- 01 Apr 21
That we have had a disastrous start to the World Cup 2022 campaign is undeniable. But we have to go into our next game believing that we can still make it to Qatar. It’ll take series of monumental performances. But the first step to international success for Stephen Kenny’s team is organisation...
Ireland are not out of the World Cup. That might seem to be stating the blindingly obvious, but you wouldn’t think that from the avalanche of commentary we’ve been subjected to over the past few days.
After two games, we are without any points. That’s bad. We lost at home to Luxembourg, a team that most observers had identified one of the two weakest in the group. That’s worse. Overall, it has been, by any standards, a miserable, dispiriting start to the World Cup campaign. But we have 18 points still to play for. And that’s what we have to aim to amass.
It’s a ridiculously big ask: of course it is. Is it likely? Not very. But is it possible? It is until the next competitive match we don’t win. That’s the way you have to think in football: we’ll go out and win the next game. And then the one after that.
Our lives have been made more difficult by the fact that both Portugal and Serbia won tricky third games on Tuesday night, to top the group table on 7 points each. It is quite obvious that we will now need a remarkable – and entirely unprecedented – run of form to get anything out of the group. A couple of unexpected slip-ups by the current joint-leaders would help. But if we beat Portugal twice, then they’ll have lost 8 points to our 6. You have to approach football on the basis that anything can happen. And then go and try to make it so.
After the loss to Luxembourg, there was a terrible mood of recrimination, dipping into despair, in Irish football. In a way that was understandable. We love going to World Cup finals. Not to be involved leaves and awful hollow feeling among football fans.
Too often, however, we heard what is a tired old mantra: “We’re just not good enough. We don’t have the players.” Objectively, that’s just wrong.
It is true that, with the possible exception of Seamus Coleman, we don’t have players that might be considered among the best in the Premiership, never mind challenging Lionel Messi for the title of Greatest Footballer in the World. We don’t have the players to win games on sheer footballing talent alone. But, as Argentina have demonstrated ever since Messi won his first cap, having great players is no guarantee of ultimate success.
So here’s a different question.
Are the Irish players that are currently available for selection really so bad, so unprofessional and generally unable to follow instructions that they can’t possibly be shaped into a team? If that were true, then we might as well give up entirely. But it is complete nonsense. It is disproven by what has been achieved in the past – and I’m not talking about the exploits of Ireland under Jack Charlton.
BRILLIANTLY MANAGED AND MARSHALLED
International football is very different from club football, where cheque books generally do the ultimate talking. Every international side is limited to what is available to the manager under the rules. Obviously, smaller countries are at a disadvantage. The business of football works far better in bigger countries. It is no surprise that tournaments tend to end up with a familiar cast going for victory in the final stages: with their large populations, historic involvement in the game, and properly professional leagues, countries like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia and England all have an enormous advantage.
Their domestic leagues are packed with quality players. They attract big crowds. The money is there to invest in academies and development. Most of these countries have a deep reservoir of talent from which to choose when it comes to World Cup qualification time. England, right now, are a good example, with a huge amount of competition for places and such an abundance of international-calibre players available, that Gareth Southgate is likely totally confused about what his best 11 might be, or who to bring on the plane to Qatar, where the World Cup finals will be held.
But these countries can only ever choose 23 for the finals of a big tournament. And they can only ever have 11 men on the pitch at any given moment. Things aren’t as unequal as might first appear.
And so the big powers don’t always crush the smaller countries in the way that would seem inevitable. In World Cup 2018, Croatia – a country with a population of just 4 million – made it to the final. They had some outstanding players, notably Luka Modric, who plays for Real Madrid. The point however, is this. Croatia proved that a small nation can defy the odds, and sometimes spectacularly so.
Belgium, population 11.5 million, were World Cup semi-finalists in 2018. Uruguay, population 3.5 million, have performed really well in recent tournaments. So it is not written in the sands that we can’t and won’t ever be good enough.
In international football, it helps if you have great players – as we did when Paul McGrath and Roy Keane were in their pomp, and later Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. But here is the ultimate, unassailable truth. Even teams that don’t have a Luka Modric (Croatia), a Luis Suarez (Uruguay) or a Gareth Bale (Wales) can still do very well.
Northern Ireland, in recent years, have been a prime example. Most observers would agree that overall, we have had better players than Northern Ireland for most of the past couple of decades. And yet, in the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament, Northern Ireland, population 1.9 million, topped their six-team qualifying group with 21 points from ten games, ahead of Romania, Hungary and Finland. In that campaign, they lost just one game. To say they punched above their weight is to put it mildly.
What they majored in, under Michael O’Neill, was really good organisation. They also had team spirit and a huge determination to be what every great team aspires to being – which is far more than the sum of its individual parts. In this they succeeded – and Northern Ireland thrived.
But here is an even better example. In Euro 2016, Iceland came second in Qualifying Group A, with 20 points. They were ahead of Turkey, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan and Latvia. At 350,000, the population of Iceland is half that of Luxembourg and less than 8% of the population of the Republic. And yet during that marvellously exhilarating moment, they played like a European superpower.
In the finals, in their group they finished ahead of Portugal, who subsequently went on to win the tournament; and they advanced to the knockout stage. In the Round of 16, Iceland beat England, progressing to the quarter-finals. There were no superstars on the Iceland team. Their best-known player was Eidur Smári Gudjohnsen, who played for Chelsea and Barcelona. Next in line was probably Gylfi Sigurdsson, who played for Swansea FC at the time.
For the most part, they were decent journeyman professionals, some of whom were struggling to get game-time with their often mediocre club teams. But they were moulded by co-managers Heimir Hallgrímsson and Lars Lagerbäck into a genuinely formidable unit.
What these examples confirm is that, in international football, what is most important is really good organisation. That isn’t easy to engender. International managers have their players together only in short bursts. It can be hard to get your ideas across.
The team that is brilliantly organised is already two steps ahead of most opposition. Players have to know exactly what is expected of them. The preparation has to be detailed. Routines on the training ground have to be drilled into players, so that – when they step out onto the pitch – they know that they can rely on one another; that they are collectively primed and ready to go to war for their country.
Iceland achieved all of that and more. At our best, since we first made the final of a major tournament, under Jack Charlton in 1988, and later, under Mick McCarthy, Ireland did too. That is not saying that we have to play a primitive type of football now. Anyone who remembers our World Cup finals campaign in 2002 will know that Ireland played some fine, and on occasion brilliant, football during that tournament.
But I’ll say it again: organisation was then and is still the key.
In which light, it is fundamentally defeatist to imply that – with the players currently available to us – we simply haven’t a hope of winning. Pound-for-pound we have as much quality and strength-in-depth (or as little, if you prefer) as either Northern Ireland or Iceland in 2016. They worked wonders because they were brilliantly managed and marshalled. More than anything else, that is what we have to aspire to. If we can do that playing really good passing football, all the better: that should always be our objective. And if a sprinkling of outstanding players comes through to add flair to the mix, happy days.
But there is no point in trying to play pretty passing football and losing every game, which is what happened twice over the past week.
NEAREST IRISH DEFENDER
In fairness to Stephen Kenny (pictured), the margins in football are often ridiculously tight. For a start, he has been desperately unlucky with injuries and forced withdrawals. He has had to try to function without his two most experienced central midfielders, James McCarthy and Harry Arter. One potential stand-in, Robbie Brady, has been struggling with injuries.
His striking options have been cut down drastically, especially with David McGoldrick retiring; meanwhile Aaron Connolly – our brightest young forward talent – has also been in and out of the squad as a result of injuries and Covid scares. At the back, Shane Duffy’s loss of form at club level has also been a dire blow; the injury that ruled out the excellent John Egan of Sheffield United equally so.
But the biggest disaster, for the opening games of the World Cup campaign last week, was the loss of our hugely experienced and generally very cool and reliable goalkeeping No.1, Darren Randolph; and simultaneously of Kieran Westwood, another excellent and very experienced keeper; and of Caoimhín Kelleher, Liverpool’s current No.2, and a Champions’ League player this year. That’s our first three goalkeeping choices, all gone.
A simple twist of fate.
In the context, Stephen Kenny chose Mark Travers of Bournemouth, ahead of Gavin Bazunu of Manchester City (currently on loan at Rochdale and playing regular first team football there).
Instinctively, I’d have assumed that was the right call. Bazunu only recently celebrated his 19th birthday. Mark Travers is almost three years older. Mark has played in the Premiership. The couple of times I saw him, he was very good. He is currently the No.2 at Bournemouth. Stephen Kenny was able to take a look at him on the training ground and was happy to press him into service.
The alarm bells went off almost immediately. From the beginning of the Serbia game, you could see that Mark was nervous and uncomfortable. He didn’t come for a couple of balls that should have been his. We got away with one, when the slightest touch from a Serbian striker would have put into the back of the net. And they were this-close.
His distribution wasn’t as smart as expected either. The jitters he was feeling were communicated to the rest of the team. This is not intended as any wider judgement: he is young and full of potential. But his inexperience was, on the night, a serious liability to the Irish cause. And finally he was undone.
Indisputably, the 'keeper was at fault for the second Serbian goal. Caught too far off his line, he was lobbed delicately by the Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrović. In one sense he was unlucky: nine times out of ten, Mitrović would have missed. But not on Wednesday. He made it 2-1 and Ireland were in deep trouble.
In contrast, Bazunu played superbly against Luxembourg, making a number of excellent stops – in particular one where Gerson Rodrigues tried what would have been a similar, spectacular lobbed goal, only for the young Manchester City prospect to make an acrobatic save.
That decision alone – to choose Mark Travers ahead of Gavin Bazunu – may have scuppered Stephen Kenny’s ambitions for this World Cup. With the benefit of hindsight we can say – with near certainty – that he got it wrong. Against Luxembourg, Gavin Bazunu reflected a sense of confidence and authority. Had he played against Serbia, it might have been enough to swing the game. And we'd have carried that momentum into the Luxembourg match.
Hit him like a freight train, moving...
Meanwhile, at the other end, Irish centre-forward James Collins, of Luton Town, should have scored in the first half against Luxembourg. And finally there was this: while we had looked vulnerable, and they were gaining in confidence, the Luxembourg goal was still an example of rank bad luck. A punt forward, a header won and then…
In fairness, Josh Cullen had played well against Serbia – but the young Anderlecht midfielder struggled against Luxembourg. He looked tired, especially in the second half.
As it happened, Josh was the Irish player closest to the ball after it was nodded on. He didn’t have to lunge at it. But he did, thinking he could poke it back to the nearest Irish defender. The effect was catastrophic. He didn’t get enough on it, and instead of setting up a clearance, he put it on a plate for Rodrigues. The Luxembourg danger-man smacked it first time. It could have gone anywhere, but he’s a good footballer and on this occasion made perfect contact. There was nothing that Bazunu could do to get near it.
Ireland were undone.
That moment might have shaped itself in an infinity of different ways, none other of which would have resulted in a goal. Josh Cullen’s touch could not have been more perfect – for Luxembourg. It was a tiny error that wouldn’t have mattered one iota anywhere else on the pitch. But it killed Ireland on the day.
If we had similarly sneaked a dirty goal when, instead, Callum Robinson skied a shot over the bar, how different would the conversation be now?
STILL ENTITLED TO DREAM
Inevitably, everyone in the Irish squad is feeling wasted and wounded, broken and bruised. Seamus Coleman, who played superbly in both games, summed it up. It was embarrassing and unacceptable, he said. As the captain of the team, he was entitled to be blunt.
On occasion, you can dominate a game and lose. But that isn’t what happened. What is genuinely perplexing – and worrying – is that, in many ways, Luxembourg looked better prepared. They had a few good corner-kick routines worked out that stretched us. Ours were desperately poor in comparison, with Alan Browne and later Robbie Brady fluffing them badly, throwing away potential scoring opportunities. We had more possession, but they played better football when they had the ball. Our press was weak and ineffective, with Luxembourg defenders doing a passable imitation of Franz Beckenbauer, as they waltzed around our players, playing it out from the back on occasion with what looked like absurd ease.
Apart from the odd moment, the truth is that we looked pedestrian. We gave the ball away too easily. In contrast, they frequently seemed dangerous.
Watching the game on TV, I sensed a Luxembourg goal was coming. I can be , shall we say, quietly excitable watching a game of football and I couldn’t help blurting it out, much to the irritation of the long-suffering Ireland fan I was watching the game with: “They’re going to score.” I felt it in my gut. Within about five minutes they had.
As the subsequent criticism has underlined, Stephen Kenny now finds himself in a very difficult situation. He will have to get to grips with the tortuous football questions that are posed by all of this. For what it's worth, I really do believe that it goes back to the core issue: organisation is fundamental. It is absolutely key. Without it you are doomed.
I want Stephen Kenny to succeed. He is a good and a likeable man. He is passionate about the job. He desperately wants to leave his imprint on Irish football history.
Stephen was defiant in the interviews he gave after the draw in the friendly against Qatar on Tuesday night, and understandably so, given the nature of some of the criticism that had been levelled at him. He now needs to harness that passion and that belief fully, and to make sure that the Ireland team that hits the park against Portugal away in September is fully locked and loaded. He has a couple of friendlies to hone the organisation. He needs to use that opportunity well.
And that means taking a hard look at every aspect of Ireland's approach. In the meantime, he should talk to the managers best known for getting that right at international level. See where improvements to the backroom team might pay dividends. Put any sense of pride to one side and assess if there is anything that might be added to the preparation, to ensure that the foundations are as strong as possible.
It has been a pleasure to see the Irish players expressing themselves on occasion, as they have done since Stephen’s appointment. There is room for more of that. But it is much more likely to be effective, and to deliver results, if it is done in a context where every other aspect of what they have to do is nailed down as tightly as possible. Where they know exactly what is expected of them.
Former Irish international midfielder David Meyler said it on the radio, and it makes sense: that he still wants this World Cup campaign to matter. The logic is that we can’t and shouldn't write Ireland off till the mathematics force us to. And that won’t be till we know that even coming second in the group is impossible.
We need to get it into the heads of the players that their World Cup fate is still in their own hands. And then go out to impose ourselves on the opposition, to dictate the way the game is played, to bend Portugal, Serbia and the rest to our will.
Who really thought we could beat Germany in the Euro qualifiers, on that storied night in Dublin, back in October 2015? Almost no one – but we did. It may be a big ask, but let’s see if we can repeat that magic and do a bit of giant-killing in Portugal.
No chance, you say. My only credible response is to point out that stranger things have happened – and they might again. We are, after all, still entitled to dream.
Roll on September...