Quality of the players

“We don’t have that anymore, we’ve not had it for a long time and whether it comes again in the future . . .” That idea understandably trails away.

“I don’t know whether it is the way Irish kids play football or that we were brought up on just trying to score a goal – get the ball as far away from your goal then go from there,” Dunne continued.

“I don’t think you can blame the quality of the players because they are just doing what comes natural I suppose.”

In Dunne’s time with Ireland the players would discuss their inability to play possession football but nothing ever came of it.

“It’s all great speaking about it, certainly for Ireland, but I think to get the passing and movement together when you got two matches and two different styles of teams you are playing against, it is difficult to work on anything other than your basic defending, corners, tactics and stuff like that.

“If the manager has a plan and that’s the way he wants to play, then over the course of two or three or four years that’s the way he can influence it. If he just wants a point in the next match or a result, it is hard to concentrate on a bigger plan.”

What about the 2009 World Cup playoff in Paris? “We played with a little bit of freedom, like we didn’t have a care in the world, because it was all or nothing that night. The old street kids came out in all of us. Like, we were free.”

Tunnel vision

Why can’t Irish footballers be free all the time?

“It is so easy to watch it and criticise and look at it from different angles but when you are on the pitch it is like [indicates tunnel vision].

“When you look up, all you can see is Serbian jerseys everywhere. It’s frustrating for a fan, must be frustrating for the players who are running left and right and then left and right and not getting a touch of the ball.

“I was chatting with a friend about it and said, ‘Why do teams play great, then score and then instead of continuing to play great, sit back and wait?’

“It’s always been the same, hasn’t it? Always. If we win a match against a good team it’s like a heroic performance with defenders and goalkeepers, everyone throwing their bodies on the line. It’s never been a composed, controlled demolition of a Holland or a Germany.

“It’s the mindset,” Dunne added. “Now kids growing up who are watching these matches, the thing they are taking from it is players throwing themselves in front of the ball and the tackles. That’s the way, when their turn comes, that they only beat these teams by being scrappers.”

Breaking the chain

Where Dunne sees history repeating itself, McNulty has a solution to breaking the chain: What if last Monday night Jeff Hendrick sprinted back to halfway rather than wheeling off towards the Green Army?

“I’d be hugely respectful of Richard Dunne as a man, as a player, as an icon in Irish sport but I’d disagree with him,” he begins.

“I don’t believe it is just the way we are. I know from spending my whole life forensically studying sport that it is not just an Irish thing. I’ve seen it in basketball, in American football, in golf, in tennis, in the teams I’ve played on.

“I think it is very much correlated to the quality of mental preparation, the quality of leadership on the pitch, the quality of communication from your sideline onto the pitch and, finally, it is directly correlated to the mental toughness of key guys on the pitch to be able to say: ‘We are one-nil up here guys, let’s be absolutely relentless.’ Imagine Paul O’Connell standing in the middle of the pitch driving it on. Keep your foot on the neck of them. Learning to be ruthless.”

McNulty, through his company Motiv8, has already seen this basic change yield success in Irish football.

“Back in the day we did a lot of work with Alan Mathews. And at Longford United they didn’t have a lot of resources so they wanted to have something to differentiate from their opponents. One of the things Alan worked on was when you score you don’t celebrate. You sprint back to your position. No celebrations, we can celebrate after the game.

“In soccer there is a culture where we all jump up and down, dance, sing, take our jerseys up over our heads, wave at the crowd, maybe even look into the camera, maybe even kiss the camera, but what should the athlete be doing?

Celebrating

“After scoring a goal, if you are really focused on being the best you can be, you wouldn’t be celebrating. Momentarily, yes, but quickly get back to thinking why are we here? To win a football game, not to be celebrating with the crowd.

“I know we are not going to change the culture of Irish soccer. However, there is a small change that could allow us change the mentality.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent