Sunday 22 April 2018

Pressure on Clark and Duffy in big Tbilisi test

All eyes on the centre of defence in Georgia

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will demand a solid performance from his centre-back pairing of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy tomorrow evening
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will demand a solid performance from his centre-back pairing of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy tomorrow evening

When his Irish youth teams were at their peak, beating the top teams in Europe, Brian Kerr was more than pleased with his choice of central defenders, Richard Dunne and Gary Doherty.

"Dunne and Doherty, sounds like a solicitors' firm, your house would be safe with them," Kerr joked. The question facing Irish football this week is: is the firm of Duffy & Clark also safe as houses?

As the Ireland squad today settle into their Tbilisi base, the stakes are high. Very high, with no room for joking when it comes to the Irish defence.

Barring a major upheaval, Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark will start in central defence tomorrow.

And they will be busy. This Ireland team has not kept a clean sheet in the last four games, while Georgia have scored at least once in their last nine home games. They lose a lot, but they also score.

Central defence has been a constant issue for O'Neill, who can only yearn for past eras when players like Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Mark Lawrenson could be picked, or left out.

John O'Shea, who started 10 of the first 12 competitive games under O'Neill, is now a squad player, Marc Wilson (he started in five of the first six qualifiers under this boss) forgotten.

Tomorrow in Tbilisi is the biggest test to date that Clark and Duffy have faced.

Even Roy Keane's not convinced. "Duffy and Clark? They're not bad. It's not having a go at them but I'm not one for throwing out toffee unless players really deserve it," says Keane.

Toffee being thrown at them is the least of Clark and Duffy's worries.

Five of the best irish centre-half pairings

1. Kevin Moran/Mick McCarthy (1984-90)

With so many options at centre-half Jack Charlton was spoiled for choice but the Moran/McCarthy axis was one of his strongest. Having first played together under Eoin Hand in 1984, they were the defensive rock for the Euro 88 and Italia 90 campaigns, as astonishing 11 clean sheets in their first 12 games together under Jack, starting with the 0-0 Euro 88 qualifying draw in Scotland. Just 3 losses in 25 games, some record.

2. Paul McGrath/Kevin Moran (1988-94)

Just four games as a centre-half unit for Ireland, despite their time together at Manchester United, but pretty good outcomes: pre-Euro 88 wins over Luxembourg and Poland, and in the USA '94 qualifiers a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland and a 0-0 draw in Spain.

3. Phil Babb/Paul McGrath (1994-96)

Like many famous affairs, it started well but ended in tears. Clean sheets and wins over Germany and Italy in their first two games together, Babb and McGrath had 15 games together at USA 94 and the Euro 96 campaign and into the early days of McCarthyism but good form disappeared with losses to Portugal (0-3), Holland (0-2) and Czech Republic (0-2).

4. David O'Leary/Mark Lawrenson (1980-85)

Two of the finest defenders of that decade in the English top flight, they played together for parts of three campaigns and were in defence for two great Hand-era wins, a 2-1 defeat of Holland in the World Cup 82 campaign and a brilliant 1-0 home win over the USSR (1985) but six defeats in their 12 games together looks like a strangely poor return.

5. Richard Dunne/Sean St Ledger (2010-12)

Giovanni Trapattoni had to call on a number of men to fill in at centre half but the Richard and Sean show was the main act. Their defensive unit was unbeaten in 10 games (6 clean sheets) until the side went to Poland for Euro 2012. Then it all fell apart.

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