Tuesday 23 January 2018

Lessons not learned

Robbie Keane applauds the Irish fans after the Euro 2016 Group E defeat by Belgium. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Keane applauds the Irish fans after the Euro 2016 Group E defeat by Belgium. Photo: Sportsfile
Axel Witsel of Belgium celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal as Republic of Ireland players (l-r) Darren Randolph, John O’Shea, James McCarthy, and Ciaran Clark react

For a nation which spend so much time talking about school admission problems, CAO points and college places, we're not very good at learning.

Saturday in Bordeaux was a very painful reminded of what happened to Ireland in the second game of the last European Championship finals, when Ireland took on a very good side (just swap Spain for Belgium) and suffered an embarrassing defeat.

The build-up to that Spanish tie was exactly the same as the approach to our meeting with the Belgians. Every newspaper on the day of the Spain tie had 'We Believe' type stories on the front and the back pages.

Then came the spanking.

We do things the wrong way around in Irish football, always have done and probably always will. After the surrender comes the fighting talk - it's supposed to be the other way around.

The fighting talk has already started before Wednesday's clash with Italy in Lille. Stephen Hunt in his Sunday Independent column reckoned that Ireland do have the potential to win against the Italians.

He could be right: Italy will field a weakened team to rest players ahead of the knock-out stages, so senior players like Buffon get a coupe of days off; also Ireland's players are suffering from bruised pride; and (crucially) unlike 2012, Wednesday is not a dead rubber as Ireland could still make the last 16 if they win.

But again, we need to know our history. In 2012, between their second and third group games, Croatia and Ireland, Italy made seven changes to their side for that match against Ireland - and still beat Giovanni Trapattoni's side 2-0. Seven changes against our strongest XI and they get a 2-0 win. A weakened Italy team is still a very good one. Lesson one.

We can beat ourselves up over 2012 time and again, and at least Euro 2016 has so far yielded a goal from play and a performance with swagger, against Sweden, while the good behaviour of the Irish fans now goes without saying.

Of course Ireland head to Lille on Wednesday with hope within their hearts and a chance of making it into the last 16. Unlike in Poland, there is hope and possibility, and unlike four years ago, this Ireland manager will make changes to the side for his final group game, with so-far unused men like Shane Duffy, Stephen Quinn an d Daryl Murphy all in with a genuine chance of starting in Lille.

Shrug off

But it will ill-serve Irish football if we just shrug off what happened. To paraphrase Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Belgium.

Yesterday, the Herald decided to take a trip down memory lane and look back what was done, and said, at this stage of the competition in Euro 2012.

The common threads from the Ireland camp before the final group game of 2012 against Italy were: (a) the inability to comprehend just how far off the pace Ireland had been against Spain as they Irish conceded a flood (b), the promise of a storming display against the Italians to regain some pride and (c) a warning, especially from senior players, that things needed to change in Irish football, no matter what happened against the Italians.

"We want to improve as players and achieve as much as we can with the Irish team, but maybe we will never reach the levels that those players have reached. You'd love to think that Ireland can start producing players like that," Stephen Ward said of Spain in 2012.

"There wasn't a lack of effort but there was a lack of quality," said Keith Andrews at the time. Damien Duff? "You can't give away goals like that. against a world-class side, we need to be better than that."

Four years on, what's changed? In 2012 we had the oldest squad, but one of the best-paid managers at the tournament. Martin O'Neill is in the top third of the 24 coaches in France when it comes to salary and we have all got older, including the Ireland team.

On Saturday in Bordeaux, Belgium had five players aged 24 or under - Ireland had two. Of the 13 players they used on the day, Belgium had one man in his 30s; Ireland used 14 players, six of them in the 30-plus bracket. The need for an infusion of talent is still there.

But the most worrying aspect of Saturday's loss was Ireland's style of play and attitude to possession. Belgium's players treated the ball with interest and affection every time it came their way - Ireland's players, so nervous in contrast to the composed approach against Sweden, saw the ball as a live grenade which had to be dispatched as far away as quickly as possible. Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan, Jeff Hendrick are good ball-players. Seamus Coleman, when in an Everton shirt, uses possession.

But against the Belgians, Ireland seemed to have forgotten how to use the ball. The tactic, if that is a tactic, of lumping the ball long up to Long was not going to work, that much evident early on.

Afterwards, Martin O'Neill suggested that he found it hard to explain how the fluency against Sweden was replaceb by the nervousness against the Belgians.

In the midst of it all, you'd wonder what Roy Keane made of it. Had Keane the player been on the field, would he have allowed his side turn a not-too-disastrous 1-0 loss into a 3-0 hammering, with serious ramifications for our goal difference?

Would Keane the TV pundit have praised the players for their sweat and effort, or would he have been aghast at how they gave the ball away so cheaply?

Keane the assistant manager will ask his players to deliver a win in Lille but Keane the pragmatist knows that won't fix all our ills.

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