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Wednesday 20 November 2019

Captain in bother

Coleman's loss for Denmark no longer the burning issue

Seamus Coleman in action against Switzerland during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Geneva
Seamus Coleman in action against Switzerland during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Geneva

There was a certain poignancy about the reaction of Seamus Coleman to his sending off in Geneva on Tuesday night.

Ireland's captain delayed his departure from the pitch, taking a few moments to stare at the rain sodden turf and digest what had happened before his lonely walk to the dressing room.

He would likely have viewed next month's visit of Denmark as an opportunity to make up for the disappointment of being absent from their last defining visit.

Martin O'Neill always believed that Ireland would have qualified for that World Cup if Coleman had been available for the run-in.

Sadness

The Everton player will now have to sit out another clash with the Danes and the sadness this time around is that his absence doesn't appear to be viewed as a reason to panic for large swathes of the Irish fanbase. Inaccurate information about Shane Duffy's disciplinary situation prompted the outpouring that would once have accompanied news of Coleman's imminent unavailability.

"People have asked me many times why Matt Doherty hasn't been playing so he has an opportunity now," said Mick McCarthy, with post-match disappointment likely explaining the acerbic delivery.

"Seamus is very down. He knows he can't play in one of the biggest games for a while, so he's disappointed, yeah."

McCarthy said that he had no complaints about Coleman's sending off, a card that was ironically dished out by the same referee, Poland's Szymon Marciniak, who was in charge of the 5-1 victory for Denmark on that grim night where Cyrus Christie was exposed.

The helplessness that Coleman felt was yet further punishment for that horrible leg break he sustained at the Aviva Stadium eight months previously.

If Ireland fall short against the Danes, March's play-offs will coincide with the three-year anniversary of that wild Neil Taylor lunge. Coleman was always going to have to battle with the perception that he's not the same player, and that might explain the inadequate form that has dogged him at times over the past 12 months.

In truth, he had toiled against the Swiss before his dismissal, with the body unable to execute ideas that the mind could see. There was a striking moment in the second half when he tried to nutmeg Breel Embolo, got nowhere and ended up getting pushed back into a messy scramble that culminated with the ball being knocked out of play by the Irish skipper.

Switzerland were just stronger and more athletic. The alternative take on Coleman's plight is that age could be a factor. He turned 31 on the eve of the draw with Georgia.

It has been a difficult ten days for the Ireland captain, with a red card at Burnley in the last game before the international break meaning that summer arrival Djibril Sidibe will finally get his chance to impress at Premier League level against West Ham this weekend.

Marco Silva showed faith in Coleman by giving him the captaincy and a starting spot from the beginning of the season when there was summer chat that he was vulnerable with the French international an opponent of substance. He's put in some decent performances for Everton this term but the under-pressure Silva may be tempted to stick with Sidibe if he impresses.

The extent to which Coleman can get into the opposition half is often the barometer of an Irish display, and there have been times in his international career when he failed to do that because players ahead of him weren't able to exert the control that would allow him to rove.

But there were windows in the last two matches that were squandered by unusual wastefulness from the Killybegs man, with Coleman culpable as part of the team's collective failure to distribute the ball well.

He's no longer able to rely on his speed and nimbleness to escape from tight spots and advance forward.

It would be daft to write him off completely. The folly of doing that is evidenced by the fact that Glenn Whelan was arguably one of Ireland's most effective players on Tuesday, when he was practically retired by the previous management team. Ireland don't have a playing pool that allows them to liberally discard players after a difficult period.

McCarthy's decision to select Coleman over Doherty at the beginning of the campaign did make sense because of his seniority within the group and his superior experience in the position of right back. He's never looked comfortable at right wing back, though, which is why Doherty could feel unlucky not to feature against the Swiss if that strategy was in mind.

Challenge

The challenge presented by Coleman's playing problems is that, in many respects, he ticks a lot of the boxes of what you would want from a national captain. He's a solid professional, with no interest in courting controversy.

O'Neill, and now McCarthy, appreciate Coleman's presence next to them in a press conference because he will never trip up. He's a tee-totaller who is regarded as a welcoming presence to new faces rather than an intimidating figure. There's so much to admire about the late bloomer's rise from Sligo Rovers to such a position of responsibility within Irish football.

But all of that can't isolate him from criticism when standards have slipped. It's plausible that his imminent suspension has prevented McCarthy from facing a tough call as Doherty can perhaps offer the dynamic service that was Coleman's calling card.

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