Football brings out the fickleness in us all. All it can take is a few poor performances from our favourite player or some strange tactical decisions from the incumbant manager to persuade us that perhaps our instincts about the individual were wrong.
When Mick McCarthy was forced out of his job as Ireland manager, I was immediate in my wish to see under-age coach Brian Kerr make the step up. I even put my money where my mouth was as Kerr, a 16-1 shot, sat behind footballing illuminaries like Bryan Robson and was not expected to be seriously considered. His remarkable work with the underage teams (a third-place finish in the U20s world championships in 1996, and European Championship wins for the U16s and U18s sides over the next few years) was one of the reasons Ireland had progressed so well under McCarthy.
He came in at a difficult time (with two losses from two European Championship qualifying games) but since then the progress has been impressive. In 26 matches, Kerr has lost just twice – one of those a critical qualifying game with the Swiss, the other a friendly in London with Nigeria on a dreadful pitch at The Valley. Ireland’s defensive record is excellent, the scalps are mounting (Czech Republic, Holland, Croatia, Portugal – and credible draws with the top two teams in the world, Brazil and France), and numerous players have improved under his tutelage (Kevin Kilbane, Graham Kavanagh, Clinton Morrison and Andy O’Brien for example).
But the clouds of doubt have started to gather after a very disappointing draw in Israel last weekend. Ireland took the lead with a brilliant finish from Morrison in the third minute but made the mistake of sitting back rather than going for a second. Israel deservedly drew level in injury time and a vital win was denied. The ramifications from the draw are certain to be felt at the end of the campaign if Ireland don’t win their remaining five games.
The murmurs are that Ireland fail to find that extra spark when required. The timid 0-2 defeat versus the Swiss in October 2003 when a win was needed, was a warning sign. Further poor performances in key games, again versus the Swiss and the Israelis, have started to raise questions about Kerr’s seemingly meticulous approach.
Against the French, certainly not the side they were in recent years, Ireland were excellent and could have secured a deserved victory in Paris. The game finished 0-0 but it was a huge improvement on the earlier 1-1 with the Swiss. Playing the underdog seems to suit Kerr’s tactics. Hitting teams on the break away from home while defending staunchly is not an inappropriate gameplan in many cases, but against weaker teams like Switzerland and Israel, Ireland need to do more.
Grabbing an early goal as they did in Basle and Tel Aviv should have been the platform for the same tactic employed against France. But instead of digging in and pushing their opponents, they sat back, played deep and surrendered possession in seemingly undangerous territory. Their luck ran out as the law of averages would suggest it should.
The question must be asked: why doesn’t Kerr address this problem? Even with Roy Keane, an Irish Gladiator if you believe the hype, Ireland were unable to rouse themselves until it was too late. Irish pundit Liam Brady maintains that Kerr has always been a defensive coach, and yes, he has built years of success on that mantra. But regardless of your schematic for success, the best managers will always play appropriately when it is required. And that’s what is a little unnerving.
Ireland have their destiny within their own hands with five games to go. This summer they are at home to Israel and away to the Faroes. Six points is an absolute must from these games and this would set them up nicely for the home game with France in September – a true six-pointer. Two games in four October days in Cypurs and at home to the Swiss will complete the campaign. It’s hard to see Ireland winning all the games but at the very least they must win their two away games and two of their home games to essentially eliminate two of the three other contenders.
If I were a betting man I’d expect Ireland to finish second behind France. And we all know that the play-offs have not been Ireland’s best friend down the years. But to get their Brian Kerr needs to let the players express themselves. Fingers crossed.
As an addendum, two more group games have finished since this was written earlier today. France drew 1-1 in Israel and the Swiss grabbed a late win over Cyprus (1-0). The results are not bad from Ireland’s perspective but clearly it would have been advantageous had Cyprus held out for two more minutes against Switzerland. But as it stands, France and Israel lead the Swiss and Ireland by a point having played an extra game each. There is still all to play for in Group Four.