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05th Sep 2016

International football is a busted flush – Ireland have nothing to fear except their own limitations

Dion Fanning

If you were concerned about the future of international football, Ireland’s game against Serbia might have added to your fears.

Or you may have concluded that the jig was up and decided to enjoy it. In tough conditions, this was spectacularly bad football. This was a game which deserved 90 minutes to itself in a football bloopers video. This was setting fire to the kitchen while trying to boil an egg levels of ineptitude.

And at the end of it, somehow, Ireland had a draw.

If you were concerned about the future of Irish football, you would have spent most of the game in a trough of despair. You might have wondered if the curious case of Martin O’Neill’s contract was having an impact on the side. Yet the one thing Ireland’s didn’t lack was commitment. There was no technical ability, there was no attempt to pass the ball and, in short, there was no Wes Hoolahan

During a first half of staggering ineptitude, Ireland took an early lead and then spent the rest of the half trying to demonstrate that, yes, they had scored too soon.

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Stadion Rajko Mitic, Belgrade, Serbia 5/9/2016 Serbia vs Republic of Ireland Republic of Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

It is worth repeating that all Ireland goals, one way or another, are scored too soon, but this Hendrick-Ivanovic-Rajkovic collaboration based on an original air shot by Aleksandar Mitrovic looked certain to define the concept.

Ireland retreated. It wouldn’t be correct to say they gave the ball away because that would imply that they wanted to keep it, but failed to do so. There was no evidence for this.

Ireland missed Hoolahan, but they also missed James McCarthy whose absence allowed Glenn Whelan to return, which slowed so much down.

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Stadion Rajko Mitic, Belgrade, Serbia 5/9/2016 Serbia vs Republic of Ireland Republic of Ireland's Jeff Hendrick scores a goal Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Serbia had their own problems. Mitrovic struggled for the hour he was involved, demonstrating his lack of match sharpness, while Branislav Ivanovic had an opening few minutes which included his involvement in the opening goal and a high tackle on Glenn Whelan which suggested anything was possible from him, as long as the things that were possible didn’t include a supreme performance of understated defending.

Ireland hung on for a long time and then the Serbian goals came in the second half, while Ireland fell back on age-old grievances. The penalty shouldn’t have been given, but playing like this Ireland would have found some way to concede. Then they had a goal disallowed for offside and, finally, then they began to play.

Or, at least, come forward. They discovered then that there was nothing to fear from this side. Each side had nothing to fear from the other and the standard of play, the levels of organisation would have embarrassed many sides nominally playing at lower levels.

In the first half, Ireland’s collective resolve was enough to keep out the superior technical ability of the Serbian side which was married to a familiar lack of focus.

So the two sides appeared to cancel each other out, not through any great tactical stalemate, but through the extent of their limitations. Ireland couldn’t keep the ball, but Serbia were unsure how much they wanted the ball anyway.

In a strange way, Ireland should be encouraged by this latest example of international football’s mediocrity, as much as they are an example of its weaknesses.

BELGRADE, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 05: Branislav Ivanovic (L) reacts near Jon Walters (R) of Ireland during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Serbia and Ireland at stadium Rajko Mitic on September 5, 2016 in Belgrade. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

These two teams may struggle to get ahead of Wales and Austria in this group, but there is nothing to fear in international football, that was made clear again on Monday night.

Serbia have a youth development programme to be proud of, while Red Star and Partizan have two of the best academies in Europe. Yet it remains to be seen if they can make their senior side as strong as their youth side or will the process of providing players to clubs across Europe be its own reward.

In an environment where club football is now the priority, it shouldn’t take much for an international team to succeed. But it may not be possible with the limitations Ireland possess. 

Under Martin O’Neill, Ireland have some of the elements. They have constant effort and resolve, demonstrated by Robbie Brady’s determination to win the ball back having just set up Jon Walters, but it is seen more clearly in a team like Wales.

Ireland still pine for some footballers who can play and the encouragement that comes from knowing that young players are being produced.

Ireland have neither of those things, but maybe they don’t need them. Maybe you don’t need much in the crapshoot that international football has become.

The GAA Hour Hurling Show relives Tipperary’s sensational All-Ireland victory with Paidí Maher. Listen below or subscribe on iTunes.

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