There is no disputing that the last ten months or so have been a rather dispiriting and demoralising period for Irish soccer fans. Our World Cup qualification hopes were shattered mercilessly at the final hurdle by Denmark. Our manager agonised over leaving his post for the lofty heights of managing Stoke City. And two of our leading players, James McCarthy and Robbie Brady, sustained horrific injuries in sickening challenges just as we thought our luck could not get any worse. Safe to say, having torturously watched our conquerors strut their stuff in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ in Russia last June, we were glad to see the back of that World Cup cycle.
But perhaps the most wonderful thing about sport is the opportunity it creates for redemption. Grave disappointment is so often followed by a chance to learn from mistakes and put things right. The inaugural ‘UEFA Nations League’ represents the Irish soccer team’s means of doing this.
‘The Nations League’, UEFA’s latest innovation, pits countries against European opponents of a similar calibre, and has replaced meaningless friendly matches with more competitive games. Ireland have been drawn to play familiar foes, Wales and Denmark, home and away between September and November. Should we top this three-team group, we will be promoted to the top tier of European football for the next edition of ‘The Nations League’, as well as providing ourselves with an alternative qualification opportunity for Euro 2020 should our efforts through the traditional programme fail. In essence, ‘The Nations League’ is a competition to be taken seriously notwithstanding its importance falls short of the main qualifying matches which start in March 2019. It is an ideal platform to rebuild and reinvigorate a team, with matches containing a strong competitive edge yet lacking the sometimes restrictive caginess of a normal qualifier.
Whilst this novel tournament may appear complex and slightly convoluted, it offers Martin O’Neill a clear-cut opportunity to blood new players, increase the experience of existing ones and develop a more nuanced, possession-based style of play. There is no disguising the utterly abysmal nature of Irish performances during our last qualifying campaign. Comfortably out-played by Georgia over two matches, we were also outshone by Serbia and Wales’ far more constructive use and retention of the football. Whilst typical Irish pluckiness, spirit and defensive tactics initially masked our woeful displays, ultimately Denmark exposed long-term Irish frailties that permeated the entire campaign. Martin O’Neill must surely now realise Ireland need to add more facets and features to their game other than sitting deep and launching long balls forward to Jon Walters and Shane Long. The seeds for this revolution must be sown in these upcoming ‘Nations League’ matches.
Pessimists within Irish football point to the belief that we do not have sufficiently adept players to consider a more stylish, less pragmatic approach. But, as can be seen from Stephen Kenny’s work at Dundalk and Brendan Rodgers’ tenure at Celtic, so-called ‘average’ players, once encouraged to express themselves and make constructive use of the ball, are capable of doing so. Jeff Hendrick, Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady et al demonstrate every week, at club level, that they have the required skills to play with subtlety and finesse. As such, it is about time Martin O’Neill trusted in their abilities and allowed his players to play with composure and guile.
The pain of having just watched a major tournament at home, coupled with a burgeoning need for Ireland to qualify for Euro 2020 (Dublin is one of the host cities), should spur the Irish management and team towards embracing a fresh approach. The raw wounds inflicted by the last campaign have slowly healed with time, but would quickly reopen were Ireland to revert to past habits. It is time our national team abandoned its archaic tactics and enabled supporters to once more take pride in their performances. It may yet turn out that that disastrous November night against Denmark proved a watershed moment in the transformation of Irish football. After all, ‘the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing’. Let’s hope Martin O’Neill has learnt. Roll on ‘The Nations League.’
By Jack Stokes – Sports Editor