It hasn’t felt remotely possible over the past 12 months, but there seems to finally be a feel good aura surrounding the Irish football team at long last. This unusual sensation is the result of a very purposeful performance by the boys in green on Tuesday night at the Aviva Stadium against Georgia in a crucial European Championships qualifier.
The belief that Irish football needed fresh direction was evident over Martin O’Neill’s last year in charge. He had overseen some wonderful moments for the team but the feeling was that his style, and his attitude was no longer helping the squad.
The return of former boss Mick McCarthy with legend Robbie Keane as his assistant was thought to be a move to bring good feelings back to the side. Their opening test in Gibraltar on Saturday violently scythed down those misguided notions. Anyone believing that change would be instantaneous was left raging in our instant gratification era. It was to me always likely to be a harsh assertion given the incredibly difficult conditions the team faced on that particular day.
The return to the familiar South Dublin confines of Lansdowne Road was going to provide the true test of how the near future would shape up. There was an distinct air of tension leading up to this fixture. There was fear that Georgia would be capable of an upset, there was the possibility of a protest for FAI CEO John Delaney distracting the focus, and worst of all there was concern that the look and style of the team would be no different to the O’Neill era. The doubters were sharpening their knifes in anticipation…
McCarthy resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes from Saturday but did recall veteran Glenn Whelan to shore up the midfield. This proved to be a master stroke as Whelan’s presence allowed Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick the freedom to take control of the match in the manner which we had hoped.
Hendrick has failed to hit the heights for Ireland since his fantastic displays at the 2016 Euros. As one of the squad’s few Premier League regulars, the expectations laid at his feet are not unjustly high. He is a gifted midfielder who should be one of key men for McCarthy moving forward.
From the early exchanges, it was refreshingly clear that there was a distinct plan in place for how this team would play. Gone were the aimless long balls, in their place for obvious structure and patterns of play. There was a clear determination to keep the ball on the ground and play to the strengths of the players. Shane Duffy was leading the revolution from the back where it was thankfully obvious that his less graceful partner Richard Keogh was seemingly tasked with finding Duffy every time he won possession.
Down the right hand side, captain Seamus Coleman was looking as purposeful as he had been in some time. Despite Coleman’s near legendary status, there are many that feel he is fortunate to keep his place in the team over Wolves’ in form Matt Doherty. Tuesday was a timely reminder than Coleman is still the leader this team needs.
Up front David McGoldrick was leading the line with authority and class. McGoldrick won’t ever be a great goalscorer at this level, but his all round game is a very useful asset, and he was deservedly awarded Man of the Match for his efforts.
There is still plenty for this team to work on but the progress already is clear for all to see. One could argue that James McClean and Robbie Brady don’t quite fit the philosophy at this moment in time which is a concern. However, this was essentially the same Georgia team who had the better of the play in both previous contests. While the team may still struggle to impose themselves on bigger nations, there was never an excuse to let a side like Georgia dictate the pace of the game. After a very dour spell, there is some hope for Irish football yet.
Not only are the senior team getting their act together but both the U21’s of future head honcho Stephen Kenny, and Tom Mohan’s U19’s are looking very impressive. The future is very much bright.
Next up is Denmark away in June. This is another huge opportunity for the team to show how much football can change in a short space of time. It is clearly no longer a valid excuse to say that this team doesn’t have the players to play in a certain way. It is now up to them to prove they can do it against an even higher calibre of opponent.
With talented individuals like Callum O’Dowda, Callum Robinson, and Alan Browne still to come back in to the fold, the performances on the pitch should only get better with improved options. While he may be written off by many, the return of Shane Long to play alongside McGoldrick could be a highly profitable combination if the Southampton man can find his scoring touch.
There may still be some serious distractions at board level for the FAI, but on the pitch where it matters there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. I never thought I could have said that even a week ago.