Sunday, March 25, 2007

TSA Report: Ireland v Wales

At some point during Saturday's mind-numbing afternoon at Croke Park, a mild commotion broke out up in the chilly top-left corner of Hill 16. Two spectators were refusing to sit and a steward was attempting to address the breach of stadium procedure. Howeer, the fans in question were not erect through uncontrollable excitement at the events on the pitch, nor were they engaging in an act of civil disobedience.

In fact, the two gentlemen were unable to sit because the seat corresponding to the number on their expensively purchased ticket did not, well, actually exist. Forced to take in the remainder of the Group D Euro 2008 qualifier with their rear ends perched on the icy concrete of the famous terrace, their good humour at the indignity was admirable.

For the rest of us, luxuriating on plastic, the incident seemed plum in keeping with the spirit of ineptitude abroad on the field.

Having missed out on the gluttonous feasts of history and resonance that the recent rugby internationals at Jones' Road were portrayed as, yesterday's first soccer international felt very much like nibbling stale scraps from posterity's table. Not entirely the fault of the team, of course; the sense of the bandwagon having blown town was inevitable given how the public imagination had steeped itself in the oval-ball hullaballoo of recent months.

But, much as I believed the case might be, where Ireland's rugby team had the force of personality to eventually inhabit the vast arena comfortably, their soccer equivalents looked like small boys wearing their Daddy's trousers.

But again, that's not entirely their fault. Where Six Nations rugby represents, if not the pinnacle of the sport, at least one of its higher echelons, the general quality of international football has long been negligible, especially when practiced by the two extremely limited teams who lined up under the Hogan Stand on Saturday.

But enough of the extenuating circumstances. There was far more to the limpness of Saturday's occasion that is not excusable. Ireland's inability to deal convincingly with such poor opponents was not surprising to anyone who has watched them recently, but that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

Most maddening of all was that classic warning sign of a manager bereft of tactical understanding: personnel being played out of position. For some reason, bad football managers often think putting a right-footed player on the left will outfox the opposition in some way, when in fact it is generally the player himself who ends up looking bamboozled.

Steve Finnan is a highly capable right-back for one of the Premiership's top sides, a Champions League winner who provides a useful threat when getting forward. Selected at left-back by Stephen Staunton on Saturday, he looked like a new-born foal who'd been asked to run the Grand National.

John O'Shea took Finnan's position, despite the fact that the Manchester United player has played left-back on many occasions for club and country. Stephen Ireland occupied unfamiliar turf on the right-side of midfield; Damien Duff was nominally a forward player, although he did drop off into wide positions to more useful effect.

More critical, however, than the eccentricity of the team selection, was Ireland's inability to dominate Wales from central midfield. Where you'd expect this part of the field to be a fiery battleground for supremacy in an international football match, on Saturday the struggle in the middle third resembled two punch-drunk heavyweights plodding through a bottom-of-the-bill prize-fight.

While both Lee Carsley and Jonathan Douglas are combative enough, and lack nothing in commitment, neither has the ability to control the game and provide forward impetus for their team. When Ireland's defenders had the ball at their feet, rarely did they find one of their central midfield colleagues demanding it be played to them, so that they may advance possession into the opposing half in a meaningful way.

Consequently, Irish defenders repeatedly 'knocked' balls vaguely in the direction of the strikers, and the sense of cluelessness quickly set-in. In fairness, Ireland are not over-endowed with options in this area, but the appointment of a ball-playing central-midfielder is urgent.

During the second half the crowd performed an extended Mexican Wave. Where normally I would grumble at the appearance of this tiresome phenomenon, it was hard to argue with the spectators providing themselves some alternative entertainment. Indeed, Stephen Ireland's tidy finish aside, the impeccably well-executed wave was one of the few accomplished sights of the day.

I'm pretty sure the two guys without seats joined in as well.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Paul said...

Nice post. I've been a block ticket holder for all Ireland games for six years now Tom, and the current malaise is infuriating beyond belief. It really is difficult to comprehend the level of brazen faced incompetence on display in Irish soccer from Delaney down to Staunton.

We're just adrift until we get rid of both of them and anything that will bring that about sooner rather than later is in the interests of Irish soccer...

I can see Wednesday being an ugly occassion for everyone involved, fans, players and the idiots at the helm. Thing is they deserve to be made uncomfortable, the fans and players don't as such.

4:56 p.m.  
Anonymous Paul said...

Nice post. I've been a block ticket holder for all Ireland games for six years now Tom, and the current malaise is infuriating beyond belief. It really is difficult to comprehend the level of brazen faced incompetence on display in Irish soccer from Delaney down to Staunton.

We're just adrift until we get rid of both of them and anything that will bring that about sooner rather than later is in the interests of Irish soccer...

I can see Wednesday being an ugly occassion for everyone involved, fans, players and the idiots at the helm. Thing is they deserve to be made uncomfortable, the fans and players don't as such.

4:57 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

It's hard not to look at Scotland and Northern Ireland at the moment (not that I think that either will qualify). Both are making the most of their limited talent pools through basic organisation and a bit of commitment.

Of course the shoe was on the other foot a few years ago when we were top of the local pile, which at least provides hope that the current trough is not terminal.

8:20 p.m.  

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