Thursday, 23 June 2016

Diamonds Aren't Forever #IRLITA

Straightjackets in football don’t work. At least in Irish football anyway. That stale end to the Giovanni Trapattoni years at EURO 2012 delivered irrefutable proof that the game evolves constantly. What’s more, good players just need direction – not restrictions – as a hot sweaty night in Lille four years later has proven. As under new management the Republic of Ireland reached the last 16 of the Euro’s and now mix with some of the European football elite. Doing so by beating the same opponents of four years ago, Italy, and never looking out of place, or out of their depth in the final group rubber. 

Not dissimilar to that ill-fated night in Stade de France in 2009 when the nation’s footballers played for their lives in the second leg of the 2010 World Cup play off and doing so without restrictions. Having taken the game plan into their own hands. Only to be cheated of a place in South Africa by French striker Thierry Henry’s hand. The latter now waxing lyrically on the couch for BBC Sport’s coverage of the tournament. Although on Sunday he may face a number of rougher tackles under a make believe hashtag #Remember2009

Meanwhile back in Versailles the Ireland manager can reflect on series of selections that addressed the visible bottlenecks in the defeat to world number two side, Belgium, last Saturday. Discarding the diamond for a more practical flat midfield formation that allowed for quicker transition from defence to attack accompanied by an all-out energy that was invisible in their last outing. Raising the tempo too in order to deprive Italy time to build ball possession or start fluid attacks for Za Za up front. 

Albeit Azzurri boss Antonio Conte’s side were deemed to be a second string, they still fielded defensive duo Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci for good measure. But neither able to really contain a physical Darryl Murphy, or the always irrepressible Shane Long. Both of whom ran a quarter of a marathon in testing conditions in Stade Lille Metropole on Wednesday that helped engineer passage to the last 16 in Lyon. And a meeting with France on Sunday as the reward. The selections made by Martin O’Neill proved it wasn’t just courage, but an understanding of a different game plan that might gave his charges a chance of upsetting Italy. Hoping also for that bit of luck that never goes astray in any big match.

Although not favoured totally by good fortune, given a young Romanian referee. Who seemed overawed by some of the potential decisions and failing to spot the numerous Italians faux injuries. With the biggest oversight a foul on James McClean late in the second half inside the penalty box that Mr Ovidiu Hategen deemed fair. A penalty that would have proved timely for an Irish team clearly reaching maximum output after an endless chase for the previous seventy minutes. 

But unknown at the time fate had prepared another outcome with the substitutions of Shane Long and Darryl Murphy making way for Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan. The latter about to impact the script once again in the final quarter. First with an unlikely miss in front of goal when winning back a ball on the Italian penalty box. As he fluffed his strike and put the ball into the French keeper’s arms. An unlikely result for such a talented player who has only found international recognition late in his career. 

Then just a few minutes later a break out of defence from Robbie Brady saw the ball pass through McGeady who in turn found Hoolahan on the right hand side. After checking back in to his left foot Hoolahan floated a pass - into the same spot where he had just missed his own chance - finding Brady in full flight towards goal. His Norwich team mate bravely heading the ball into the back of the Italian net and securing his own moment in another memorable victory for the Republic of Ireland. 

Although this time with only minutes left on the clock and equalling Ray Houghton’s feats in Stuttgart 1988 and New Jersey 1994 - both of which were scored very early in those games against England and Italy respectively. Leaving fans drained for three quarters of the match as they waited in desperation for the referee’s final whistle to start of unexpected celebrations. The victory in Lille now passing that baton of Irish scorers on to the next generation and engendering further support for a game that had been sustained on crumbs before Jack Charlton took Ireland to the first Euro’s in Germany in 1988. Then following it with the world cups of Italy in 1990 and then USA 1994. That momentum then restored by Mick McCarthy in 2002 in Korea and Japan when a draw against Germany - from Robbie Keane goal – ensured passage to the next round. 

Since then though Irish fans lived off scraps as it was 2012 before the nation reached another international football tournament and that was under Italian Giovanni Trapattoni.

Although the Italian was an efficient operator, he was a man of another time, and the overriding benefits of his organisation - post Steve Staunton - were erased by his rigidness at major competitions. A fate he had similarly befallen when leading Italy in the 2002 world cup where he lost controversially in the last 16 to the host nation Korea. For Ireland in 2012 his team from the outset looked exhausted, mentally drained and out of ideas as early as the first game against Croatia. With the Italy and Spain matches proving white washes it was hard to find any Irish heroes in Poland nd Ukraine with many of those players emerging with much more than scar tissue.

Thankfully in this new era of O’Neill and Roy Keane it is the exact opposite with the two former Brian Clough prodigies full of the quirks that were part nd parcel of the successful Nottingham Forest manager. Yet both very in tune with their player’s needs, each other and most importantly, tactically innovative. O’Neill proving that already against Germany at the AVIVA where the world champions were rendered infective for the most of the game and Darren Randolph and Shane Long combining to secure that vital win which revived the EURO 2016 hopes. 

That night a victory was deemed impossible by the pundits ahead of the game as Glen Whelan was unavailable and a fear that the diamond would have to be ditched. However, in the end the result proved that was not the case – perhaps the greatest learning for O’Neill - as the night in Lille showed many similar characteristics. On both occasions the absence of Whelan empowering James McCarthy – who despite the self-opinionated protestations of Eamon Dunphy on RTE – is a valuable cog to Ireland’s offensive game plans. Proving that with more responsibility the Everton man responds and plays with less inhibition. With James McClean also showing the usual commitment and effort that has earned him a more regular place on the left side for Ireland.

Although the value of Whelan is not diminished as yet it offers less options in the modern front football style that requires taking on opponents with the ball at feet and running with speed. The Stoke City midfielder a throwback to former Bohemians and Manchester United’s, Mick Martin – or indeed John Giles in his later years for Ireland – happy to move side to side for possession sake rather than risk going forward. Which at times is required when soaking up pressure but not for placing opponents under pressure as Jack Charlton so fondly used to called tactics. 

Lille has proved that diamonds aren’t forever and it was a night where Robbie Brady became the new Ray Houghton, Ireland reached the last sixteen once gain and Roy and Martin became the new Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters. The mentions of Stuttgart, Giants Stadium and Ibaraki will also give way to that famous night in Lille of June 2016.

For those that were there it was another one of those iconic moments


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